Director Michael Mayer talks about imagining a stage show out of the hit punk album "American Idiot," and how the rock musical is more Millie than Spring Awakening.


That noise you heard on the morning of the announcement of the 2010 Tony Award nominations May 4 was the sound of a thousand jaws hitting the ground when it was revealed that Michael Mayer was not nominated for his direction or book of the Green Day musical American Idiot. A previous Tony winner in the category of Best Direction of a Musical for Spring Awakening, Mayer is seen as the primary architect of American Idiot, having come up with its scenario (he shares book credit with Green Day front man Billie Joe Armstrong) after absorbing the punk rock album on which the show is based. And then he brought the experience to life, collaborating with designers and musicians to place his actors in a kinetic world of video screens, pulsing projections and even — with the aid of wires — flight.

Of the Tony snub, Mayer later told the New York Times that he "could not pretend to understand how the nomination process works. I'm super proud of the show and the enthusiastic audience response every night, and the pleasure of creating this piece of work. That's where the gold is for me." Mayer spoke to in the days leading up to American Idiot's spring opening. The show is Tony-nominated as Best Musical. I have to admit I know some songs from the album "American Idiot," but I kind of purposely stayed away from it when I knew the musical was happening because I kind of want it to wash over me as a theatregoer — as a virgin. And I suppose you, as a director, have to think of the musical as not exclusively aimed at Green Day fans.
Michael Mayer: Right. And I never thought it would be. I felt like if I was connecting to this music on a story level and on a dramatic level and on a theatre gut level, that other people would, as well. Can you take me back to the first time you heard the album "American Idiot"? Did you instantly think it was a theatre piece or did you just love it as a rock album?
MM: Not immediately. I loved it as an album. I was working on [directing the film] "Flicka" at the time, so I remember I was in California and I was traveling each day. I was driving, and it was the CD that I had in my car, and I sort of couldn't get enough of it. So I would listen to it each day driving up — I was in pre-production for "Flicka," actually. This I remember very distinctly because I was having a bunch of conference calls with the Atlantic Theater Company and Tom Hulce at the same time, 'cause it was prior to Spring Awakening at the Atlantic… I remember I was also having a series of meetings with [Spring Awakening lyricist-librettist writer] Steven Sater in L.A., which is where he lives. So it was all around the same time, and I was just listening to "American Idiot" sort of constantly. So wherever I left off by the time I got to work was where I would pick up when I got back in the car again. So I started to get extremely familiar with the whole arc of the album. And I'm not sure exactly when it was, it wasn't, like, a cataclysmic moment. But it certainly was dawning on me, day by day, that my God, this really is actually a rock opera just waiting for somebody to stage it. That was my first thought. Remind me where "Flicka" was ultimately shot? Were you in Texas?
MM: No, we shot in Malibu, and we shot some of it in Wyoming. In pre-production, which was all Los Angeles and Malibu, I'd be driving up Pacific Coast Highway in my little Audi and listening to "American Idiot" on a sound system [laughs] way better than the rental car that I would rent for myself here in New York… So it sounded awesome, and I was driving and feeling sort of amazingly liberated and listening to this spectacular piece of writing day after day after day, so it was really inspiring and it got my juices flowing. The reason I asked about middle America or shooting in Texas is that the Green Day album might pop even more aggressively in your mind if you were sort of in the middle of nowhere — or in the middle of a place where conformity is the norm.
MM: You know what? I come from the suburbs [in Maryland]. It's in my blood, and I've spent plenty of time in suburban areas and kind of wasteland spots, so it wasn't a hard reach for me to imagine.

John Gallagher, Jr. and Rebecca Naomi Jones
photo by Paul Kolnik How did the meeting with Green Day come about?
MM: After Spring Awakening opened at the Atlantic and prior to its opening on Broadway or around the Tonys — I can't remember exactly when, to tell you the truth — but I gave an interview to [Variety's] Gordon Cox about rock music on Broadway, and he was asking me about other songwriters who I thought could really do theatre. And I casually said something to the effect of, "I'm sure somebody is already doing 'American Idiot' because it's just an obvious theatre piece. It's just waiting to happen, it's all there." And [Spring Awakening co-producer] Tom Hulce read that, when it came out in Variety a few weeks later, and he called me up and he said, "What makes you so sure someone's doing this?" And I said, "Well, I just can't imagine that someone isn't." He said, "Is it interesting to you?" I said, "Oh, my God! I would kill to do that, but, you know..." He said, "Shall I find out?" I said, "Knock yourself out," [laughs] thinking that it would never amount to anything. Well, this is the beauty of Tom Hulce. So he gets on the phone, gets in touch with Green Day's people, flies us out to L.A. to meet with them. I pitched what was at the time just a kernel of an idea but [with] an enormous amount of enthusiasm and complete adoration of the work. And then Billie Joe and his manager and his agent and friends of his and colleagues, but not the whole band, came to New York to see Spring Awakening, and we went out afterwards. And he loved the show and we had just this fantastic meeting. We had some drinks and we went out, actually, to Bar Centrale and just talked deep into the night about everything — about theatre, about music, about our childhoods, and about some of the very beginnings of my ideas about how to turn this into a fully stage-worthy musical thing, whatever it was. Opera, rock opera, punk rock opera, whatever you want to call it — I've shied away from giving it any kind of name because it's so its own thing I don't want to label it. I'll let other people do that for me when they see it, you know? Tell me about the pitch to Billie Joe Armstrong and to Green Day.
MM: I said, "What I'd like, in a dream world, I would like very much for you to give me some time to develop a scenario." I had some ideas about opening the story up, creating new characters and creating stories for those characters that would all sort of coalesce on the existing music. And I said, "Give me some time to put that together, and if in six months, I have something and you like it, we'll go forward and we'll do a reading, and then if you like that, we'll go forward and we'll do a staged workshop, and if you like that — if you and the band like that — then we'll go forward into a production. And the only thing I would request is that I have exclusivity, that you don't let anyone else use this material for any narrative purposes in the meantime." And [Billie Joe] said, "You got it," and we basically shook or did the equivalent of a shake, and he gave me all his contact information so that I could get all this material to him as it started to develop, and about six weeks later I had a scenario. And I emailed it to him and we spent a lot of time on the phone talking through it, and he loved it and I just kept going forward with it, developing it further and further.

At a certain point, I had the first version of it, and that's when I called [orchestrator-arranger] Tom Kitt, with whom I had just worked on what became Everyday Rapture. I was so amazed by his work on that. And I hadn't really known him before, and I said, "You know, I've got this project I'm doing. I don't know what it is exactly, but do you know Green Day?" He said, "I love them!" I said, "Do you know 'American Idiot?'" "I love that!" I said, "Well, I'm turning it into a staged show." And he said, "I'm gonna do it!" So from that point, he was my first partner on this. And it developed as you said it would, in readings and workshops.
MM: We hired 12 actors. I asked Jim Carnahan, who was the next person on board, to help me cast 12 singer-actors. We couldn't say what it was — it was "Untitled Punk Rock Project." We had one day of auditions; we hired some people. The only person I knew that I wanted for sure was John Gallagher, Jr. And I had actually vetted him with Billie Joe that night when he saw Spring Awakening. I thought, "My dream would be to have John Gallagher play the lead in this." And he said, "Oh, that kid's great! Love him! Great idea!" So, we had Gallagher, I had Tom Kitt, we had Jim Carnahan, then we had a cast of 12. And Tom asked Carmel Dean to be the conductor/musical director, because Tom Kitt was doing all the arrangements. And I asked Brian Ronan, my sound designer, to help us put together, basically, a concert in a recording studio… for one performance only for the band. And that was June 2008, and that was the first time they'd heard the whole thing sung-through. Can you give me a sense of what your first order of business was shaping a libretto out of the album's songs?
MM: The thing is, the record, if you listen to it, there are lots of different ways to read it. The way I read it was that the record as written was the story of the Jesus of Suburbia, who goes to the city to find what he believes in, because he can't really believe in this world that he's living in and he doesn’t feel that that world believes in him. So he goes to the city, and in the city, there are these two characters that he connects with. One is St. Jimmy, who is some sort of self-destructive force but charismatic and dangerous and powerful, and a girl that he ends up calling Whatshername. Basically, what I gleaned from the record was that he does battle, internal battle between the sort of self-destructive part of him and the authentic part of him. [He] ends up killing off the part of him, the St. Jimmy part, or St. Jimmy commits suicide, however you want to read it. And he ends up screwing it up with the girl, and comes home kind of with his tail between his legs in mock victory, ready to start all over again. I mean, that's really it — that's in the record if you listen to it.

So, I imagined other characters. I put it in the context of a bunch of people who live in the 'burbs, and he's got two really great friends. I called him Johnny instead of Jesus. He thinks of himself as Jesus, as the Jesus of Suburbia, the long-suffering one. I gave him a dead father and a hideous stepfather that he refers to, and his two friends, Will and Tunny, and the three of them sort of ban together to go to the city. And Will's girlfriend, Heather, finds out she's pregnant and tells him just on the brink of their departure, and Will ends up feeling like he needs to stay with her. So Johnny and Tunny go to the city, and they end up separating and Johnny has the experience, basically, that I have described to you already, that's in the story. Tunny ends up enlisting in the military and going overseas and having a whole series of misadventures there, finding a woman, actually, that he falls in love with who's in the military. Will and Heather have this kid, but the relationship falls apart because he just sort of can't get off the sofa and can't do anything but sort of bury himself in pot and alcohol. She ends up leaving him with the kid, and so it's a much more complicated, three-fold journey of self-discovery. It’s really like a coming-of-age story for these three guys. You built a community into the experience — much more than what was there.
MM: Yeah, the record is Billie Joe: It's one voice, basically, singing these songs all from the perspective, basically, of one voice. And at this point, by the time we're here now, we have 19 [voices]. So, yeah, there are a series of communities. There are at least three different communities, and fantasy sequences and alter egos and real characters and imagined characters and the whole host of circumstances. And it's really almost completely sung-through, so the book, as it were, is basically... There's no connective tissue or dialogue.
MM: Not dialogue per se. There are some spoken words, but it's not really dialogue. I'd say it's less than two minutes of actual talk…mostly, really, it's an opera. So the book, the libretto, if you will, or book or whatever you wanna call it — we have to call it a book because that's the language we use here in town — but it's [made up of] the words that Billie Joe wrote as interpreted and as assigned to characters and story that I invented. So in that sense, we've created a book together. I assumed that there were adapted lyrics — that it's not the "American Idiot" album word for word.
MM: No, it's pretty much word for word the album….and I've added some extra songs. There were two B-sides from the European release of "American Idiot" that we've incorporated and four songs from their new record, "21st Century Breakdown." Once I had these other characters and expanded this thing, it came to, like, "Wow, it would be so cool if we had some more material." And it just so happened that Billie Joe was working on writing [and] Green Day was basically recording demos for the new record, and he started sending me some of the songs as he was making demos, so I could hear all this new stuff. And I'm like, "Hmm, that could work here! This could work there." So it was actually, it was serendipitous. It's like working with a new musical theatre writer, that he's giving you songs —
MM: It was brilliant! But I don't think that it was completely conscious on his part to create these songs for the new record in terms of the dramatic needs that we had, but I don't think it's entirely unrelated, either, that they fit so well, that the tone of them — and, musically, Tom Kitt had no problem at all sort of incorporating them into the score that he was creating. So I think it actually was…where we were just so in each other's psyche at that point that it was this true collaboration.

Michael Esper and Mary Faber in American Idiot
photo by Paul Kolnik Did you do major surgery on the show during or after the world-premiere run at Berkeley Repertory Theater in fall 2009? What did you learn there?
MM: You learn everything. We learned absolutely everything about the show. I don't know what you mean by "major surgery." I'm not sure how you mean that, exactly, but we rehearsed, we did a two-week workshop at New York Stage and Film in summer 2009, and then we went into rehearsal [for Berkeley]. And then we teched the show and started previews and all during it, we kept shaping it and making it better and better and better. We didn't cut songs out or anything like that, if that's what you mean. I guess that's what I mean: Did you add songs, were songs moved around?
MM: It really worked. Yeah, we found out it really worked. Any surgery we've done has been inside the structure as it existed. The things that we changed from the final version that we went into rehearsal with in Berkeley was, on the outside, probably not that different from what we ended up with, but internally, there was, you know, a ton of difference. It's very difficult to talk about, I have to tell you. It really is. It's a frustrating thing to talk about because most people don't really know what directors do to begin with, as you know. It's a weird thing when you're working on something new and especially a musical that isn't a conventional book musical in the sense that we're all used to, but the writing — what we call writing that we're doing here — is much more similar in a way to the kind of work that an editor does working on a film. So writing happens on the text that exists, and it's about who says what and how they say it and where they are when they say it and what it means, so meaning and narrative and story and book are told in a very specific way.

The best I can tell you is, it's an opera that we're making. Were there changes? Up to the last minute. I went back in the last two weeks of the run in Berkeley [and] made changes at the end of the extension. What we started with here in New York was different and all through rehearsals we [kept] adjusting. But it's not like you can say, "Oh, we cut seven songs and we wrote eight new songs and I cut a whole storyline and added 18 new characters." It's not Hello, Dolly! out of town where suddenly someone needs to write "Elegance" for you or something. It's not that situation. It's just a whole different ball game. I do love the idea of the characters wanting to go to the city — people seeking something bigger than themselves in the city. It's such an American, or maybe it's such a human, thing to do.
MM: I think it is a human journey. Everyone's always talking about [the common ground of American Idiot] and Spring Awakening, and in some very, very real asnd profound way, I feel like there's more in common with Thoroughly Modern Millie, because you've got that girl coming from Kansas to the Big City. It was a different time and place — that was the '20s, and she had a very specific idea of what she was looking for. This is 2004 — let's say, 2003, 2004 — in the bad Bush years, and these three guys don't exactly know what they’re looking for. But they're still taking the same journey that that girl took from Kansas to Manhattan to find her life. Having just come off of Spring Awakening, an obvious rock show about the turbulence of youth, do you feel an extra responsibility to not repeat yourself somehow?
MM: I'm actually telling the story. This story has almost nothing in common with Spring Awakening, because this isn't about teenagers. It isn't about a sexual awakening. This is more about a political and social and personal awakening. The songs are the narrative, and in Spring Awakening, the songs were just the emotional reality of the characters. They were interrupting the narrative. Right? So actually, there's very little in common with it. And certainly staging-wise, the only thing I can say that you might be able to compare it to is that it's a unit set, but that's sort of my favorite thing, anyway. You know, Everyday Rapture was a unit set. It's my favorite thing to do.

Kenneth Jones is managing editor of Write him at

Christina Sajous and Stark Sands
Christina Sajous and Stark Sands
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