March 8th, 2012, 4:27 pm · · posted by GUEST
Michael Mayer is a huge Green Day fan – not surprising, since he is credited with co-writing as well as helming the musical built on their multi-platinum-selling album, “American Idiot.” After a triumphant yearlong Broadway run in 2010-11, the show makes its local debut March 14 at the Ahmanson Theatre. (Previews start March 13.)
But the Tony-winning director never dreamed of turning the Bay area group’s music into a musical until he listened to their 2004 album, “American Idiot.”
“I was working on a movie called ‘Flicka’ in 2005, shortly after the album came out,” Mayer said. “I found myself listening to it a lot. I played it every day as I was driving to the set. I thought the songs were really fun and hook-y. I liked the brattiness of it a lot.”
One day, Mayer was struck by a thought – a real light bulb moment, he recalls.
“As I was listening to it more and more and looking forward to starting at the point where I had left off the last time, it occurred to me that the pleasure I was getting was very reminiscent of the feeling I had as a kid listening to the original Broadway cast album of ‘West Side Story’ or ‘Carousel’ or ‘On a Clear Day.’
“I thought, ‘Well this is weird.’”
Mayer began to think about the dramatic possibilities of “American Idiot.”
“I started to imagine what kind of story could (emanate) from these songs. I could see something about kids leaving the suburbs and going to the city, someone messing up and hitting rock bottom before coming back to himself again. It had some resonance for me; it started to feel like a dramatic story.”
The project began to take shape a few years later, after Mayer’s production of the rock-infused tale of Victorian-era teen angst, “Spring Awakening,” had enjoyed critical and popular Broadway success (and won Mayer a 2007 Tony Award for his directing).
“I was doing an interview for Variety about it, and the guy was saying, ‘Do you think there’ll be any more rock in musicals?’ I said, ‘Well obviously “American Idiot” could be turned into a musical. Somebody’s probably already doing it.’
“And then (actor and producer) Tom Hulce was reading that article a couple weeks later and called me up and said, ‘Talk to me about “American Idiot.”‘ From there, everything moved quickly.”
A SHARED LOVE OF BROADWAY SONGS
Hulce contacted the band’s agency, but getting Green Day’s approval for the project “seemed like the most farfetched thing I could imagine,” Mayer recalled. “The next thing you know we’re on a plane to meet their manager.”
The band’s handlers thought the idea might appeal to them. Several weeks later Green Day was in New York to see “Spring Awakening.” After the show, everyone went out for drinks.
“We spent the whole night talking at this little theater bar,” Mayer said. “The incongruity of seeing (Green Day’s) Billie Joe Armstrong in a bar with Nathan Lane and Bernadette Peters was bizarre!
“But we found out we had a lot in common. We’re both dedicated entertainers who like a lot of the same music.”
Mayer discovered that Armstrong loved old Broadway songs, too. “But I’m more of a Judy Garland fan. He listened to Jolson and George M. Cohan.”
With the band’s blessing, Mayer began to work on the musical. But it soon became clear that the album’s 57 minutes of material didn’t provide enough to flesh out the story he envisioned.
“In order to track the narrative of these three friends and their adventures and the women in their lives, I knew I needed more. There were times when I would say, ‘Wouldn’t it be great if there was a song for this moment.’”
Fortunately, Green Day came through.
“I discovered to my great joy that there were four ‘American Idiot’ songs released only in Europe. Two of them ended up fitting perfectly into the story.”
Another boost came when Armstrong sent Mayer the deluxe edition of the CD.
“There were these notes, sort of letters that he’d written as extra material. They’re dated and each one relates to one of the songs. The text felt really fresh to me. There’s a deeply poetic aspect to it that felt right for these young rebels. And it gave me a nice timeline.”
As Mayer was working on the musical, Green Day was working on its next album, “21st Century Breakdown” (2009).
“It was in the same vein as ‘American Idiot,’ a concept album,” Mayer said. “Billie Joe started sending me these new songs. One by one, I found applications for them.” Mayer co-opted “Know Your Enemy,” “Last Night on Earth” and “21 Guns” right away.
Green Day gave Mayer free rein to do whatever he wanted, the director said. “That was pretty great of them – incredibly generous to be that open to it. What’s cool is they didn’t even know what we were doing. They were so into writing a new record that they let me just go with it.”
The band didn’t see Mayer’s work until a June 2008 reading.
“It was the first time they heard characters singing their songs or a female voice doing their material. It was terrifying. I remember being just a nervous wreck. I was sitting at a table facing the actors. The band was alongside me so I couldn’t see them.
“At one point one of actors gave me a thumbs-up. I looked over and all three of (the band’s members) were sitting there with tears streaming down their faces, which I will never forget. It was one of the most satisfying moments in my life.”
See ‘American Idiot’
Where: Ahmanson Theatre, 135 N. Grand Ave., Los Angeles
When: Preview March 13. Opening night March 14. Regular performances March 15-April 22. 8 p.m. Tuesdays-Fridays, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 1 and 6:30 p.m. Sundays.
How much: $20-$120
Article by Paul Hodgins, the Orange County Register.
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