Making an 'Idiot' for the Broadway set
The musical is being dragged into the 21st century with a little help from punk rockers Green Day
How do you make a musical out of love, rage, alienation, dysfunction, drug addiction, teenage pregnancy and war heroism without going over the top on the dramatics? And how do you channel all of the aforementioned into a batch of songs that fit into the wider brief of a Broadway musical?
The answer to the first question is, why not? The answer to the second question is, you can, but not without ruffling feathers.
“When I first started with American Idiot, I didn’t know that it would be a Broadway show,” says director Michael Meyer. He has been embroiled in controversy before: in 2006, he brought Spring Awakening to the Broadway stage. Based on Frank Wedekind’s 19th-century German play, which was banned for its depictions of suicide, child abuse, rape, abortion and homosexuality, Spring Awakening may have rattled the cages of Broadway’s somewhat more conservative elements, but it won eight Tony and, via its short West End run, four Laurence Olivier awards.
Of course, if Broadway likes anything better than a good musical, it’s an award-winning musical, but when Mayer subsequently expressed an interest to direct/adapt American Idiot, Green Day’s punk rock concept album, nails and knives came out from under the floorboards.
“There was a percentage of the typical Broadway community that were into the idea of Green Day on Broadway. Some of my colleagues came up to me and said that here was the future, some were reluctant to leave the likes of South Pacific behind, and others were very stressed about the thought of being dragged into the 21st century against their will.”
Yet dragged they were and American Idiot – The Musical opened on Broadway in April 2010. Reviews were mixed but it picked up two Tonys and a Grammy.
Mayer first got the notion to work his Broadway magic on the album in 2005 when he was travelling regularly from Hollywood to Malibu for the directorial shoot of his young-girl-friendly movie Flicka, during which he was listening to American Idiot. He started to “imagine American Idiot in the same way that I pictured Man Of La Mancha in my head. It seemed completely incongruous, but it worked for me.
“It was my own private fantasy, but after Spring Awakening I was asked in an interview what was going to happen for me next, and I said, well, I’m sure someone is going to be doing American Idiot, because it’s such a great story. The producer of Spring Awakening, Tom Hulce [a former actor who was Oscar-nominated for his titular role in 1984’s Amadeus], read the interview, and the next thing I know I’m pitching a shard of an idea about turning the album into a musical to Green Day’s management. They like what they hear, and the next thing you know, Billie Joe Armstrong is open to it.”
As the show’s director, the challenges for Mayer were many, he admits, not least the bridging of any gaps there might have been between die-hard Green Day fans giving the finger to something they quite likely perceived as a happy-clappy musical, and musical theatre fans not wanting to go to a song’n’dance show based on a record that is considered a high point of contemporary punk rock.
There continue to be challenges. The goal, reasons Mayer, is that, even though it’s a musical, it’s meant to be and to feel raw. “Finding the balance is crucial, for sure – to keep the rawness yet deliver the professionalism and the Broadway pizzazz that one expects from shows such as this. Of course, the danger is that one could overshadow the other, but so far that hasn’t been our experience.”
* American Idiot – The Musical is at the Bord Gáis Energy Theatre, Dublin until Nov 10th