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Turning Green Day's 'American Idiot' into a rock opera

FALL ARTS PREVIEW: PERFORMANCE

Michael Mayer was smitten with the pop-punk band's album and openly wondered why it wasn't being staged. Good thing he was serious.

September 13, 2009|John Horn

BERKELEY — Michael Mayer tried to contain his growing frustration. For more than nine hours at the Berkeley Repertory Theatre over two recent afternoons, Mayer's creative group was laboring to fix the glitches that were making a mess of a key sequence in the world premiere rock opera "American Idiot."

Progress was fleeting. For the two days of technical rehearsals, director Mayer and his team were stuck revising just three minutes of the show -- an elaborate fantasy dance passage in the adaptation of the pop-punk band Green Day's Grammy-winning 2004 album of the same name.

At first, intravenous fluid bags flying down wires onto the four-story set listed so badly to starboard that the performers couldn't unclip them. "At some point, we've got to get this working," Mayer said a bit testily. A few moments later, a wheel on a hospital gurney snapped off, nearly launching a cast member onto the stage.

Such technical problems are more or less routine for any musical featuring the kind of complicated staging Mayer is bringing to the Iraq war-themed, media-saturated "American Idiot." Far more taxing to Mayer, whose reinventing-the-wheel "Spring Awakening" won eight 2007 Tony Awards, including best musical, was this fundamental challenge: how he would somehow conjure up an "American Idiot" story -- without adding a line of scripted dialogue between 20 Green Day songs.

That wasn't the show's only hurdle. Although musical theater audiences have been willing to take up unconventional stories and diverse songwriting styles -- "Rent," "Avenue Q," "In the Heights" among recent examples -- there's a much wider chasm between the straightforward lyrics and melodies of traditional musicals like "South Pacific" and "West Side Story" and punk rock, particularly when the clashing songs are only hazily expositional.

Mayer's "Spring Awakening," at least, carried Frank Wedekind's turn-of-the-century play of the same name as plot-laden source material. The Who's "Tommy," the most famous rock opera, featured delineated characters ("He's a pinball wizard") and followed a vague narrative arc about its "deaf, dumb and blind kid."

The 2004 album by the Bay Area band, on the other hand, was far heavier on emotion than exposition. Yes, "American Idiot" alluded to characters named Jesus of Suburbia, St. Jimmy, Whatsername and Extraordinary Girl, but the songs offered scarce clues as to who these people really were and what they actually did: You knew there was plenty of anger and alienation, but who, precisely, felt it, and why? More important, what actually happened to them?

Even as a concept album, "American Idiot" didn't need to answer those questions. Mayer's musical certainly had to -- the show, now in previews and opening Wednesday for a run of at least six weeks with hopes of a possible move to Broadway, wasn't intended as a jukebox revue.

Using just movement, projections (of still and animated images, photos, text and iconography) on 38 video screens, new song arrangements and a towering scenic backdrop, Mayer, part-time collaborator and Green Day frontman Billie Joe Armstrong and "American Idiot's" designers had to craft and communicate a sort of wordless libretto, making sure the audience understood the story every step of the way.

"It's my biggest fear -- it's what keeps me up at night," Mayer said during a dinner break in a recent rehearsal. "That the story isn't clear."

'Ready to go'

The ambitious project started with an offhand comment Mayer made around the time of the off-Broadway opening of "Spring Awakening." "It shocks me that there isn't a stage version of 'American Idiot' yet," Mayer said in a 2006 interview with Variety. "It's an opera. It's ready to go."

Like his "Spring Awakening" and "American Idiot" star John Gallagher Jr., Mayer was smitten with Green Day's album. "I heard a complex story of intersecting people," he said. The album marked a comeback for the band, which attracted a huge following with its first major label release, 1994's "Dookie." That album sold more than 10 million copies, but the band slumped with its follow-ups, including 1997's "Nimrod" and 2000's "Warning."

Like other punk and alternative rock bands, Green Day's music was often brooding, but not as inherently angry as some of its peer bands. One of its most widely known songs, "Good Riddance (Time of Your Life)" sounds to the casual ear like a feel-good tune you'd hear at an elementary school slide show, but it's actually a bitter break-up song.

"American Idiot" borrowed the shape of the Who's "Tommy" and Pink Floyd's "The Wall" -- the songs were built around a central idea: the personal struggles of a fictional figure named Jesus of Suburbia, who calls himself "the son of rage and love."

"Green Day gives vent to people's frustrations, both lyrically and sonically," said Steven Hoggett, Mayer's "American Idiot" choreographer.

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