Punk Rock Opera

Green Day electrifies musical theater at the Berkeley Rep with American Idiot.

Global superstar and Green Day vocalist Billie Joe Armstrong had somewhat one-dimensional ideas about musicals before green-lighting American Idiot, the amped-up rock opera debuting at the Berkeley Repertory Theatre on Friday, September 4.

“I mean, I’ve taken my kid to see The Lion King before,” says the mid-thirtysomething, who’s been married fifteen years. “And it’s like we might as well be going to a Jonas Brothers concert or something.”

For a band that’s made its millions on speed, pot, masturbation, paranoia, teen angst, and suicide, the world of chorus lines and saccharine, sappy arias just didn’t seem to fit. Thanks to Mamma Mia, it doesn’t have to.

The rock opera adaptation of Green Day’s multiplatinum 2004 smash American Idiot is going to challenge the very definitions of punk, theater, and musical. The 75-plus-minute performance with a cast of 19 tells a Fight Club-esque story of self-discovery through death and destruction, yet it uses no words outside of the lyric content of the album. The hit album is played from beginning to end live by a band (not Green Day) and intercut with B-sides as well as three songs from the band’s new album 21st Century Breakdown, including the hit “21 Guns.”

After eight albums and almost twenty years together as a band — a near impossible feat these days — Green Day has undertaken its ballsiest and most experimental project yet. Taken with the unprecedented press shine now on the forty-year-old Berkeley Rep, as well as the fact that the project employs dozens of local artists amid a searing arts recession — and this musical might be the most boundary-violating, “punk” thing Green Day has ever done.


The story of trio Billie Joe Armstrong, bassist Mike Dirnt, and drummer Tre Cool has ascended to the status of legend. Emerging from the East Bay’s punk rock scene of the early 1990s, they played fast, simple, snarling jams cut with melody and a cleverness that helped them break out from the pop-punk pack at the time. (Blink-182, anybody?) Kerplunk in 1992 and the single “Welcome to Paradise” softened up the beachhead for 1994’s major-label debut Dookie on Reprise, which did fifteen million in global sales. Insomniac in 1995, Nimrod in 1997, and Warning in 2000 propelled the band far from the punk rock ghetto and set the stage for 2004’s gargantuan American Idiot.

“It was something that I’ve always wanted to do, hoping that I had the guts to be able to do it,” Armstrong said. “You have to take everything you learned and take a huge risk. You just evolve as a person and figure out what’s important to you. Being a rock star can be a really positive thing. It just kind of depends on the way you go about it.”

Armstrong says Idiot was the band accepting stardom, ditching the shackles of punk’s rules and risking everything on a decades-old form, the rock opera. After an aborted attempt to make a more traditional album called Cigarettes and Valentines, Green Day channeled The Wall, Tommy, and maybe a little of the Broadway musical Oliver!

Written and recorded in Oakland and Los Angeles, American Idiot includes the nine-minute, five-part, punk rock call to arms “Jesus of Suburbia.” Hooked on soda pop and Ritalin, there’s nothing wrong with this “Jesus.” This is how I’m supposed to be/in a land of make believe/they don’t believe in me.

Jesus dallies with the military but ultimately travels from the suburbs to the city where he meets his doppelgänger, the self-destructive “St. Jimmy,” whose theme is a classic punk track: fast, simple, dirty, and short — clocking in at 2:55. Drugs emerge as an outlet in “Give Me Novacaine” while transcendence comes in the form of female archetype “Whatsername,” who appears on “She’s a Rebel” and “Extraordinary Girl.”

“Letterbomb” delivers the anarchic climax to St. Jimmy, then “Wake Me Up When September Ends” confronts the death of the hero’s father, offering little solace. The messy, five-part, nine-minute “Homecoming” loosely sews up the narrative, with “Jesus” finding himself through the love of Whatsername and by becoming a rock star. It’s ridiculous and ambitious and filled with more hooks than a fishing boat and it went on to sell more than fourteen million copies worldwide.

Among the long list of new fanatics was Tony Award-winning musical director Michael Mayer, who in 2006 was in Los Angles filming Flicka and blasting Idiot from his car on the freeways of LA.

“‘Holiday’ was the first single I heard,” Mayer said. “And then, around the time ‘Boulevard of Broken Dreams’ came out I was, like, ‘Holy fuck. Holy shit. Who are these guys that can write such beautiful, poetic stuff?’ and I listened to the whole album and I was really dazzled by it: the political agenda, the urgency of the message, and the poetry really of both the music and the lyrics. They were completely bedazzling to me. And I was obsessed with it, so I listened to it all the time.”

Mayer used Idiot professionally as a sort of language to describe elements of a new musical he was working on at the time called Spring Awakening, which went on to win a Tony Award for best musical in 2007.

“So I started referring to it while we did Spring Awakening, and it just tickled something in my head. I thought, ‘Jesus, this is ready to go.’ I could actually imagine other characters. ‘What would it be like if you took some of these songs and pulled them apart and gave certain lyrics to other people instead of just this single voice?'”

While rock critics were writing the words “anthemic,” Mayer physically saw large groups of people singing in his head.

“I started to imagine it in my head while driving the Pacific Coast Highway. I would think, God, that would be so cool to see a whole community of people past teenage years. They’re not kids. They’re adults but their lives haven’t happened yet — the sort of disenfranchised young adults of America. The suburban wasteland that makes it almost impossible for anyone to imagine anything else than what’s right in front of them.

“And I thought, well, being kids and with the drugs and the popping Ritalin, someone else’s cocaine, all the trappings described so eloquently in ‘Jesus of Suburbia.’ I know that is reality for a lot of people. And living in these horrible dark ages of the Bush administration was as frustrating and despairing as it was — God — I saw, This stuff is real and people are connecting to it. I thought, they’re personally giving voice to a whole generation of Americans who have probably felt completely disenfranchised and completely apathetic and unable to effect any change.”

Mayer flippantly told Rolling Stone and Variety that he’d love to do American Idiot for his next project, and then Mozart called him to put it together. Mozart’s real name is Tom Hulce, nominated for an Academy Award for playing Mozart in the film Amadeus. He appeared in the movies Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, and Jumper and was nominated for a Tony Award for his role in the play A Few Good Men.

“He calls me and he goes, ‘I just read your interview in Variety; are you serious about American Idiot?'” Mayer recalled. “And I said, ‘Totally.’ And he said, ‘Well, let’s try to make that happen.’ And I said, ‘Ha ha ha, okay. Knock yourself out,’ because I thought, ‘There’s no fucking way. Someone’s either doing it already or they’re not going to be interested.’ Tom can get people on the phone that a lot of other people can’t because he’s number one a first-class artist in his own right, and he’s got a long career and fantastic relationships.”

Hulce and Mayer met with Green Day’s manager and agent, and Mayer pitched his idea of adding characters and lengthening Idiot. Armstrong was interested, so the band flew out to New York to watch Spring Awakening — which uses the alt-rock of Duncan Sheik to adapt a banned German play from 1891 about puberty, masturbation, sex, pregnancy, suicide, abortion, and death in a deeply repressive, religious country where the adults are suspect. Hmmmm.

“It just sounded fitting,” Armstrong said. “I didn’t know who they were or anything at the time, but when I saw that, I knew they were brilliant. What they were doing was kind of revolutionary. The audience was onstage. It was based off a turn-of-the-century play, and yet all the subject matter is totally current. I see that and the way they approached it with real feelings and real sort of life — they’re artists, you know?”

The cast of Spring Awakening and the Green Day trio went out for drinks at a local theater hangout, and Mayer left with an exclusive right to develop a reading of the rock opera. In a way, Idiot was a logical follow-up to Awakening, because issues of God, country, and identity often follow the formative crises of puberty and adolescence.

Mayer wrote it in six weeks, calling Armstrong to talk story and character development. “Jesus of Suburbia” became “Johnny,” alongside main characters St. Jimmy and Whatsername as well as a bigger cast of stoners, anarchists, and artists drawn from the East Bay arts scene. The set drew from the grungy warehouse spaces of Berkeley and costumes from the late Bush years. Johnny and St. Jimmy emerged as Fight Club-like splits of the same character.

“St. Jimmy is kind of the Brad Pitt and Jesus of Suburbia; Johnny is sort of the Ed Norton,” Mayer said. “Is he a real person or are they parts of the same person? And Billie Joe confirmed that was of great interest to him.”

The show included no dialogue or normal words. “I thought a lot about whether Billie Joe and I should craft some dialogue. What became very clear right away, except for little letters that Johnny writes, I felt like the songs are so articulate. And when you put them in the mouths of characters who are living and breathing in front of you — Will sitting on the couch and lighting up a joint and singing the first part of ‘Novacaine’ while he’s staring at TV — you understand what his circumstances are. What more do you need to be saying? It’s so clear.”

After months of development and the addition of a musical arranger and choreographer and a cast of twelve that included Mayer’s lead from Spring Awakening, Armstrong was scheduled to watch a reading. If he liked it, the whole band would watch one. If not, the project stopped.

“We sort of bit the bullet, but what happened was the entire band came and I was just dying,” Mayer said. “We read through the whole thing, about seventy minutes long nonstop, the kids did a fabulous job. I could not look over at the band, I was so scared, and at the end of it they gave the kids a standing ovation. They were wildly enthusiastic and gave me lots of really great input.”

“It’s amazing,” Armstrong said. “People are going to be blown away.”

At the same time, Hulce got in touch with his longtime friends at the Berkeley Repertory Theatre to set up a reputable yet intimate home for the show in Green Day’s backyard. The Rep’s history of producing edgy stuff, and its career arc from a little garage playhouse to regional powerhouse paralleled Green Day’s rise in many ways, said Susan Medak, the Rep’s managing director. At least twelve years of edgy, experimental, multimedia material laid the groundwork for Hulce’s phone call, Medak said. No other theater was in the running to host the event. “I’ve known Tom for 25 years, back when he was playing a young Romeo,” Medak said with a laugh.

After a trip to New York to make sure everyone was on the same page, the Rep slated American Idiot — its first-ever musical — as the opening show of its annual program. The phone has rung off the hook ever since, Medak said.

The recession has been murder on the arts, and Rep operations had to be slashed 18 percent this year, she said. But American Idiot has become the fastest advance seller in the Rep’s history. Almost every night is sure to be sold out in the 600-person Roda Theatre — which offers the modern multimedia accommodations and size for such a huge endeavor.

“It’s been hysterical,” Medak said. “There are some Green Day fans who are nervous because they assume, and I think it’s legitimate, that we’re going to mess with the material, or it’s going to be Green Day onstage. It’s not going to be the band on stage.”

Of course, with fame has come some attendant headaches, Medak said.

“We have only fewer than 600 seats in the theater and there are thousands who want to be here for opening night. We rarely have to deal with problems with scalpers, and already we’re doing everything we can to advise ticket buyers not to buy if a deal appears too good to be true. It probably is.”

If the show does well, it could tour the world. Mayer said he has no idea if he’s going to be the only one who likes Idiot. On one hand, the process feels like a smooth alignment of the stars. On the other hand, he sees where the piece needs work.

“I’m terrified,” he said. “We’re not turning a movie into a musical where everybody knows the story already and has certain expectations. This is an original story in a way, and the material we have to tell the story is these songs and it’s really a wonderful, exciting, and terrifying challenge.”

Armstrong is more sanguine. “I keep seeing it from a standpoint where I’ll go a couple of months where you don’t see anything then I’ll go in and sit in on a workshop. The way that everything’s evolved every single time has been amazing. The story line keeps getting stronger and stronger, and the characters keep getting stronger and stronger, and then the musical arrangement from Tom Kitt is really inspiring.”

Historically, running away from society to join the theater was a defiant, “punk rock” act, everyone agrees. In a way, Jimmy’s archetypal journey to artistic self-actualization mirrors not only Green Day’s journey, but that of many of the artists in the Berkeley Rep show as well. “Especially the kids that are in the show — people, I should say,” Armstrong said. “They’re in it, they’re artists, and they’ve given their whole life over to acting, singing, and dancing in its truest form. Their lifestyle and livelihood, it’s sort of punk rock to me.”

Even the waning of the angst-ridden Bush era can’t defuse the energy of the show. Global problems now stand in for the evil of Dick Cheney, Armstrong said. “It is hard, because I think back, and it was easier to point at what the problem was in 2003. But now I think it’s coming from so many different angles and it’s such a different crisis every week.”

Mayer also was worried that Idiot could be viewed as yesterday’s angst. “But surprisingly, no. That was a concern that I had going into it. You watch one of these clips through and it puts you right back into it. We’re so far from being out of the woods. It’s perfectly good timing.”

American Idiot opens Friday. Mayer says bring your ear plugs.

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