Making the punk-rock musical

  • by Richard Dodds
  • Tuesday September 1, 2009
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<i>American Idiot</i><br>director Michael Mayer, right, confers with Green Day members Billie Joe<br>Armstrong and Mike Dirnt during a rehearsal. Photo: Carole Litwin.
American Idiot
director Michael Mayer, right, confers with Green Day members Billie Joe
Armstrong and Mike Dirnt during a rehearsal. Photo: Carole Litwin.

God is in the segues. Or at least a theatrical nirvana, as far as Tony Award-winning director Michael Mayer is concerned. Mention the overture to Judy Garland's 1961 Carnegie Hall concert, and he is off. "The segues are genius," he said before going into an impressive vocal impression of the orchestra segueing from "The Man That Got Away" into the soaring final notes of "Over the Rainbow."

Judy Garland may seem an unlikely reference point for the man who won his Tony Award for directing the rock musical Spring Awakening and is currently putting the finishing touches on his stage version of Green Day's punk-rock album American Idiot for Berkeley Rep. But in adapting the thematically integrated but basically plotless CD, Mayer has had to create the segues that will hopefully give the musical a compelling through-line.

"One of the great thrills of working on this is figuring out how the songs go together," Mayer said during a break from rehearsals in Berkeley. "On the album, they had some fantastic segues, but because we've incorporated some other Green Day songs, it's been fun for us to try to find the Green Day way to segue."

American Idiot, released in 2004, explores the life, psyche, and emotional journey of a disaffected young character known as Jesus of Suburbia, as well as his friends St. Jimmy and Whatsername. "I call the Jesus character 'Johnny' because I sort of made this piece for John Gallagher Jr., who was our original Moritz in Spring Awakening," Mayer said, "and then I came up with some other characters, both real and fantasy, and each of them has been assigned certain songs and lyrics."

Mayer had long been a casual fan of Green Day, which got its start in the East Bay in the 1980s, but it was the release of American Idiot that fully captured the director's attention. "The story really is about these people who live in a suburban wasteland in the monstrosity of a culture we found ourselves in after 9/11 and before Obama," he said. "It was a very grim time, and I have to say this record was one of the very few cultural events that gave me a sense of hope."

The music for American Idiot was created by its band members: vocalist/guitarist Billie Joe Armstrong, bassist Mike Dirnt, and drummer Tre Cool, with Armstrong providing all the lyrics. The sound in the theater will definitely keep its punk-rock vibe, Mayer said. "It will be like rock on steroids." And he described the design concept for the production as "a dirty maximalism. There's lots of stuff, but it's not slick. We really want to honor the characters here."

In the title song, the Jesus of Suburbia character sings, "Well, maybe I'm the faggot America. I'm not a part of a redneck agenda." "It's one of my favorite lyrics," Mayer said. "It just encapsulates a whole mindset. 'OK, call me "faggot" if you want. I will be anything as long as I don't have to be that thing,'" that thing being an American idiot.

While Spring Awakening, based on Frank Wedekind's 1891 play about teenage sexual angst, had a distinct gay subplot, there is nothing specifically homoerotic in the new musical. "I think the gay overtones, if there are any, come from the fact that I am a completely out gay artist," Mayer said. "In everything I do, I'm going to bring my own sensibility to bear on it. I can't help it."

Mayer, 49, has remarkably diverse Broadway credits as a director, including You're a Good Man Charlie Brown, Arthur Miller's A View from the Bridge, Thoroughly Modern Millie, and Chekhov's Uncle Vanya, in addition to the huge success of Spring Awakening.

"My career is so weird that way," he said. "I never planned to be the director with such a varied resume. It's great for me personally and creatively, but not so much in terms of getting work. In the commercial theater, people like to label you, but no label has ever attached itself to me in that way."

His careering career, he said, "keeps me young as an artist because I'm using different muscles. There's a part of me that still feels like, oh, I'm going to be caught out as a fraud. But it turns out to be a great place to operate from, because I'm able to share that mystery with my collaborators."

While the original Broadway producers of Spring Awakening are also shepherding American Idiot, there are no specific plans for life after Berkeley. "As far as I'm concerned, if we can make this show really great for Berkeley Rep's audiences, I'll be really happy. If it turns out it wants to have a further life in New York or somewhere else, that would just be icing on the cake."

Rehearsing in Berkeley has meant that Mayer missed his 12th anniversary with his partner, Roger Waltzman, an oncologist who works for a pharmaceutical company. They share their New York home with a dog named Rufus.

Which brings us back to Judy Garland via Rufus Wainwright's 2006 recreation of her Carnegie Hall concert. Mayer was in the audience, but he declines to pass judgment.

"That's another conversation," he said. "I have a lot of thoughts on that, as you can imagine. But, you know, when I went to see Green Day in concert, goddamn it if Billie Joe Armstrong didn't lie on the floor in the middle of 'Shout' and started singing 'Swanee' and 'Rock-a-Bye Your Baby.' You know what? Bring Billie Joe Armstrong to Carnegie Hall to sing the Judy Garland show. Now that would be something to see."

American Idiot will run Sept. 4-Oct. 11 at Berkeley Rep. Tickets are $27-$71. Call (510) 647-2949 or go to www.berkeleyrep.org.