Album-turned-show 'American Idiot' in Seattle June 5-10
The touring production of "American Idiot," based on the Green Day album and directed by Michael Mayer ("Smash") visits the Paramount Theatre in Seattle June 5-10, 2012.
Seattle Times theater critic
'American Idiot'Tuesday, June 5 through Sunday, June 10, Paramount Theatre, 911 Pine St., Seattle; $25-$85 (877-784-4849 or stgpresents.org).
How do you turn a batch of neo-punk tunes into a Broadway musical? Create a "jukebox" show of rock hits around a contrived plot?
Michael Mayer had a better idea when he seized on the edgy, rebellious and wildly popular music of the Bay Area band Green Day. In cahoots with lead singer Billie Joe Armstrong, he refashioned the Grammy-winning album "American Idiot" into a Broadway show of the same title. It opens Tuesday at the Paramount Theatre.
"This is not a jukebox show at all," stressed Mayer, the A-list Broadway ("Spring Awakening") and TV ("Smash") director who brought "American Idiot" to the stage.
An avid fan of the hit 2004 album, Mayer says he heard "a very strong narrative in there. I found it amazing to hear in the lyrics a kind of youth awakening, from the very first song."
That was not coincidental: "American Idiot" was devised as a concept album, with suites of tunes conveying the fable of teenager Jesus of Suburbia, who revolts against his stultifying existence and heads to the big, bad city to encounter, drugs, love, tragedy and renewal while his friends embark on other paths.
His rallying cry, in the opening anthem: "Don't want to be an American idiot/ Don't want a nation under new media!"
"It's a declaration that you don't want to be the thing that you see all around you, and so you run away to what you believe in," said Mayer by phone from New York. "It's a very active, very emotionally true expression of the growth cycle, and of the world in the [George W.] Bush years, which young people were inheriting but couldn't relate to."
Mayer's desire to adapt the album for the stage was encouraged by actor-producer (and ex-Seattle resident) Tom Hulce, who coproduced "Spring Awakening" and went on to mount "American Idiot."
Mayer sketched an expanded storyline for the show about "three kids in the suburbs making a pact to go to the city and change their lives, and change the world a little bit with their music." But to launch the project, he needed approval from singer-songwriter Armstrong (who penned the songs' lyrics, and co-wrote the music with his band).
Luckily, the two hit it off.
Recalled Mayer, "He came to New York to meet me. He saw and loved 'Spring Awakening,' and said, 'Go for it.' Six weeks later I had a rough scenario, but along the way a lot of stuff changed. Billie Joe gave me a lot of good ideas." (The two men are credited as co-writers of the musical.)
Mayer also impressed Green Day by working into the scenario songs ("Favorite Son," "Too Much Too Soon") not included on the U.S. album, but released in Europe. And Armstrong gave the director more material — postcards, letters, tunes from Green Day's next disc, "20th Century Breakdown."
"Suddenly there was this new material that allowed more stage time to develop the characters' relationships. That's why it doesn't feel jukebox-y to me."
"American Idiot" was warmly received in its Berkeley Repertory Theatre debut, and hit Broadway in April 2010 like a musical Molotov cocktail.
Critics applauded the high-octane cast and songs — "Boulevard of Broken Dreams," "21 Guns," "Wake Me Up When September Ends" — but shared Associated Press reviewer Michael Kuchwara's gripe that the 90-minute work had "the barest wisp of a story and minimal character development."
Armstrong's guest stints as the explosive drug dealer/rocker St. Jimmy helped "American Idiot" last a year on Broadway, where it won two Tonys (for best sets and lighting) and a Grammy (for best musical show album).
For Mayer, a highlight of the run was seeing the cross-generational response from teens and their parents. "Adults who came in kicking and screaming, usually came out with a new appreciation of Green Day's music.
"And so many kids wrote or told me they recognized themselves in the characters, even though it was about a different time — a time of intense frustration, impotence and betrayal. There's something universal about the day you wake up and realize your parents are fallible, and you don't have a good-faith relationship with your country's government."
The current tour, under Mayer's supervision, features alums of the Broadway run — like Van Hughes, who has been promoted to the lead role of Johnny initially played by John Gallagher Jr. And response on the road has been enthusiastic.
Meanwhile, Mayer has turned to some very different new projects — notably, directing the first season of the inventive TV series "Smash," which juxtaposes a backstage Broadway soap opera with the making of a Marilyn Monroe-centered musical.
"I had a blast doing it," he declared. "I was very proud of it, and it was a whole new world to me — to turn out episodes each week with all those musical numbers, and complicated plot lines. It was a miracle we did it!"
Don't ask Mayer to divulge future plot twists in "Smash," which had a cliffhanger season finale. Though the show was renewed for a second season, Mayer is moving on to helm another new NBC series, "Do No Harm," slated to debut in January. "It's a modern day Jekyll and Hyde story about a brilliant neurosurgeon who has an extreme case of multiple personality disorder," he noted. "I'm really happy about it — no singing. No dancing. Just a sexy, scary thriller."
Misha Berson: firstname.lastname@example.org