Making musical sense of ‘Idiot’
BERKELEY, Calif. - 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 premiere rock opera “American Idiot.’’
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 couldn’t be unclipped by the performers. 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 “American Idiot.’’ Far more taxing to Mayer, whose “Spring Awakening’’ won eight 2007 Tony Awards, including best musical, was this fundamental challenge: how to conjure up an “American Idiot’’ story - without adding a line of scripted dialogue between 20 Green Day songs.
“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?
Mayer, part-time collaborator and Green Day frontman Billie Joe Armstrong, and the “American Idiot’’ designers had to craft a sort of wordless libretto, making sure the audience understood every step of the story.
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. The songs on “American Idiot’’ 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.’’
Mayer started sketching out his adaptation: Jesus of Suburbia (another name for Johnny) moves to a big city, meets St. Jimmy and Whatsername, who then battle for his soul.
“It’s a complicated story, and it’s ambiguous,’’ said Mayer, 49. The director has rearranged Green Day’s songs, seeking to give them narrative muscle by assigning singing parts to specific characters and adding choral harmonies.
The show is at Berkeley Rep through Nov. 1; a possible move to Broadway is already under discussion.
“When I originally wrote the record . . . it was not really a linear story,’’ Armstrong said of an album intended to be a denunciation of the George W. Bush administration. “Now there’s definitely a struggle between the characters. . . . He interpreted it in a way where he turned it into a story.’’