NEW YORK (Billboard) - It’s the evening of Thursday, April 1, and, no foolin’, Broadway’s St. James Theater is packed. Previews of the musical “American Idiot” started little more than a week ago in anticipation of an April 20 opening, and the theater has been close to capacity every night.
Onstage, faded rock posters and multiple TV screens provide the backdrop for 95 minutes of singing, dancing and Green Day songs. The plot centers on three young men trying to escape dead-end suburban lives. Will fails to get in gear even when his girlfriend falls pregnant; the other two “succeed,” in a manner of speaking. Tunny winds up being seduced by a flashy military recruiter, goes to war and promptly loses a leg and gains a nurse to love. The other, the Jesus of Suburbia on 2004’s “American Idiot” album, renamed Johnny, picks up a dope habit and girlfriend, loses the latter because of the former and winds up right back where he started. He comes home, along with his friends, emboldened with a new sense of personal responsibility.
The story contains almost no spoken dialogue — instead, it’s told mostly through songs from “American Idiot” and its 2009 follow-up album, “21st Century Breakdown.” There’s a band onstage, and though the songs’ arrangements are fuller and richer as adapted for the theater, they retain the scrappy quality of the originals.
The ending isn’t exactly a happy one, but it’s not “King Lear,” either, at least according to Green Day frontman Billie Joe Armstrong.
“The characters all made mistakes and learned lessons,” he says. “It’s still the beginning of a journey for them. For Johnny, he doesn’t blame everything on his parents or society anymore, and he can move forward.”
While the show tells the story of Johnny’s transition, it also represents the maturation of Green Day. When the band first broke out of the Bay Area with snotty three-chord punk in the early ‘90s, the last place anyone would expect to see it would be on the Great White Way. But as “American Idiot” demonstrates, things rarely turn out the way you think they will.
The staged rock opera has been around since “Hair” premiered in 1968 and was reborn when “Rent” hit it big in 1996, but a musical based on a single album is a more ambitious concept, attempted only once before on Broadway, with the Who’s “Tommy” in 1993 (which also had its Broadway premiere at the St. James).
But incorporating rock in a production has become so common that 10 out of 24 musicals that will be on Broadway in April can loosely be considered rock musicals. Recent examples range from “Rock of Ages,” which uses classic pop-metal tracks to drive the story, and “Fela!,” which tells the life story of African musician Fela Kuti through his songs, to the off-Broadway emo musical “Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson” to the long-delayed, costly and U2-scored “Spider-Man.”
In this case, the story of St. Jimmy the drug dealer, the Jesus of Suburbia and ingenue Whatshername hews closely to the story line laid out in “American Idiot.” The tale is already well known — the album has sold 5.9 million copies, according to Nielsen SoundScan, and won a Grammy Award for best rock album.
It’s this story line that prompted director Michael Mayer to put in a call to Armstrong. “I fell in love with the record when it first came out,” he says. “I thought it had the makings of an amazing musical theater piece. After ‘Spring Awakening’ (the Mayer-directed musical adaptation of a 19th-century German play that attracted a huge young audience and won eight Tony Awards) moved to Broadway, I did an interview and the reporter asked me to think about other possible sources for a rock musical, and I immediately said ‘American Idiot.’”
Mayer invited Armstrong to a performance of “Spring Awakening,” and the two wound up talking all night. “Billie gave me carte blanche to develop scenarios and characters, and I asked for six months of exclusivity to put something together before we did a reading,” he says.
For his part, Armstrong says he knew all along the story was there. “Originally, we thought about doing a movie version of it,” he says. “I always thought it should be staged in some way. Then we took some meetings and realized the movie industry makes the music industry look like a mom-and-pop store. When I talked to Michael, I sensed immediately that he got it.” (His movie goal may not be so far-fetched: Entertainment news site Deadline New York recently reported that talks are under way with Playtone partners Tom Hanks and Gary Goetzman to turn the musical into a feature film.)
The show started to develop in 2008, with Mayer presenting workshops to Armstrong and exchanging e-mails with him seeking feedback. By December 2008, Mayer had prepared a version for the stage, and in July 2009, the show started rehearsals for a run at the Berkeley (California) Repertory Theater in the band’s hometown. Armstrong is credited as the writer for all the lyrics, Green Day is credited with writing all the music, and Armstrong and Mayer co-wrote the story.
“American Idiot” opened at the Berkeley Rep September 15, 2009, after 11 days of previews and was scheduled to run until October 11; it wound up being extended twice, running until November 15 and becoming the highest-grossing show in the theater’s history.
Critical reaction to the initial staging was mixed. The Los Angeles Times praised it, noting, “If it doesn’t spin an entirely satisfying yarn, its roar is still irresistible, even when the object of protest remains elusive.” The Oakland Tribune said, “(What) once was a fine Gouda has been prepackaged as Velveeta ... In other words, it should do big business on Broadway.”
A few years after Mayer first called Armstrong, the play headed east to the St. James, with previews starting March 24.
Ira Pittelman, one of the “American Idiot” producers along with partner/actor Tom Hulce (“Amadeus”), thinks the show’s use of rock ‘n’ roll will draw a large audience seeking something that reflects the spirit of the times. “If you look at the music of the last 50 years, it’s all rock,” he says. “Every new musical has some sort of rock element in it.”
Pittelman and Hulce, who worked with Mayer as co-producers on “Spring Awakening,” raised the cash to stage “American Idiot” from a group of investors, as well as putting in some of their own money.
Armstrong didn’t invest his own money in the show, but he could potentially pull in a handsome profit, especially if it does well and goes on tour. An original Broadway cast recording, which he produced and played on with his Green Day bandmates Tre Cool and Mike Dirnt, will be released April 20 and could help drive sales of the original album.
Generally, if a show succeeds, its life span can be extended by years, even decades. A play is typically staged on Broadway, then goes on a nationwide tour, then another nationwide non-union tour, before finally being released to schools and community groups. And once a play is adopted by high school theater departments nationwide, it could run for generations — just look at “Oklahoma!” or “Bye Bye Birdie.”
Still, the market for rock musicals hasn’t fully matured yet. “Rock musicals don’t tend to do well,” says Liz Wollman, assistant professor of music in the department of fine and performing arts at Baruch College in New York and the author of “The Theater Will Rock: A History of the Rock Musical, From Hair to Hedwig.” “There are exceptions, like ‘Hair.’ But even a production like ‘Jesus Christ Superstar’ only broke even, because it wasn’t as successful as an album.”
Wollman says that recent hits like “Spring Awakening” have led to a resurgence of the rock musical on Broadway and notes that it could be the start of a new trend that would benefit “American Idiot.” She adds that the fact that “Idiot” is directed by Mayer and stars a “Spring Awakening” alumnus, John Gallagher Jr., will also help draw crowds.
“Green Day fans will come, of course,” she says. “As will ‘Spring Awakening’ fans and fans of (music supervisor/arranger) Tom Kitt, who has his own following. If they can get affordable tickets, students will go see it, too. But beyond those crowds, I don’t know who else will go.”
Tickets to the show are priced to appeal to a wide demographic: Student rush seats are $27, and regular tickets range from $30 to $127. MTV is giving away tickets to a performance and airing a half-hour special, “Green Day Rocks Broadway,” a behind-the-scenes look at the musical.
But appealing prices and all the savvy marketing in the world won’t help if the show doesn’t have a strong story, and Gallagher, who plays Johnny, says he’s counting on the story’s relatability to keep drawing crowds.
“It’s a story about kids in a world where the TV is always on and they are struggling to find their own voice,” he says. “Whether the play has a happy ending or not depends on your perspective. But in the end, Johnny goes through something a lot of people struggle with and comes out still standing.”
Editing by Sheri Linden at Reuters