“American Idiot” runs May 1-4 at the Fox Theatre. Details HERE.
Michael Mayer is on a roll.
He directed three Broadway productions in a row that were nominated for best-musical Tony awards. He won a Drama Desk Award for outstanding director of a musical for 2002‘s Thoroughly Modern Millie, as well as a Drama Desk Award and a Tony for best direction of a musical for Spring Awakening.
But his most remarkable accomplishment may have been convincing the notoriously rebellious punk-pop trio Green Day to let him adapt its critically acclaimed, multiplatinum 2004 rock opera, American Idiot, for the Broadway stage.
Mayer fell in love with the album when he was directing the 2006 film Flicka. “It was the only CD in my car as I would drive the Pacific Coast Highway from Hollywood to Malibu and back,” he recalls. “I couldn’t get enough of it. Something tickled in my head and I thought, ‘There is actually a narrative inside this album. What if I staged it?’ And that’s where the idea first came to me.”
That initial spark of inspiration grew into a flame when Mayer did an interview with Variety on the subject of rock ’n’ roll music in theater and said, “I’m sure that someone’s going to be doing American Idiot: The Musical, because it’s ready to go.” Mayer’s Spring Awakening producer, Tom Hulce, called to ask if he’d be interested in pursuing the project.
“I thought it was the most far-fetched thing you can imagine,” Mayer confesses. “Why is this punk band going to be interested in musical theater?”
A few weeks later, Mayer and Hulce found themselves meeting with Green Day agent Jenna Adler and manager Pat Magnarella. Mayer pitched his concept, which involved taking the album’s main character, the Jesus of Suburbia, and pairing him with two best friends. Instead of one man’s journey, the story would follow three young men trying to figure out who they are, and understand the world they were born into, post-9/11 America.
Not long after that, the agent and the manager took Green Day frontman Billie Joe Armstrong to see Spring Awakening. Says Mayer, Armstrong came away suitably impressed.
“We spent all night talking about what American Idiot might be as a musical,” Mayer says. “He brought it to [Green Day bassist] Mike Dirnt and [drummer] Tré Cool, and they eventually got in a room with us after we organized a reading of the musical. They heard it, and they were sold from that point on.”
The production premiered at Berkeley Rep in 2009, and transferred to Broadway’s St. James Theatre in March 2010. It opened to mostly positive reviews, including a crucial rave from The New York Times. It was nominated for several Tonys (including best musical), and ultimately won for best scenic design and best lighting design of a musical. But, if you ask Mayer, the show’s biggest victory was crossing generational lines and bringing a new audience to the theater.
“I’d walk down 44th Street,” he says, “and the line outside the theater looked different from every other line outside every other show. It was cool to see people who had never been to the theater before show up because they were Green Day fans. Likewise, it was amazing to see Broadway audiences discover a kind of sound that they hadn’t heard on a Broadway stage. It was really a meeting of two worlds that came crashing together. It was really cool to see a completely different version of what a Broadway audience could be.”
That “collision between contemporary music and narrative” is the driving force behind much of the work Mayer has been doing lately. He clearly believes that fusing the traditional theater audience with a younger, more contemporary crowd is the key to Broadway’s future and vitality.
“The older audiences get older and die,” he laments, “and what can you do? The audience that’s always been there for South Pacific just isn’t going to exist anymore. Unless we continue to make theater that’s resonant for — and speaks to — a younger audience, I don’t see how theater will continue to be the vital art form I believe it is.”