FALL ARTS PREVIEW Who would have pictured Green Day's anthemic 2004 punk-rock concept album, American Idiot (Reprise), as the stuff of musicals? It took merely two unlikely kindred spirits, meeting in the fall of 2007 for the first time: the Oakland band's lead vocalist, guitarist, and primary songwriter Billie Joe Armstrong and Tony-winning Spring Awakening director Michael Mayer.
Armstrong that punk-rock diehard who even now plays Gilman with his side project Pinhead Gunpowder? Turns out that as a tyke growing up in Rodeo, he serenaded the elderly and infirm in local hospitals with standards and show tunes from musicals like Oliver! and Annie Get Your Gun.
"That's how I learned how to sing," says Armstrong, laid back and low-key in stark contrast to the manic rabble-rouser who'll soon take command over a stage at San Jose's HP Pavilion. He's on the phone from his Oakland home during a brief stop in Green Day's arena tour for 21st Century Breakdown (Reprise), the follow-up to American Idiot. "There's a real old-school craft to it," he continues, measuring that quality against Shrek, Legally Blond, and other recent disposable Broadway musicals. "That's kind of a corny way of doing things, but when you see something like Spring Awakening, it's ... it's real life, and it's something that everybody relates to, and it's inspiring and emotional. American Idiot was really tailor-made for something like this to happen to it, y'know."
At the same time that Armstrong tried to heal the ailing with music and '80s-era punks everywhere greeted "Morning in America" with a snarl the generation-older Mayer was earning his MFA on the other side of the country in theater at NYU. No surprise, then, that Mayer "felt such a surprising kind of simpatico" on meeting the Green Day leader. "Even though we come from different worlds and are such different people," Mayer says, "you know, at the end of the day, Billie Joe is such a showman! Such a theatrical guy. Not since Al Jolson have I seen someone so in love with the audience and with putting on a performance for them."
Mayer radiates a similar high-wattage intensity, one that's fully prepared to kick out the jams. Wide-eyed and unblinking behind his black frame specs, clad in a Justice League T-shirt and floppy shorts, he's hiding out with me in what looks like an old classroom within the downtown Berkeley building enlisted for rehearsals of the musical version of American Idiot. "I feel like where we connect is old school," he says of Armstrong, slapping the table for emphasis. "Tin Pan Alley." Slap. "Vaudeville." Slap. "That's the music he grew up with. He became a punk-rocker I became a theater homo!"
Together, Armstrong and Mayer are making a piece of theater that combines the musical's narrative tradition and holy union of song and dance with a breed of feisty alternative rock fed by the streetwise political punk of Gilman Street. A musical that unites the ironclad craft of the American Songbook and the heady, arena-sized artistic ambition of classic rock. Now, in the wake of the Broadway acclaim of Los Angeles punk vet Stew's Passing Strange (which also got its start in at Berkeley Repertory in 2006 and has just been transferred to film by Spike Lee), American Idiot appears poised for critical and popular success when it opens Sept. 4.
American Idiot arrives at a time when musical theater is going through a wave of growing pains.