Director Michael Mayer was basking in the success of his award-winning "Spring Awakening" when he got the idea to turn "American Idiot," a hugely successful 2004 disc by punk trio Green Day, into his next Broadway musical project.
"I was in L.A., doing a lot of driving then, so had the CD playing on automatic loop," he remembers. "I was addicted to it, just listening to it over and over. Then it occurred to me that I was getting the same kind of pleasure from it that I used to get listening to show albums when I was a kid. I started fixating on the idea that I had to stage it."
The "American Idiot" rock opera that rolls into Detroit on Tuesday is the result of Mayer's fixation. It's a 90-minute exploration (without intermission) of the disc's themes of love, sex, drugs and alienation. A young cast and six-piece band will perform hits like "Jesus of Suburbia," "Wake Me Up When September Ends" and "Boulevard of Broken Dreams."
The Tony-nominated show, which played on Broadway for just over a year in 2010-11, arrives here on the heels of a Toronto tour opening, and promoters hope it will draw the nontraditional theater audience (translation: not old) they're eager to cultivate.
"American Idiot" will play in Detroit for just a week and isn't part of this season's Broadway in Detroit subscription series. Series subscribers will need a separate ticket for the show. This makes it different from the 2010 Detroit run of the youth-oriented "Spring Awakening," also directed by Mayer. The coming-of-age rock musical, based on a controversial 19th-Century German play, played here for two weeks to audiences that were far from "Wicked"-size.
"Idiot" follows the lives of three teenage boys who are desperate to escape life in 21st-Century suburbia. Two of them, Johnny and Tunny (Van Hughes and Scott J. Campbell) set out for the big city while Will (Jake Epstein) stays home when his girlfriend gets pregnant. Their odyssey captures a generation's often bleak view of life in post-9/11 America. Tunny eventually joins the military and is shipped off to Afghanistan.
Mayer says the Detroit production of "American Idiot" will reflect some tweaks he has made to the show since its Broadway opening in the spring of 2010. Though New York reviews praised the show's energy, some critics found its storytelling side lacking.
"Many of the changes we made are for the better," the director says. "It has more of a rock concert vibe, a more human scale. Still, he notes: "The story functions like an opera. It follows the classic rules of opera storytelling, where the lyrics function as the story."
Mayer understands that traditional theater audiences may have some misgivings about "Idiot." Though he was a fan of Green Day, he wasn't sure what to expect from Billie Joe Armstrong after the band's front man was flown to New York to see "Spring Awakening" in 2007. Armstrong would be key in deciding whether Green Day would get on board with Mayer's vision for "American Idiot."
The rocker, it turns out, loved "Spring Awakening" and impressed Mayer with his knowledge of the great Broadway musicals of the past.
"He had reference points that really blew me away," the director says. "He had grown up on this stuff, performed it as a kid. He did Al Jolson and George M. Cohan. He could sing songs from 'Bye Bye Birdie.'
"One of the reasons why Green Day's songs are so effective is that Billie Joe Armstrong grew up listening to the Great American Songbook. His songs are in that realm. They're incredibly melodic. Even when they're a three-chord punk anthem, there's still a structure to them."
Mayer was far less worried about selling Tom Hulce, his producing partner, on the idea of "American Idiot." The Detroit-born, Plymouth-raised actor and producer, still most famous for playing Mozart in the 1984 film "Amadeus," had worked with Mayer on "Spring Awakening."
"He's not your typical producer," says Mayer. "He climbs inside the story, inside the art of the storytelling. He's an advocate for character in a way that I can't imagine any other producer being, mostly because he's such a superb actor himself."
Hulce's approach impressed Gabrielle McClinton, the 22-year-old actress who plays the free-spirited Whatsername in the show. She appreciated the freedom the "American Idiot" creative team granted her as she set out to define her character.
She remembers meeting Mayer and Hulce during the fourth of maybe seven callbacks last spring when the touring cast was being assembled.
"They're so much about the experience and where you're coming from," she says. "I can relate to falling in love, and being on my own in the city, and being scared to try new things.
"The music is so contemporary. It's the stuff we walk around singing every day. So you just have to show up and just live your life onstage. They want us to make it as real and raw as possible."
More Details: 'American Idiot'
8 p.m. Tue.-Wed. & Jan. 19-20, 2 & 8 p.m. Jan. 21,
2 & 7:30 p.m. Jan. 22
Detroit Opera House
1526 Broadway, Detroit
Full article at Detroit Free Press: HERE