Welcome to a New Kind of Tension: Billie Joe Armstrong on His ‘American Idiot’ Role
Billie Joe Armstrong plays many roles in “American Idiot,” and that’s
before he even takes the stage at the St. James Theater. Mr.
Armstrong, the 38-year-old Green Day
front man and guitarist and a co-writer of that Broadway musical
adapted from his band’s hit album of the same title, rejoined the show
on Jan. 1 to resume the role of St. Jimmy, the pugnacious, drug-pushing
alter ego of the protagonist, Johnny (portrayed by John Gallagher
Jr.). (Charles Isherwood’s review of Mr. Armstrong in “American Idiot” appears in Monday’s New York Times.)
But in the final minutes before showtime on Friday night, Mr.
Armstrong took on other parts — from a nervous neophyte gingerly
reviewing his notes from Michael Mayer, the musical’s director and
co-writer, to an extroverted jester prancing around the stage in a
female co-star’s sequined dress.
In his dressing room — furnished with the record albums of vintage
punk acts like the Avengers and Generation X, and dried-out bouquets
suspended from the ceiling by their stems — Mr. Armstrong spoke with
ArtsBeat about his experience as a performer in “American Idiot” and
about what the future might hold when he leaves the show after Feb. 27.
These are excerpts from that conversation.
Q. So what notes does Michael have for you tonight?
A.He told me I was flat. [laughs] That’s his job.
Q. Yikes. Sounds like someone’s going to wake up tomorrow with a broken guitar in his bed.
A. He goes over it every night. I’ve got a good
rapport with him, so it’s cool. In this situation I have no choice. I’m
a rookie. I even have a hat that someone gave me that says “rookie” on
it. When you get older, it’s good to feel like you’re getting into
Q. How did the idea come up for you to perform in the show the first time?
A. We were having drinks one night. I was with
Michael and that was the first time he brought it up. I was like, yeah,
sure. Then I was in Buffalo [with Green Day], we were getting ready to
play a show, and Michael called. He goes, “I really need to talk to
you.” And I go, “Can you wait? Because I’m getting in an elevator.” He
goes, “No, it can’t wait – I’m on with Tom Hulce
[an "American Idiot" producer], also.” Then they officially asked me. I
was like, well, I can’t say no. Sounds like something that I have to
Q. Even when you were developing the show, you weren’t fantasizing about getting up on stage and joining in?
A. I was more a spectator than anything else. That
was as far as it was going to go. I always liked how in the
“Quadrophenia” movie, it was the Who’s music, and it was cast with different people. That was cool. When they first asked me, I was like, am I too old?
Q. To do the show at all, or to play St. Jimmy?
A. To play that character. But since he’s sort of an alter ego, he’s sort of ageless.
Q. He’s supposed to be the embodiment of what
Johnny wishes he could be, so it should be O.K. if he’s a little more,
shall we say, mature.
A. Or less mature.
Q. You were noticeably press-shy during your original run in the show, for the eight performances you played in the fall. Was that by design?
A. The previous run was kind of like a test drive. I
didn’t want to announce it. I wanted it to be last-minute. I wanted to
get into rehearsal and figure out, can I do this? Am I capable of it? I
wanted to keep the pressure down as much as possible.
Q. Were you also concerned about how your coming into the show might be received by other cast members?
A. Yeah, I was worried. When me, Mike [Dirnt] and
Tré [Cool] are on stage, it’s three hams going crazy. These people have
been in plays and theater their whole lives. They’ve got tons of
experience, and I’ve had none. That to me was really intimidating. I
also didn’t want to come in and feel like it was some kind of vanity
thing. There’s a funny story about George M. Cohan: at the St. James,
he wrote, directed and starred in his own production – I think it was
“The Merry Malones.” And it was written up as, “George M. Cohan, who arrogantly
wrote, directed and starred in his own production.” So that was going
through my mind. I was like, oh, God, I don’t want to be that guy.
Q. I never thought I’d someday have a conversation with you about George M. Cohan.
A. You might want to fact-check that. I hope I got the right person. [Editor's
note: Mr. Armstrong's only error was that "The Merry Malones" was
performed at Erlanger's Theater, before it was renamed the St. James.]
Q. Did you have any previous experience with musical theater before you started performing in “American Idiot”?
A. I had a vocal teacher when I was really young,
like 7, 8 years old, and that’s how I sang, through standards and show
tunes. Stuff from “Oliver!” and “Annie Get Your Gun,” things like that.
It taught me a sense of melody. I was also really into AC/DC.
Q. Was your teacher horrified that you grew up to become a punk-rock star?
A. She was a really cool lady. My mom keeps in touch
with her, and she came to see “American Idiot” in Berkeley, which was
Q. So you can have one foot in the world of punk rock and other in the world of musical theater at the same time?
A. I’m old enough where I think you have to take
everything you learn and put it in somehow. And you can’t escape your
past. It comes in handy, no matter what.
Q. How did your band mates in Green Day feel about losing you to the show for a few weeks?
A. They were like: “Do it. We need to take a break. Get away from us for a while.” They’re totally into it.
Q. Did you do any special training in preparation for your current run?
A. No. I remember, I texted Theo [Stockman, an
ensemble member], and all I wrote was, By the way, how do you act? And
the response I got, was “Ha, ha, ha.” He goes: “Just be yourself. Just
be honest.” The first rehearsal was really funny. Michael says to me,
“O.K., I’m just going to tell you this right now, it’s something I
forgot to tell you: This is going to be really awkward.” I was like,
you couldn’t have told me that a month ago?