NEW YORK — With their punk-informed hairdos and garb, the members of Green Day look slightly out of place in Sardi's, a landmark theater-district restaurant frequented by stage folks and matinee crowds.
But Billie Joe Armstrong, Tré Cool and Mike Dirnt are Broadway babies themselves these days. The new musical American Idiot, an adaptation of the rock band's multiplatinum 2004 album, opens Tuesday at the St. James Theatre. And the guys are clearly, in Armstrong's words, "stoked" as they chat with director Michael Mayer.
It was Mayer who approached frontman Armstrong about bringing Green Day's rock opera, an account of disaffected youth in the post-9/11 era, to the stage. A Tony Award winner for Spring Awakening, another rock musical charting the oppression and alienation of junior citizens, Mayer also co-wrote Idiot's libretto with Armstrong.
Not that Armstrong and his bandmates were strangers to musical theater. Dirnt grew up a classic-movie buff, "so I know my way around a few scores." Adds Cool: "We like all kinds of music, and some of those old show tunes are really good."
"When American Idiot came out, we said it had more in common with Rocky Horror than (The Clash's) London Calling," Armstrong says.
Mayer goes further, likening Idiot's character- and song-driven structure to old-school musicals such as West Side Story and Fiddler on the Roof. Both Fiddler and Idiot open with "prologues that set up a community," then introduce principal male characters who sing their own songs. "In Fiddler, it's — "
"If I Were a Rich Man," Cool blurts out, grinning.
In Idiot, "it happens to be a punk-rock anthem," Mayer says.
Idiot's young company includes John Gallagher Jr., another Tony-winning Awakening alum, and Rebecca Naomi Jones, praised for her performance in indie-pop star Stew's 2008 musical, Passing Strange.
Former Spin editor Alan Light thinks Idiot faces different pressures than Strange or Awakening did. "Those shows started small-scale; there was a sense of discovery. Neither came to Broadway with guns blazing."
Idiot did have its world-premiere run at the Berkeley Repertory Theatre last year, and Mayer was encouraged by the results. "It worked for theater people who ended up digging the music, and for Green Day fans who fell in love with theater's power to tell a great story."
For Armstrong, "having a chorus of people sing a Green Day song isn't unlike what you'd experience at one of our concerts. At the same time, this is a theater piece that takes you on a complete journey with these characters. That's why I love watching it over and over again."