A Week With An American Idiot – Idiot University

Some Dude, aka, Billie Joe Armstrong - American Idiot Talkback, 9/19/10 - Photo by Michelle Lawlor

Three Points - Brooklyn, Wednesday, 9/14/10 - Photo by GDM

Last week in New York began with a storm, literally. On Tuesday, September 14th, 2010, the day that Billie Joe Armstrong was to attend the first of a series of five American Idiot University Talkbacks — opportunities for students to hear the creative team and cast talk about the show and ask questions (a tradition on Broadway) — tornadoes touched down in Staten Island, Brooklyn, and Queens. The storm devastated the trees of our city landscape and caused a hella lot of damage. I can’t say it’s because Billie Joe, Mike Dirnt, and Tre Cool swept into town that day; they were already here. Billie Joe appeared at the Stand Up 2 Cancer telethon on Friday, September 10th, 2010. [VIDEO/DONATE HERE] On Monday, September 13th, 2010, Green Day, along with touring musicians, Jason White, Jason Freese and Jeff Matika, and the full cast of American Idiot performed “Last of the American Girls” at New York Jets stadium in New Jersey. [AUDIO/VIDEO HERE] I was originally unsure about the choice of songs until I saw the performance. LOTAG at a football game? Come on, it’s about girls, but frankly, it’s about powerful girls, and women that can blow up cars with the strength of their thoughts; have you seen the music video of it? Who needs football when you have that kind of power! [VIDEO HERE]

Green Day and Cast - New York Jets Stadium Opening - Photo GDA Picture Vault

Green Day and the cast sounded great, with the women of the cast surrounding the band, singing in harmony with Billie Joe’s lead and adding some intricate melodies (Tom Kitt arranged, perhaps?), even if their mics were a bit low. The boys of the American Idiot show? They were relegated to the back risers, rocking out and trying not to fall off at the same time. Billie Joe sounded, and frankly, looked, great. Like a rock star, cause he is one.

Billie Joe with PBR Cans for Autographs - Photo by Green Day Mind

There is another side to the dude, though, and over five nights, despite having a head cold, and ending with a huge appearance at the 92StY in a talk with Jujamcyn Theaters president, Jordan Roth, and AI director, Michael Mayer, Billie Joe Armstrong donned his flannels and his old man Kangol hat (which covered up the remaining vibrant and brassy blond still at the ends of his hair) and sat down and just talked about American Idiot, the album, and American Idiot, the Broadway show. Like a dude, who happened to have a show on Broadway, and feeling, in his own words, like a rookie again.

I would love to sit down and have a small group conversation with Billie Joe Armstrong about theater and performance. I love the theater, particularly experimental theater or anything that pushes the performance edge, but alas since that has a slim, if not zero percent, chance of happening, the next best thing was to spend five nights in the St. James Theater, three of them watching American Idiot, five talkbacks, and ending with the 92StY on Sunday, September 19th.

Two Nights with An American Idiot – Berkeley Repertory Theater – September 2009

Heart Like a Hand Grenade

When I saw American Idiot in Berkeley for two nights back in September of 2009, I was worried about two things: that I would hate the show and that my love and sense of experimental theater (which I suffer from acutely), would walk away feeling that the album American Idiot was slaughtered by Broadway. I am not a big fan of Broadway. Too much money and glitz and not enough shows that appeal to my sense of theatrical anarchy. My theater tends to lurk in dark and dank black boxes, with minimal theatrical assets. I’m always looking for the real and the crazy in a show, something that makes me look at the world in a different way, from a different angle. I’m a theater punk, what can I say? Don’t give it to me straight, give it to me strange and odd, is my theatrical motto.

I wrote about the show in a brutally honest way: the book needed growth and character/actor depth, but was essentially solid; the orchestration (and hence the music itself) was the star of the show; there was too much choreography that gave lip service to punk denizens; John Gallagher, Jr. wasn’t bringing the rage and love to the Johnny character; the set was brilliant and video outstanding; the female vocals were fabulous; and the director wasn’t necessarily the right man for the job, but he could sufficiently get the job done. What bothered me most was that the show did not bring the “rage and love” of the iconic heart grenade image of the American Idiot album. I wanted the line, “she’s holding onto my heart like a handgrenade,” made real. Pull that pin out and make it explode, just like the album and the songs as sung live by Green Day do. I wanted that. I didn’t get it from the overall production that first night. I knew, however, that it was in workshop form and still developing, but I was actually a bit panicked about the entire process of seeing the show. I had to have a few drinks afterward and a bit of a cry. [Read GDM Review here: Pt. 1 (Book); Pt. 2 (Arrangement and Cast); Pt. 3 (Choreography and Direction)]

Pull the Pin and See What Happens

On night two, I let the critic and punk theater snob in me go. I listened to the show and watched what I saw onstage from the standpoint of its star, the music and arrangement of American Idiot, and I knew that I would be in love by the time this punk rock opera came to Broadway.

Fast Forward to the Present

The Rookie Again (And What An Outfit) - Photo by Michelle Lawlor

Since September 2009, I’ve seen the show a bajillion times on Broadway. I take every opportunity to tell my Broadway and theater friends to go and see it before it closes, which is currently scheduled for the end of January 2011 (though B’way shows can abruptly close prior to their official dates, so see it now!). The reaction from them has been mixed, but the majority are quite taken with it. My friend Yana Landowne, a director in New York City, recently told me that she saw the show and wept at the end. While she wasn’t absolutely familiar with the album prior to seeing the show, she told me that the music combined with the overall design and the enthusiasm of the cast, along with a powerful story of youth setting out on their own and failing, moved her more than anything she’s seen on Broadway in a long time. Yana and I were both members of the theatrical, satirical and political group, Billionaires For Bush during the 00′s, and we fought hard and long to bring the economic realities of the Bush Administration to the attention of America: the man was made by the elite and wealthy of this country and for those same people. His administration had nothing of good for the economic welfare of middle-class and lower middle-class Americans. We thought we could make a difference if we told the people what was happening, but alas, he was elected President again in 2004. For a long while, we felt like (and still do in many regards), utter failures in our attempts at life, just like Johnny, Will, and Tunny, the three lead characters of the show, with one failing at life in the big city, another suffering from being a clueless and stoned unexpected parent, and the third a kid caught up in the shiny glamor of televised reality teevee-war, who looses a leg, but gains the love of an Extraordinary Girl in the process. They left home and loss the game of life, but at the least they tried as hard or well as they could.

Last week, I saw American Idiot three times. By the time the show ended on the second night, from my seat in the balcony, I was crying from the emotional journey of the young adults onstage who had taken the show and pulled the emotional pin out of my bleeding heart. I’ve encouraged Green Day fans to see the show, too. Some of them are super enthusiastic, while others, not so much. I’ve read more than a few Green Day fans who despise the idea of American Idiot being on Broadway. They have only seen clips of the show on Youtube, or the cast singing with the band on the Grammies, the Tonys, or last last week at the New York Jets game, and because of whatever reasons (‘I want to see the band, not those cast members,’ ‘The actors are trying to get famous from Green Day,’ ‘I hate that Broadway musical shit,’ “The music is destroyed’), their minds are closed to the larger picture of what Billie Joe Armstrong and Michael Mayer have created: a modern-day opera of immediacy and relevancy that stays true to the music and ideas that we fell in love with from the album in the first place. It doesn’t destroy the original album but brings it literally, to life.

American Idiot University

American Idiot University with Panel and Set - Photo by Michelle Lawlor

The talkbacks during the week of September 14-19th, 2001, were pretty neat. I’ve noted a few times in posts how I sneaked into two of the talkbacks. I even told Tom Hulce that I sneaked into two, treating them as “second-acting it,” used by Broadway-goers to walk into a theater for the second act of a show. He said, “I understand, I’ve first-acted a few shows in my life. Thank you for coming.” I’ve spoken with Michael Mayer and a few of the cast members here and there at various events, but it was the first time that I had spoken with Hulce. Why I told him that, I don’t know, but I have the spirit and mind of Green Day: a tendency to say anything off the top of my head, and sneak to the pit from the lawn if you can; take the rules and bend them if you must. The opportunity to see a bunch of Green Day fans and hear Billie Joe Armstrong talk about the show was too great of an opportunity to let safely pass by.

On Friday, I found myself hanging out with Larry Livermore, along with Tony Anastasi from England, ToniAnn Graffigna from Staten Island, Lauren Banjo from New Jersey and a few other Green Day fans. I mentioned to Larry (who I’ve met here and there at shows in NYC) that I wanted to one day write academically about the show. When I said it, he scoffed under his breathe, and while at the time it hurt a bit, I had to realize who I was talking to, the man who gave the first incarnation of Green Day, Sweet Children and Green Day, their first starts back in day. He’s a bit of a curmudgeon, and yes, he’s a punk, and he’s probably heard it all when it comes to Green Day and fans. I’ve often wanted to talk to him about the history of Green Day and East Bay punk, but I’m always afraid of getting that same scoffing reaction, so I never bring it up. Sadly.

David Cote, Time Out New York Head Theater Critic - Photo by Michelle Lawlor

David Cote, the lead theater critic of Time Out New York, moderated the talks. Over the five nights the panel included: Billie Joe Armstrong, director Michael Mayer, lightning designer Kevin Adams and set designer Christine Jones (both Tony Award winners for the show), arranger/orchestrator Tom Kitt, video/production designer Darrel Maloney, assistant choreographer Lorrin Lotarro, costume designer Andrea Lauer, music director Carmel Dean and assistant music conductor, Jared Stein, and actors John Gallagher, Jr., Michael Esper, Stark Sands, Tony Vincent, Declan Bennant, Ben Thompson, Gerard Canonico, Christina Sajous, and Alyssha Umphress. The second and fourth nights of talkbacks, I recorded the audio so that I could remember what was said. SundayMorning6AM from the Green Day Community YouTubed the event on 9/15/10, and you can watch the three parts here: Pt. 1, Pt. 2, Pt. 2.

American Idiot University Q&A

Below are paraphrased questions and answers of two of the talkbacks that I attended. I’ve transcribed things as well as possible, but hey, I do not get paid for this, so take it with a grain of salt at how completely accurate exact “ums” and y’knows” are. The majority of questions were asked by Cote. Please note for Green Day fans who may not be familiar with theater jargon, there is technical stuff about theater below in general, i.e., “ownership” means taking the play/musical form within yourself as an actor in a performance, going all out in portrayal of character and script; “movement,” is the contrast between ‘real’ everyday movement and that portrayed as stylized in a show, can be used in dance or non-musical performances as well as musical ones and comes primarily from experimental theater ideas.

I’ve taken the time out to transcribe two of these sessions because I feel it’s really important for Green Day and non-Green Day fans to understand where both Green Day and the cast are coming from… a place of love for what they have created. Of course, for those who haven’t seen the show, many things may not be understandable in terms of the stage action.

Of course, my personal highlight of the entire five nights is that my blog was mentioned as an opening comment on the second night. You can see that below.

Green Day Mind Blog Mentioned at American Idiot Talkbacks. Thank you, David! – Video by sundaymorning6am

Are the characters in the show punks by your definition?

Billie Joe Answers A Question - Photo by Michelle Lawlor

Billie Joe: Not necessarily. I don’t think so. It’s like the outcasts come in all different forms, not necessarily a punk rocker, whether you are, I have no idea, all the other alternative lifestyles out there… I think from us, that’s our background for sure, and it’s ground zero for us, and we are like, the mafia, once you think you’re out, you’re back in.

Billie Joe on hearing a workshop of the show for the first time.

Billie Joe: … The first time everyone was sitting down and I didn’t know what to expect and I had a really bad hangover. So, I came in and I watched. We came in on the West Side Highway and it was slow and there was this big… very large man with his asscrack hanging out in a car that was stopped in front of us, ‘What the hell is this guy doing?,’ and we’d go and take off, and we actually get there and uh… I had a bagel and some Advil. So we were watching and all these voices came out with Tom Kitt who did all the musical direction, so all these voices came out, it was like whack-a-mole… y’know, out of nowhere, here’s this voice here and it’s coming all together, and it was just beautiful to hear the arrangements put in that way. And for a while I so wanted to get away from American Idiot because we were doing 21st Century Breakdown, but to hear it performed in that way, was just like, it was totally refreshed. And it was brand new to me.

Can you tell us a little how you first got introduced to American Idiot and what attracted you to it?

Michael Mayer, Director and Book Co-Writer, American Idiot - Photo by Michelle Lawlor

Michael Mayer: I listened to the album when it first came out.. and I was driving everyday [in L.A. working on a movie]… and that was the CD I listened to in the car, pretty much non-stop for six weeks. Wherever I left off, I would drive and listen to it on the way back. And after a while I realized I was hearing a story inside it, and listening over and over to it again, and it started calling to me in the same way that a cast recording would call to me, like when I was a little fag back in Rockville MD, when I was listening to live show tunes, “Oh this is my favorite song, this is my favorite song.”… So it was this incredible collection of songs, but the story in it spoke to me, maybe because I’m from Rockville, MD (where one should not go back to) and moved to the city, and was like the character of Jesus of Suburbia, so I related to it. And it seemed really stage-worthy to me, and it felt like a punk rock opera, or rock opera, or something opera-ish.

Can you address the arc of the story, it starts with incredible dissatisfaction with suburban blandness, but ends with a homecoming. As someone that doesn’t speak too well of returning to Rockville, is there a message there?

Michael Mayer: … Where you come from is a little bit of who you are. And something essential gets lost in a person if they look for… something that… can’t be integrated into themselves, and these characters are all in danger of losing themselves. And part of what the homecoming is, is that they come back and reclaim something that is essential about themselves and may be the thing that will bring them to a better future than what they had before their journey.

David Cote to Darrel Maloney, video and production designer on the pattern and chaos of video used in the show.

Darrel Maloney: I think we all knew what “American Idiot” [the song] was going to look like, and how that was going to work, but then after that… I was kinda terrified whether the video screens would stay on after that and what’s that going to be and how people would react in front of this video that was happening. And oddly enough as it went on, we started adding more video, and what I realized was two things that people could [react to]: one was chaos and one was pattern, but if you turned a video monitor on to one side of the theater, people would look there and be distracted, but if you have 43 of them, they could actually sit back and watch all of them as a background to the actor.

Michael Mayer: You know what else was kind of cool that we discovered in the process was finding when the video projection would happen… on the walls, using the whole set as a screen because that changed how we would have to light everything and the staging. We thought early on [in the show] that we would use it more, but decided not until “Holiday,” until we were actually making a movie up there.

Lorrin Lotarro, assistant choreographer, on the rock concert-type movement in the show.

Lorrin Lotarro: We saw Billie Joe jump off the stage and into everybody’s arms and we decided to put that into the show, body surfing… into the show… The thing about [choreographer] Stephen Hoggett that is so brilliant, that he opened up my mind to what movement means, dance is movement, just simple movement, that it doesn’t mean that it has to be technical movement, and we had this group of amazing actors who were great movers, but if you asked them to warm up at the barre [a railing used by ballet dancers for warm-ups], they would bring in some beers. What Stephen did was to create a way of movement that meant something to the actors that everyone could do…. and [was worked on] collectively and collaboratively. Bring two moves into rehearsal that would bring out your idea of living in a small town, punching, anything you want… We faced each other in a circle and taught each other the movement…. The actors felt a real sense of authority, and I’ve never had to give a note on acting full out since they all felt a sense of ownership of the material.

Michael Esper (Will) on the violent (frenetic) movement in the show and how the actors work with it and not twist ankles. Esper noted that he had twisted both of his ankles during the show.

Michael Esper: We do feel a sense a ownership and we’ve created it as a sense of family and we became a family so easily, so it’s easy to… do it together and have a good time. Injuries are all worth it in the end because you are doing American Idiot.

Stark Sands on the development of his character, Tunny, who goes off to fight in the war and takes a wrenching personal journey in the process.

Mayer, Gallagher, Jr., Sands, and Vincent - Photo by Michelle Lawlor

Stark Sands: I played a soldier a few times before this, and that really helped me sort of build the ideas of where he’s coming from. I’ve never played someone who joined up, they were already in to it. So that was very interesting investigating what would make someone want to… Michael was really great in helping me and allowing me to build this with his help in deciding why this guy would join up, why he would put himself out there like that. I was too scared to walk onstage and just sing pretty because otherwise… I found a way to make it meaningful for me and hopefully that carries out. It’s a really wonderfully rewarding journey to take, and at the end of it, I feel like I walk away with something… I’ve actually found something to take home and I don’t end up punching and kicking, up on the stage.

Billie Joe: There’s a lot of vets that have come to the show, and I’ve heard a lot of comments about his performance and how they relate to it. I think that’s a big deal, especially with a lot of these guys coming home right now.

John, your character loves and looses in a big way. Do you draw a lot of personal history from that?

John Gallagher, Jr.: Absolutely, as much as you can. In Johnny’s case, it’s rather extreme, I think… Johnny and the other characters are in a state of arrested development where, y’know, I’m 26 years old, and we decided that he’s about 25-26, at this point where he should be in a different kind of place in life, a much more developed and mature place, but for a variety of different reasons, he’s really stunted, he comes from this really broken family. It’s the love story that you find in a lot of adolescent kinds of films or plays or stories, that first love you find when you’re about 17-18 and you fall in love. I don’t think that his character, other than the camaraderie and the love that he shares from his brothers, his best friends, Will and Tunny… I don’t think that he’s ever been shown any real love since his father passed away at a young age. This is the story that we came up with for him, that’s only hinted at in those letters and journal entries. While that is kind of vague… we really wanted to make sure that was solid and that we had a full backstory [an actors 'blueprint' to a character]. And in his case, it’s really complicated because when you haven’t been given the tools to figure out how to love someone and be loved, it can be really messy. He’s going through this troubled time with this kind of split personality situation going on with St. Jimmy and this entity that is not real comes between them [Johnny and Whatsername] and ultimately tears them apart. But there is a lot to be learned from the love… and the loss.

The book [story of the show], the lines between the songs as well as the story that actually doesn’t get spoken, is that all from you, Michael? I know that there is a booklet from American Idiot?

Mayer: Once Billie first gave me the permission to go ahead and start dreaming this up in a real way, he made some materials available to me that I didn’t know about, including a special edition booklet of American Idiot [LINER NOTES HERE], that had these letters and journals entries that [Billie Joe] had written. I was like, oh, OMG, this is gold, y’know… I started playing with them right away and at first, I was extremely faithful to where they were in the booklet as they related to the lyrics. And then I started pulling them apart. By the time we came to New York, I gave some of them to the two other guys [Will and Tunny]… it was just Johnny at first… and then we started finding that we needed fewer of them and I basically changed a few little things here and there… but it’s all grounded in those little journal entries.

I want to ask about the audience reaction to the show. What’s the sort of thing that is happening at the stage door with people? What kind of reactions are you getting from fans?

Ben Thompson: [Gets joking sad face] They all hate it, it’s awful. [General awwh and laughter from audience] No, I mean tonight was a great example, you guys were incredibly exuberant, and I’ve found that, generally, to be the case. I’ve said it before, but we have two… main types of people coming to the show, we have theater fans, and then we have Green Day fans. [Wooo! ensues from audience] Many times at the stage door, people will be like, this is my first B’way show, or I’ve never heard their music before. A great example is my dad. He knew who they were from me, but he had never heard their music… and he now owns, I think, every album. So we are making Green Day fans into theater fans and theater fans into Green Day fans, so it’s like two different groups of people who you would never think could exist in the same world, and thanks to Billie and Michael, they do. [Applause]

Billie Joe: Speaking of fathers, Alysha’s dad surprised her the other day with a Green Day tattoo, a really, really, big one. Alysha tried to show us the tattoo on her cellphone; and related that her dad flew in for Monday Night Football and they were having lunch, and he showed her the tattoo. She literally thought that it was a decal at first. It is the Heart/Handgrenade image of American Idiot.

Stark Sands: And speaking of parents, that’s another thing I would add is that in addition to these two types of people that Ben is talking about, one thing that I really notice is that there are parents who bring their kids here who come out and will be very honest and say, “You know, I didn’t think I was going to like this, but it was awesome!” So that was another wonderful thing to change someone’s perspective for their 13th birthday or something.

I remember one of Michael’s previous shows was Spring Awakening. I wrote a book about it [Spring Awakening, In the Flesh by David Cote]. Parents and children talked about it after the show and the show is about adults exploiting children and children rebelling in various ways. In this, we only see the adults, but has there been some kind of dialogue about the world you’ve created?

Spring Awakening: In the Flesh by David Cote

Mayer: I certainly have seen a few conversations about drug use. I have certainly seen a few parents yanking some kids down the aisle when they see the syringe use, they panic a little bit, but the ones who stay, they see that there is a method to our madness in that regard… But other than that, by and large, it really isn’t about a generational disparity. It really isn’t. The adults that are referred to in this play are absent. It’s a very different world… it’s not about that struggle, it’s about people who should have individuated at this point anyway. It’s more about people becoming an adult as opposed to being a kid and moving into adolescence.

David Cote: I heard somewhere that the show has affected you, Billie Joe [Uh, probably he heard it on this blog?] in the sense that you have added the words [Rebecca Naomi Jones'] “Wake Up” to the song “Letterbomb,” live?

Billie Joe: We weren’t even playing Letterbomb. We’ve only played that song a few times since [it came out], but this last tour we ended up adding it, and I just ended up doing it cause Rebecca Naomi Jones is kinda badass…”

Billie Joe on what it is like to have his songs sung by women.

Billie Joe: Yeah… That was… yeah, that was nice. I remember when Mike first heard them and he said, ‘Wow, your songs sound better when they are sung by women.’ … These women can sing like acrobats, and it’s just beautiful…. Y’know… a lot… uh… They sound better than what I do. They are just beautiful singers, all around. Because of the arrangements, you don’t really know… I mean… Me and Mike and Tre are a three-piece and we are fighting to be heard. I think that’s been the main argument of our band, [us fighting to hear who will be louder]. So hearing arrangements with these women singing them, everything is almost like the music is pulled back and the vocals up in front, you just hear… it adds a whole new dimension, dynamic, and range. I mean, they can sing a frigging dictionary, it’s amazing.

WTF? Maloney, Armstrong, Mayer - Photo by Michelle Lawlor

Iconic image of the album, a handgrenade with a bloody hand, what is the image about?: Billie Joe: Rage and Love. Heart, pull the pin, it’ll explode.”

Where did the idea come from?

X - Unclogged

Billie Joe: John Roecker [director of Live Freaky!, Die Freaky! and the unreleased Green Day documentary, Heart Like A Hand Grenade],… inspired by an illustration [Roecker] did of a bloody heart on an X album, and the American Idiot cover illustrator, Chris Bilheimer, came up with the image. Michael Mayer asked, “What came first, the lyric or the image?” Billie Joe: “The image came first, and since we had that, we changed the lyrics. In fact, I was talking with [cast member] Alysha Umphress  and I told her that some of the lyrics got changed because of the art image and she asked me what lyric got changed and I said, ‘Well, “she’s holding onto my heart like a handgrenade, [laughter] and then I said… that’s uh, pretty much it.”

In terms of the original album, The Wall and Tommy and this show have a view of youth culture as perverted and also an attraction to a messianic figure, a sort of darkness, and militarism. Where the Wall and Tommy influences?

Billie Joe: “Yeah, sure, but I would say even before that… I would also say “A Quick One” by the Who… Every single part of that song is catchy; You take power pop to an extreme level, like a song “Dream Police” by Cheap Trick, super catchy chords, very melodic, three chord mayhem, that’s what’s we were trying to go for, very big, very broad strokes.”

Question for Sands, Gallagher, Vincent, Armstrong from 9/19/10 Talkback “Keeping the energy high, balancing rage and love, St Jimmy, meeting veterans, military and relatives” – NYCForest

Audience Questions:

Audience Question: Obviously the audience experience is quite different from a rock show vs a musical, and I had a hard time not moving my feet tonight. What do you think is gained in this adaptation to the stage and the audience member’s experience in a rock show and do you think anything is lost between the two?

Billie Joe: It’s just two different things altogether, really, cause it’s more storytelling here, where in a rock show it’s storytelling, but short storytelling or whatever, where people are… it’s just kinda people losing their shit. I would encourage people to do the same thing here, you don’t have to sit down here. Y’know…. I don’t know, I think there was a lot gained in this experience, I don’t think anything was lost. For me, I think the first time I heard it and it was quieter, that was a real adjustment for me, but you have to hear the story, and that was part of the learning process for me.”

Audience Question: The show is very accessible. I’m thinking of the accessibility of the show vs maintaining the edge of the album, which gives the album resonance. Does the accessibility of the show and the reception of the show surprise you in any way? Because I know that as a band, one of the things you thrive on is being on the edge and being actually perceived that way.

Billie Joe: I think that Michael Mayer is on the edge, that’s what I think we share in common. He didn’t want to do anything that was safe, and that’s why I think he got it and he was right, and that’s why he chose us. Yea, I don’t know, I guess, you might as well be dangerous, there’s no other place to be.

Michael Mayer: I think it’s to the extent that we made any accommodation to this venue, it was all in the service of the story, and never about making the story easier. In some cases from Berkeley to New York we made the story more brutal, we had Tunny loose a leg and in Berkeley he was injured in a kind of non-specific way, and that’s something you don’t see too often, in a realistic way, in a Broadway musical.

David Cote: That reminds me of a question from last night when someone asked about “Time of Your Life” being played at the end of the musical, he said it’s like a happy ending.

"That guy was a smartass..." - Photo by Michelle Lawlor

Billie Joe: Well, the funny thing about that song is that it’s not called “Time of Your Life,” it’s called “Good Riddance” and that snarky little bastard (I’ll say it), he was kinda… he was kinda… a cunt. He knew good and damned well what the answer was to that question, he just wanted to be a smartass. It’s an encore. So, the curtain goes down, and everyone has acoustic guitars and that’s sorta like the rock show aspect of it.

Audience Question: Is there some song that you wished had been put into the show?

Billie Joe: I remember Tom Hulce saying that “East Jesus Nowhere” could have made it into the show. Michael Mayer: Hulce’s assistant is still insisting on trying to put it in somewhere in the show.

Audience Question: For Kevin Adams, lighting designer, I was looking around and you have a shitload of [lighting] instruments, and I’m wondering if doing the lighting design for this show was different from other shows and what were the difficulties of moving the show from Berkeley?

Kevin Adams: The hard thing, I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but for the past few years, these rock-pop theater shows have been popular, and I have been very lucky to ride that wave. So I’ve been very lucky that I’ve been able to do Spring Awakening, Passing Strange, Next to Normal, Hair, and this, I think I’ve … so it was just trying to find a way to find different vocabularies for each show. I knew this show was coming up, and I wouldn’t let a bag of tricks, of strobe tricks, that I had be used for Hair because I wanted to use them for this show.

Audience Question: What kind of struggles did you face with trying to develop the album into a stage production, particularly in terms of story and character development?

Michael Mayer: Well, the whole thing was a process, and I wouldn’t say it was a struggle, because it was a beautiful challenge. And I have to say that we all… we had a wonderful time making it. So even where we got stymied at times about how something should look or could function, it was always a groovy experiment, do you know what I mean? That said, I think one of the big challenges was how to parse the lyrics in a way that would make sense as dialogue, monologue, as hallucination, as a source of connection between people that got penetrated by another force coming through at times. How to create true simultaneity, which is one of the great gifts that the design team gave us in this world that can sustain a multiplicity of voices and lives and images and experiences that cascade around each other and impact each other. It was the surgical approach that was a little painstaking. This line has to actually have a question mark… even if you don’t get the rest between that note and the next. That was the trickiest part.

Lauren Banjo, who got Billie Joe to sing the song “Misery” at a soundcheck in Las Vegas last year, asked a question. She wore a tye-die shirt, which is a bit of a running joke between her and Tre Cool, who at the same soundcheck (I think), told her that he ‘hated tye-die and that she couldn’t come to the show unless she changed her shirt.’ So he gave her a Green Day shirt. [Lauren wrote in to say that it was Chris, who ran the Verizon soundcheck contest from last year, the shirt. ] Lauren asked Billie Joe: In 2005, you said in an interview that an American Idiot musical would only happen over your dead body. I have the recording of the interview on my phone if you want to hear it. Billie Joe responded: “Will it be as loud as that tye-die shirt you’re wearing?” Lauren went on to ask why he changed his mind.

Billie Joe Disses Lauren (But hey, the shirt deserved it!) — laurenbanjo

Lauren with Signed Misery Lyrics from Soundcheck in Las Vegas - Photo by GDM

Billie Joe: No, I don’t remember… things come out of my mouth… I can’t even remember… I believe you, you don’t have to play it for everyone… I don’t think it was… we immediately wanted to do it as soon as we were were asked. We were interested in what they had… what Michael had to say. We saw Spring Awakening. We really didn’t know what was going on with musical theater. We saw Spring Awakening, and I was blown away by it. Because it was y’know, something different, y’know, it was new. He’s a revolutionary dude, so…

Audience Question: Was it hard or easy to put the music into a story?

Billie Joe: Making that record was really hard, really difficult to make. If it’s not hard, you’re not doing it right.

Audience Question: How do you as actors prepare for the show?

Ben Thompson: During the rehearsal process, early on, starting at Vassar, our amazing choreographer, Stephen Hoggett, basically put us through boot camp and got us into shape, got our bodies ready for this amazing car wreck. Y’know, I think we each have our own ways of preparing for it. These guys [Gallagher, Esper, Sands, etc] , y’know, their emotional journey that they have to go through every night is a different kind of preparation that is a whole other story. We have a mandatory warmup, which is kind of odd for a Broadway musical. That company that Michael was talking [having been created by the cast in a first workshop stage] about at Vassar… the first five minutes of the warmup, it never fails, [we talk to each other about what happened during the day, even if we just saw each other the night before] and it’s like, ok guys, can we focus, ‘[but] we haven’t seen each other since yesterday!?…’ But the warmup really gets us to start that… unity… that we enjoy.

Audience Question: Since you’re acting opposite St. Jimmy for most of the play, I’m kinda confused. Do you consider him a real character or a feeling? I have also heard another interpretation, that St. Jimmy is like a drug?

John Gallagher, Jr.: That’s a great question. The trickiest part of the rehearsal process… was figuring out the relationship between Johnny and St. Jimmy… What made the most sense was that for the first half of the show is, Johnny is in such a fractured and freaked out place, alone in the big city that he’s come to, doesn’t have any friends, wants to meet girls, he’s feeling like a complete screwup. His buddies, he feels, have abandoned him, and he creates what he needs in that moment, which is… this… protector, and this person to guide him. Guides him down a very dangerous and ultimately, wrong path. I made the choice that Johnny really does think he’s a real person, up until that moment when he says, “It’s time to wake up” after Wake Me Up When September Ends, and he sees St. Jimmy’s face turn into his face on those television sets, it’s that moment where he’s probably sober for the first time in months and realizing… the kind of feeling I read about with a lot of addicts when they look in the mirror and say “That’s not me.” To believe the stakes of the show, Johnny really needs to believe that he’s a real person.

Audience Question: To the cast, how does it feel to be working with Green Day in general?

Alysha Umphress: Amazing. They have been nothing but… so completely generous and involved, I think that has been the best part of it. A lot of times when you have famous people involved in shows, it’s like they show up at opening night and they put their name above the title, and y’know, they take some pictures…. They have been so involved from the very beginning, and it’s been so inspiring, they are amazing. No one can top them.

Audience Question: Billie Joe, how did you reach out to society to write the lyrics to inspire so many?

Billie Joe: How did I reach out to society? I don’t know, um… I’m still struggling with that… rephrase the question… let’s get deep… Audience member: “You write about very important things that are going on in the world. Did you interact with anyone that influenced you to write about these important things?” Billie Joe: I think for me, it was my own confusion about what was going on. I never grew up during a time of war, that kind of chaos, that close to a dictatorship, with a president, ‘he who will not be named’ [Crowd whoops]…. There was a lot of reality television happening at the time. Everyone wanted to see these people who weren’t talented and they just had calf muscles and fake tits and put ‘em in a room and eventually, they’ll fuck each other. And then, with this other side, you need this kind of toothpaste or your teeth would fall out. Or your dick’s not gonna get hard because you’re not taking this kind of pill. And then you mix all that in and you see these embedded journalists that were going into Iraq and everything was coming together and seeing this on television. And to see those planes smashing into the World Trade Center, seeing it live, right there. I don’t think we ever really as a society, we’ve never seen anything that that’s up close. These are handheld video cameras, this is the kind of stuff that you shoot your little fucking kids with, you see kids growing up, you see the first time you change a diaper, but here what you see is war, that other side of it, and I don’t think anyone expected it. I know I didn’t. It was just chaos. I was just so confused, I just felt paralyzed, I didn’t know what to say. So the song “American Idiot” was the first thing that came to mind.

Audience Question: Bullet in a Bible was recorded of the biggest punk rock concert in history with over 65,000 people. How does it feel to know that you are trying to recreate that feeling with people [onstage]?

John Gallagher, Jr.: I don’t know that we are necessarily… we can’t… that’s something we couldn’t in a million years do, there is something that happens at a Green Day concert that… can’t ever be recreated by anybody that’s not Green Day, especially at a place like Milton Keynes arena, seen by thousands and thousands of people… But bringing it to this kind of venue [a Broadway theater], especially from an actor’s viewpoint, it’s been so rewarding… but it’s rewarding to me as an actor in a way that some plays can’t… bring you to that place. There is something so cathartic about these songs and this music and performing it, and being given a platform to allow it to grow and dig into it and create these characters. The total sweetener is just the fact that it’s Green Day, some of the greatest music ever written and we get to sing it every night is a total gift.

Green Day as Gateway Drug to the History of Punk and Inspiration to Kids in Flannel Departments Everywhere - Photo by Michelle Lawlor

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About Green Day Mind

Writer, blogger, archivist, not a mom. Two cats. Goes to a lot of punk shows. View all posts by Green Day Mind

10 responses to “A Week With An American Idiot – Idiot University

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