Punk Rock Opera 

Green Day electrifies musical theater at the Berkeley Rep with American Idiot.

Global superstar and Green Day vocalist Billie Joe Armstrong had somewhat one-dimensional ideas about musicals before green-lighting American Idiot, the amped-up rock opera debuting at the Berkeley Repertory Theatre on Friday, September 4.

"I mean, I've taken my kid to see The Lion King before," says the mid-thirtysomething, who's been married fifteen years. "And it's like we might as well be going to a Jonas Brothers concert or something."

For a band that's made its millions on speed, pot, masturbation, paranoia, teen angst, and suicide, the world of chorus lines and saccharine, sappy arias just didn't seem to fit. Thanks to Mamma Mia, it doesn't have to.

The rock opera adaptation of Green Day's multiplatinum 2004 smash American Idiot is going to challenge the very definitions of punk, theater, and musical. The 75-plus-minute performance with a cast of 19 tells a Fight Club-esque story of self-discovery through death and destruction, yet it uses no words outside of the lyric content of the album. The hit album is played from beginning to end live by a band (not Green Day) and intercut with B-sides as well as three songs from the band's new album 21st Century Breakdown, including the hit "21 Guns."

After eight albums and almost twenty years together as a band — a near impossible feat these days — Green Day has undertaken its ballsiest and most experimental project yet. Taken with the unprecedented press shine now on the forty-year-old Berkeley Rep, as well as the fact that the project employs dozens of local artists amid a searing arts recession — and this musical might be the most boundary-violating, "punk" thing Green Day has ever done.

The story of trio Billie Joe Armstrong, bassist Mike Dirnt, and drummer Tre Cool has ascended to the status of legend. Emerging from the East Bay's punk rock scene of the early 1990s, they played fast, simple, snarling jams cut with melody and a cleverness that helped them break out from the pop-punk pack at the time. (Blink-182, anybody?) Kerplunk in 1992 and the single "Welcome to Paradise" softened up the beachhead for 1994's major-label debut Dookie on Reprise, which did fifteen million in global sales. Insomniac in 1995, Nimrod in 1997, and Warning in 2000 propelled the band far from the punk rock ghetto and set the stage for 2004's gargantuan American Idiot.

"It was something that I've always wanted to do, hoping that I had the guts to be able to do it," Armstrong said. "You have to take everything you learned and take a huge risk. You just evolve as a person and figure out what's important to you. Being a rock star can be a really positive thing. It just kind of depends on the way you go about it."

Armstrong says Idiot was the band accepting stardom, ditching the shackles of punk's rules and risking everything on a decades-old form, the rock opera. After an aborted attempt to make a more traditional album called Cigarettes and Valentines, Green Day channeled The Wall, Tommy, and maybe a little of the Broadway musical Oliver!

Written and recorded in Oakland and Los Angeles, American Idiot includes the nine-minute, five-part, punk rock call to arms "Jesus of Suburbia." Hooked on soda pop and Ritalin, there's nothing wrong with this "Jesus." This is how I'm supposed to be/in a land of make believe/they don't believe in me.

Jesus dallies with the military but ultimately travels from the suburbs to the city where he meets his doppelgänger, the self-destructive "St. Jimmy," whose theme is a classic punk track: fast, simple, dirty, and short — clocking in at 2:55. Drugs emerge as an outlet in "Give Me Novacaine" while transcendence comes in the form of female archetype "Whatsername," who appears on "She's a Rebel" and "Extraordinary Girl."

"Letterbomb" delivers the anarchic climax to St. Jimmy, then "Wake Me Up When September Ends" confronts the death of the hero's father, offering little solace. The messy, five-part, nine-minute "Homecoming" loosely sews up the narrative, with "Jesus" finding himself through the love of Whatsername and by becoming a rock star. It's ridiculous and ambitious and filled with more hooks than a fishing boat and it went on to sell more than fourteen million copies worldwide.

Among the long list of new fanatics was Tony Award-winning musical director Michael Mayer, who in 2006 was in Los Angles filming Flicka and blasting Idiot from his car on the freeways of LA.

"'Holiday' was the first single I heard," Mayer said. "And then, around the time 'Boulevard of Broken Dreams' came out I was, like, 'Holy fuck. Holy shit. Who are these guys that can write such beautiful, poetic stuff?' and I listened to the whole album and I was really dazzled by it: the political agenda, the urgency of the message, and the poetry really of both the music and the lyrics. They were completely bedazzling to me. And I was obsessed with it, so I listened to it all the time."

Mayer used Idiot professionally as a sort of language to describe elements of a new musical he was working on at the time called Spring Awakening, which went on to win a Tony Award for best musical in 2007.

"So I started referring to it while we did Spring Awakening, and it just tickled something in my head. I thought, 'Jesus, this is ready to go.' I could actually imagine other characters. 'What would it be like if you took some of these songs and pulled them apart and gave certain lyrics to other people instead of just this single voice?'"

While rock critics were writing the words "anthemic," Mayer physically saw large groups of people singing in his head.

"I started to imagine it in my head while driving the Pacific Coast Highway. I would think, God, that would be so cool to see a whole community of people past teenage years. They're not kids. They're adults but their lives haven't happened yet — the sort of disenfranchised young adults of America. The suburban wasteland that makes it almost impossible for anyone to imagine anything else than what's right in front of them.

"And I thought, well, being kids and with the drugs and the popping Ritalin, someone else's cocaine, all the trappings described so eloquently in 'Jesus of Suburbia.' I know that is reality for a lot of people. And living in these horrible dark ages of the Bush administration was as frustrating and despairing as it was — God — I saw, This stuff is real and people are connecting to it. I thought, they're personally giving voice to a whole generation of Americans who have probably felt completely disenfranchised and completely apathetic and unable to effect any change."

Mayer flippantly told Rolling Stone and Variety that he'd love to do American Idiot for his next project, and then Mozart called him to put it together. Mozart's real name is Tom Hulce, nominated for an Academy Award for playing Mozart in the film Amadeus. He appeared in the movies Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, and Jumper and was nominated for a Tony Award for his role in the play A Few Good Men.

"He calls me and he goes, 'I just read your interview in Variety; are you serious about American Idiot?'" Mayer recalled. "And I said, 'Totally.' And he said, 'Well, let's try to make that happen.' And I said, 'Ha ha ha, okay. Knock yourself out,' because I thought, 'There's no fucking way. Someone's either doing it already or they're not going to be interested.' Tom can get people on the phone that a lot of other people can't because he's number one a first-class artist in his own right, and he's got a long career and fantastic relationships."

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