Green Day's 'American Idiot' Play: The Billboard Cover Story

Green Day


While the rock opera has been around since "Hair" premiered in 1968 and was reborn when "Rent" hit it big in 1996, a musical based on a single album is a more ambitious concept, only attempted once before on Broadway with the Who's "Tommy" in 1993 (which also had its Broadway premiere at the St. James).

But incorporating rock into a production has become so common that 10 out of 24 musicals that will be on Broadway in April can loosely be considered rock musicals. Recent examples range from "Rock of Ages," which uses classic pop-metal tracks to drive the story, and "Fela!," which tells the life story of African musician Fela Kuti through his songs, to the off-Broadway emo musical "Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson" to the long-delayed, costly and U2-scored "Spider-Man."

In this case, the story of St. Jimmy the drug dealer, the Jesus of Suburbia and ingénue Whatshername hews closely to the storyline laid out in "American Idiot." The tale is already well-known-the album, which was released in 2004, has sold 5.9 million copies, according to Nielsen SoundScan, and won a Grammy Award for best rock album.

It's this storyline that initially prompted director Michael Mayer to put in a call to Armstrong. "I fell in love with the record when it first came out," he says. "I thought it had the makings of an amazing musical theater piece. After 'Spring Awakening' [the Mayer-directed musical adaptation of a German play that attracted a huge young audience and won eight Tony Awards] moved to Broadway, I did an interview and the reporter asked me to think about other possible sources for a rock musical, and I immediately said 'American Idiot.' "

Mayer invited Armstrong to a showing of "Spring Awakening," and the two wound up talking all night after the performance. "Billie gave me carte blanche to develop scenarios and characters, and I asked for six months of exclusivity to put something together before we did a reading," he says.

For his part, Armstrong says he knew all along the story was there. "Originally, we thought about doing a movie version of it," he says. "I always thought it should be staged in some way. Then we took some meetings and realized the movie industry makes the music industry look like a mom-and-pop store. When I talked to Michael, I sensed immediately that he got it." (His movie goal may not be so far-fetched: Entertainment news site Deadline New York recently reported that talks are under way with Playtone partners Tom Hanks and Gary Goetzman to turn the musical into a feature film.)

The show started to develop in 2008, with Mayer presenting workshops to Armstrong and exchanging e-mails with him seeking feedback. By December 2008, Mayer has prepared a version for the stage, and in July 2009, the show started rehearsals for a run at the Berkeley (Calif.) Repertory Theater in the band's hometown. Armstrong is credited as the writer for all the lyrics, Green Day is credited with writing all the music, and Armstrong and Meyer co-wrote the story.

"American Idiot" opened at the Berkeley Rep Sept. 15, 2009, after 11 days of previews and was scheduled to run until Oct. 11; it wound up being extended twice, running until Nov. 15 and becoming the highest-grossing show in the theater's history.

Critical reaction to the initial staging was mixed. The Los Angeles Times praised it, noting, "If it doesn't spin an entirely satisfying yarn, its roar is still irresistible, even when the object of protest remains elusive." The Oakland Tribune snarked, "[What] once was a fine Gouda, has been prepackaged as Velveeta . . . In other words, it should do big business on Broadway."

A few years after Mayer first called Armstrong, the play headed east to the St. James, with previews starting March 24.