NEW YORK — For Green Day’s Billie Joe Armstrong, the seven-year transformation of his band’s punk-rock opera “American Idiot” into a Broadway musical didn’t hit him until he arrived at the St. James Theatre.
“I always thought ‘American Idiot’ could be staged in some way — I just didn’t really know how,” says Armstrong, the day after the show started in previews. “Watching the whole thing come to life was overwhelming. When we first heard it was going to Broadway, we were stoked, but when I saw the St. James Theater when they were loading things in and I saw a sign down by the bathrooms that said ‘George M. Cohan,’ I said, ‘Holy (expletive), this is (expletive) for real.’ It’s pretty mind-blowing right now.”
It’s no wonder that Armstrong connects with Cohan, known as “The Man Who Owned Broadway” during the first two decades of the last century by bringing informal language, the popular music of the time and patriotic themes to The Great White Way. In a way, that’s what Armstrong wants “American Idiot” to do.
After all, “American Idiot,” which opens Tuesday, has plenty of swearing, drug use and punk rock to go with its theme of figuring out how to make your personal rebellion meaningful. And patriotism? Well, Green Day has always seen “American Idiot” as a patriotic album.
“Conservatives are going to skew anything you say that’s like this as un-American,” Armstrong told Newsday in 2005. “But if you’re truly standing up for what you believe in and you’re saying, ‘I don’t want to be an American idiot’ or ‘Sieg heil to the President Gasbag,’ those are things that are undeniable and in a weird way come across as more American.”
When asked if bringing a punk-rock opera to Broadway made sense, Armstrong — who wrote the music for “American Idiot” with Green Day and the book for the musical with the show’s director, Michael Mayer — just laughed.
“I don’t know,” he says. “Does anything make sense anymore?”
For Green Day — Armstrong, bassist Mike Dirnt and drummer Tre Cool — “American Idiot” was never about conventional wisdom or playing it safe. “I’m just up for the challenge of it,” Armstrong says. “We thought we would make a film out of it, and then we met Michael and saw ‘Spring Awakening,’ and it didn’t take any convincing for us. We knew definitely that this could work.”
While “Spring Awakening” bordered on minimalist, for “American Idiot,” Green Day’s brash vision has been super-sized for the Broadway stage. The massive, four-level set is like a dream version of the band’s aesthetic, bringing the audience into bedrooms and living rooms and 7-Elevens covered in “OBEY” posters and flashing images on dozens of TV screens.
The show is steeped in the symbolism of the early Aughts and the administration of President George W. Bush. Though he’s never mentioned, Bush’s image is a major part of the “American Idiot” set. Video flashes of him and Vice President Dick Cheney and former defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld are woven into the fabric of the show.
Though that makes it feel like it’s part of a certain time, Armstrong says just because the country has moved on from that period with the election of President Barack Obama, it doesn’t mean people won’t connect to those feelings. “What I’m noticing now since the album is that there’s a shift that’s beginning to happen,” he says. “When I was thinking of ‘American Idiot,’ the song itself, I was thinking of the political themes, and I was really angry with what was going on because I felt so misrepresented. There’s a lot of people who still feel that, too.”
Armstrong says much of the country is still getting used to political change. “We went from this redneck, cowboy ... to this African-American, second-generation-American president who is intelligent and who not only has the capability of governing, but is also one of the great minds that we’ll see in this generation,” he says.
For Armstrong, the most startling change in the “American Idiot” process came when he saw Rebecca Naomi Jones, who plays the female lead Whatsername, sing. “The first time I heard women singing the songs, it opened up the album to me that much more,” he says. “It opened up the story that much more. I was just sitting back, blown away the whole time.
“It’s inspiring,” Armstrong adds. “I love being around creative people, especially people with powerhouse creativity like (music supervisor) Tom Kitt or Michael Mayer or the cast like John Gallagher (Jr., who plays the lead character, Johnny). Being around those people, I want to keep being a good songwriter, and with these different kinds of influences, people in different crafts, it gives me a different way of looking at and writing music.”
Fans will get to see the effects of the musical process soon, as Green Day heads out on tour for the summer and then back to the studio to work on the follow-up to last year’s “21st Century Breakdown.” Armstrong says they’ve already started writing songs, joking, “I said to Mike and Tre the other day, ‘It’s good to write the songs first, and then we can start arguing about them later.”“
But fear not, Green Day fans. The band’s work within the establishment hasn’t blunted their political beliefs. And Armstrong, for his part, isn’t backing off the legacy of the Bush administration and its supporters one bit, now that they’re out of office.
“We tried their way. It didn’t work. It was catastrophic ... and everybody knows it,” he says. “It doesn’t make any sense the way they think, and now we’re starting to get (things) done.”
And that includes bringing Green Day’s brand of thoughtful rebellion to a whole new audience. “It’s kind of a two-way street, brilliant people are crazy or crazy people are brilliant,” Armstrong says. “Hopefully, I’m one or the other.”
MAKING SENSE OF ‘IDIOTS’
Turning the recorded version of the punk-rock opera “American Idiot” into a Broadway musical required some changes in the story line and the beloved characters. Here’s a guide:
JESUS OF SUBURBIA
On the album: He’s the lead character, the suburban everyman who doesn’t want to be an “American idiot,” so he moves to the big city. He declares himself “the son of rage and love,” produced by “a steady diet of soda pop and Ritalin.”
In the show: His name is changed to Johnny, played by John Gallagher Jr. He gets a couple of friends — Will, who ends up staying at home, and Tunny, who joins the military and goes to war.
On the album: He’s the anti-hero, the embodiment of rage and rebellion, or as he puts it, “the patron saint of denial, with an angel face and a taste for suicidal.” It’s vague as to whether St. Jimmy’s an actual person or part of Jesus of Suburbia’s personality, though, in either case, he commits suicide.
In the show: He’s a character, played devilishly (and kind of creepily) by Tony Vincent, though whether anyone but Johnny sees him is also vague. He commits suicide, which leads Johnny to go home.
On the album: She’s a rebel, too, but unlike St. Jimmy, she’s driven by beliefs in a greater good and a concern for others. Jesus of Suburbia describes her as “a saint, she’s salt of the earth and she’s dangerous.”
In the show: She’s Johnny’s love interest, played with power by Rebecca Naomi Jones. Their relationship grows deep, but breaks down after he threatens her.