Thursday, September 10, 2009

Punk Rock Opera

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

The musical American Idiot came about when Tony Award-winning director Michael Mayer casually told an interviewer that he wanted to stage it. Soon he was meeting with Billie Joe Armstrong and the other members of Green Day.

"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!

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