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Arts

theater review

From punk-rock opera to Broadway musical

The touring production of “American Idiot,” adapted from the Green Day album, comes to the Boston Opera House this week.

Who’s an American idiot? Certainly not Green Day. In 2004, the trio of Billie Joe Armstrong, Mike Dirnt, and Tré Cool revived their band’s career with a concept album, a Who-like punk-rock opera that, sporting a heart-shaped hand grenade on the CD cover, took dead aim at George W. Bush’s America. “American Idiot’’ snagged a Grammy for best rock album and a ton of favorable press. In 2009, it became a one-act stage musical, opening in Berkeley, Calif., where Green Day first emerged, and going on to Broadway in 2010, where it ran for over a year. Now the musical’s first national tour has begun, and it’s coming to the Boston Opera House Tuesday for a weeklong run. A film version is also in the works.

The thing is, the original opera concept was pretty vague. The album’s narrator, who doesn’t “want to be an American idiot,’’ identifies himself as “the son of rage and love/ the Jesus of suburbia.’’ After reading “the graffiti in the bathroom stall/ like the Holy Scriptures of a shopping mall,’’ he leaves “Jingletown USA’’ for the big city, where he walks the “Boulevard of Broken Dreams’’ and meets - or, more likely, turns into - “St. Jimmy,’’ a drug user who represents “the needle in the vein of the establishment.’’ At least one woman - “Whatsername’’ - is loved and lost. Jimmy commits suicide, or perhaps our hero simply kills him off. At the end, he’s “back in the barrio,’’ or Jingletown, still dreaming of Whatsername.

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So how did Michael Mayer - who in 2007 won a Tony Award for directing the rock-musical version of Frank Wedekind’s 1892 play “Spring Awakening’’ - come up with a stage show?

“I started imagining what it would be like,’’ he says over the phone from his Manhattan apartment. “I listened to ‘American Idiot’ over and over because I loved it so much. I became very interested in the story of the Jesus of Suburbia who goes to the city, who hooks up with this guy, St. Jimmy, and this girl, and he screws his whole life up, and basically has to kill St. Jimmy off in order to move forward and go backwards, back home again. I started kicking around in my head ideas about how to open it up and make it a story of more people. And it was the success of ‘Spring Awakening’ that gave me the courage to pursue it.’’

So, with Armstrong’s approval, Mayer fleshed out the “American Idiot’’ scenario. “I created the characters of Will and Tunny, I gave Whatsername a journey, I made up Heather, I made up the Extraordinary Girl, I made up the Favorite Son,’’ he says.

In “American Idiot’’ the musical, Will, Tunny, and Johnny are the bummed-out kids looking to skip suburbia for the big city. Heather is Will’s girlfriend, and when she becomes pregnant, Tunny and Johnny leave without him. Tunny grows disillusioned, enlists in the military, and winds up fighting in the Middle East, where he loses a leg but wins the heart of the Extraordinary Girl, whom Mayer has turned into Tunny’s nurse. Johnny is the album’s narrator, its “Jesus of Suburbia’’; he meets Whatsername in the big city, but she has to compete with his St. Jimmy persona.

Mayer created all this without adding much to the song lyrics. “There’s a little bit of dialogue,’’ he admits. “But it’s basically through-sung. It’s Johnny, who, in trying to communicate with his friends from New York, fills us in on what’s going on and gives us a specific timeline. The whole story takes place in one year of their lives, and then there’s an epilogue, which is the song ‘Whatsername,’ which takes place some time after that.’’

Mayer did, however, add five songs from Green Day’s next album, “21st Century Breakdown.’’

“The funny thing about that,’’ he points out, “is that while Billie and the band were working on ‘21st Century Breakdown,’ Billie started just sending me the songs, randomly. And a lot of the stuff he sent felt connected to what I was doing with the characters. The whole sequence around ‘21 Guns’ and ‘Know Your Enemy’ helped me to flesh out the story of Johnny, Whatsername, and St. Jimmy in a way that I never would have been able to do with just the ‘American Idiot’ material. And whatever the scenario was that they created for ‘21st Century Breakdown,’ it came after I had already poached these songs.’’

This was happening in 2008, by which time, Mayer explains, Tom Kitt had already done his first version of the vocal arrangements. Kitt has his own distinguished career. He’s the composer and co-orchestrator of “Next to Normal,’’ which received the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for drama and Tonys for best new score and best orchestrations. He’s also the composer of the Broadway show “High Fidelity.’’

So, how do you arrange music as popular as Green Day’s? “Certainly, no one went into it thinking this is not going to be challenging,’’ Kitt acknowledges over the phone, also from Manhattan. “But the world of musical theater is a little different from the world of pop and rock. For this tour, there are 17 cast members, including female cast members. So you have to change keys. You have to look at the story and say, ‘What’s happening here?’ ’’

He offers a couple of examples. “Whatsername and the Extraordinary Girl were sharing in the singing of ‘21 Guns,’ so I had to find a new key for them, and I wanted to begin a little softer, because they were singing to male characters who were very upset, so I used strings, piano, and delayed guitar. And in ‘Whatsername,’ the last song in the show, Johnny is saddened over what’s happened and what he’s lost. So rather than begin it in a rock groove, I stripped it down to piano and cello, and then for the second half of the song, I slammed the punk feel into it.’’

The 17 cast members all get to play guitar on the show’s built-in encore. “ ‘American Idiot’ is very intense,’’ says Mayer, “and going home again, after things don’t work out like you planned, is not always the best feeling in the world. So I just thought, ‘How fun would it be to take Green Day’s big classic goodbye song, “Good Riddance,’’ and have everyone play guitar.’ After ‘Whatsername,’ the curtain goes down, and it’s clear that that’s the end of our story. And then the curtain comes up, and the cast take their bow, and when the curtain comes back up again, suddenly you’ve got 17 guitarists onstage. They play that song, and it’s a nice way to end.’’

Jeffrey Gantz can be reached at jeffreymgantz@gmail.com.

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