"American Idiot" is no dummy when it comes to timing.
First, if you're going to push a show onto a Broadway stage in this era, it's gotta rock. Show tunes, schmo tunes -- the most intriguing hits in New York these days are rock musicals. "Million Dollar Quartet," "Memphis," "Jersey Boys," "Rock of Ages," "Fela!" and even a recent revival of "Hair" -- they all crank it to 11, at least by Broadway standards.
Second, America might be in the mood for a little less escapism (run along now, "Legally Blonde") and a little more social statement. After a year of protests in parks and a lack thus far of similar sentiments in new pop music, what if some biting social commentary showed up at, of all places, the thee-uh-tah?
"Biting" is too strong a word for "American Idiot," the Tony-nominated rock musical based on pop-punk trio Green Day's 2004 concept album, but its classic outsider-in-the-big-city narrative at least reflects some of the potent alienation and post-9/11 jitters of contemporary youth in the composite characters Jesus of Suburbia, Whatshername and St. Jimmy.
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Translating that topical angst and musical punch into the arena of jazz hands and waggling fingers, though, wasn't as difficult as you might expect.
"If you're going to do this, the songs have to feel stage-worthy before you begin," says Tom Kitt, "American Idiot's" music supervisor. "For example, the anthemic chorus of 'We Are the Waiting' -- as soon as you hear it out of the speaker you can see on stage those people chanting it in unison. The way 'Jesus of Suburbia" and 'Homecoming' keep going in and out of different sections. They feel like theater songs. These nine-minute musical masterpieces keep you on your toes as to where they're going. They're so melodic and hooky with wonderful lyrical phrases to grab onto. It really felt natural to me. This band has an ingrained dramatic voice."
Kitt won a Pulitzer Prize and two Tony Awards for his music in an original rock musical, "next to normal." But he's well-versed in the modern Broadway tradition of transferring pop culture from Ticketmaster nationwide to TKTS in Times Square. He composed music for stage adaptations of "High Fidelity" and "Bring It On," as well as contributing conducting and arrangements to "Debbie Does Dallas" and "Urban Cowboy."
Making three-chord guitar punk work in the context of a stage with an orchestra pit takes some creative thinking.
"Fortunately, I wasn't coming at this completely at sea. There's a story happening, characters, themes to utilize. But it's challenging because you need to flesh it out further," Kitt says. "It's operatic and episodic in nature, but you also don't want the audience to be confused."
The musical utilizes most of the "American Idiot" album, as well as songs from "21st Century Breakdown," some B-sides and an extra song, "When It's Time," that Green Day singer-songwriter Billie Joe Armstrong, who turns 40 next week, wrote when he was 18.
"The challenge is to make it theatrical," Kitt says, "and in doing that I wanted to take my cues from [famed Beatles producer] George Martin. You're not changing the nature of the music, you're just adding layers to the storytelling."
So Kitt colored in "21 Guns" with a string section. "Whatshername," the song, swaps its original guitar-drum groove for a piano-cello arrangement. The pleading guitar motif of "Wake Me Up" lives on in other flourishes throughout the show. It's not that far afield from the strings and acoustic segments many bands add to their live concerts in order to shake things up.
"Something that works will inspire people to re-create it, in whatever venue, no matter what it is," Kitt says. "At the end of the day, if the idea is inspired and creative, that's all that matters. Movie, book, TV show, original idea -- no matter where it comes from. It just has to have something to say, and this show definitely does."