Tony Award-winning director Michael Mayer talks ‘American Idiot’ at the National Theatre


The musical “American Idiot,” playing at the National Theatre Tuesday through Feb. 23, takes most of its dialogue and score from the 2004 Green Day album of the same name. (Photo by Jeremy Daniel)

Green Day on Broadway? Until four years ago, that might have seemed an odd combination, especially for fans of the pop-punk band. But now, because of the award-winning musical “American Idiot,” the group has reached an audience beyond teenage rebels. The show’s score and sung dialogue comes almost entirely from Green Day’s 2004 album of the same name.

It wouldn’t have happened without author and director Michael Mayer, who convinced Green Day’s lead singer, Billie Joe Armstrong, that the album could be transformed into a powerful musical. Mayer had a good track record — a Tony Award for “Spring Awakening” — so Armstrong agreed, helping him hone the story of three childhood friends whose lives diverge: One stays in their suburban hometown, another ends up in the city and the third enlists and gets shipped off to Iraq.

The New York-based Mayer grew up in the Maryland suburbs, graduating from the now-defunct Woodward High School in 1978.

We spoke with him recently about staging “American Idiot” in his hometown, taking punk to Broadway and finding inspiration in unlikely places.

Do you still have family in town?


Once Michael Mayer started listening to Green Day’s “American Idiot,” “I loved it so much, I couldn’t get enough of it.” (Photo by Doug Hamilton)

Yes, my parents are still in the house I grew up in — an old farm — and my sister lives in Frederick. It’s so funny because my parents are getting up there in years, and I really didn’t think that “American Idiot” was going to be their cup of tea. They really loved “Millie” [Mayer was nominated for a Tony Award for his 2002 direction of “Thoroughly Modern Millie” on Broadway], you know what I mean? And they liked “Spring Awakening,” too, but that was a play with people who talked more. So I just thought they’d never go for Green Day and for this kind of radical form that we made the show, but they flipped out over it. They came out to Berkeley [where it debuted] to see it, and they stayed for a few days with family and friends out there. Every night they came back. All they wanted to do was see the show.

So they’ll see the show here, I’m guessing.

Yes! I’m just excited to bring this show to my hometown finally. I’m hoping that all my friends and family will show up. It’ll be fun to see some of my old high school friends and see what they think, because this is so not what anyone would have expected me to be doing.

Why is that?

In high school I was an actor in plays, I wasn’t a director. And my musical tastes when I was in high school were all about musical theater. So I’d walk around singing songs from “A Chorus Line” and “Annie” and “Pippin.” That was my world back then. I remember friends at the time being really into Bruce Springsteen, and I was like, “Who’s he?” I loved Elton John, but it was more the costumes. I liked the music but really loved the theatricality of it. There wasn’t a punk bone in my body, let me put it that way.

What is it about Green Day’s music that makes it work in a theatrical context?

I was listening to it a lot. I was making this movie “Flicka,” so I was listening to it driving up the [Pacific Coast Highway] to Malibu to where our set was, every day and every night, and instead of putting different CDs in the car, I just kept listening to “American Idiot” over and over again. I loved it so much, I couldn’t get enough of it. And after a while, I became so familiar with it that I started to hear the story inside of it. I started imagining it as a series of three communities: the people in the suburbs, the people in the city and the people in the Middle East. And I thought, “Well, that is very much like a musical, or an opera, at least.” It was very organic. I never sat down and said, “What can I make this into?”

It’s amazing to think of Green Day reaching a Broadway audience.

That was a revelation for them. When Green Day plays one of their massive stadium concerts or an arena or whatever, it’s all Green Day fans. Anyone who comes to a Green Day concert wants to see Green Day; that’s why you’re there. They’d never had their music in a different context, so there were a lot of people just coming to see a new show. People love to see new musicals, and suddenly all of these people were listening [to Green Day] who actually didn’t know who Green Day were.

Did the score skew the age of the audience at all?

It’s really cool, because, in New York at least, I was looking at the line outside the theater, and you’d have theater ladies next to punks next to college geeks next to skaters. It was a wild range of things.

Were there any surprises once you took the show on the road?

Why was it massively well received in Boise? That’s what I want to know. You expect it to do really well in Chicago and Boston and San Francisco and L.A. and places like that. But a lot of times it was the smaller, more out-of-the-way places — you know, Regina, Saskatchewan — that had so much love for “American Idiot.”

You have a really eclectic résumébetween movies and musicals and recently directing “Rigoletto” at the Met. What’s next?

I’m working on a new musical called “Brooklynite” that’s about superheroes in Brooklyn. And it’s really fun. We just did a workshop of the first half of it that went really well, and then I go into “Hedwig and the Angry Inch,” which is making its Broadway debut this spring starring Neil Patrick Harris. That’ll be fun — to bring this off-Broadway cult musical to the main stem and see how it does there.

American Idiot

Tuesday-Feb. 23. The National Theatre, 1321 Pennsylvania Ave. NW. 800-514-3849. www.thenationaldc.org. $48-$153.

Washington-area native Stephanie Merry covers movies, theater and art for Weekend and the Going Out Guide. She’s also the section’s de facto expert on yoga, gluten-free dining and bicycle commuting.
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