Rock and pop worked their way into theatrical productions long ago: Jesus Christ Superstar and Hedwig and the Angry Inch to name two. Lately, Broadway has struck gold weaving tunes from pop artists like Abba with 1999’s smash hit Mamma Mia! (coming to the Hult Center January 2014) and Franki Valli in 2005’s Jersey Boys. In 2009, punk rocker Billie Joe Armstrong from Green Day began working with acclaimed stage and film director Michael Mayer, adapting American Idiot, Green Day’s multi-platinum concept album, for the stage — because nothing says punk rock like … choreography?
“I think this wave is a fresh revitalization of musical theater,” says Casey O’Farrell, who plays drug-addled, soon-to-be dad Will. “We want to perform music that people our age want to watch, not just ‘classics.’”
Originally conceived as a rock opera like The Who’s Tommy, American Idiot is a coming-of-age story set against the Iraq war, telling the tale of three boyhood friends in a post-9/11 world. “Since its inception, audiences have been surprised by the emotional journey the show takes them on, told almost exclusively through Green Day’s songs, including many they are already familiar with and love,” says the show’s producer Tom Hulce.
The show keeps Green Day’s sound mostly intact. The title track “American Idiot” remains a driving pop-punk anthem — albeit mildly adorned with Broadway-style flourish and pizzazz (read: jazz hands). Prep work for the cast included playing Green Day on repeat.
“Obviously I listened to the original album a lot,” O’Farrell says. “Billie Joe has an extremely expressive way of singing and performing. I like listening to him much more than the Broadway cast for that reason.” He adds, “As a performer you have to perform in the style of the show, so yes my performance style is definitely more edgy/punk rock but it’s still me and my voice. I’m not affecting anything to sound more ‘Green Day.’”
The overall production (featuring a host of Broadway notables like award-winning choreographer Steven Hoggett) includes industrial backdrops, spiky hair, fishnets and risqué love scenes — modern touches of contemporary teen angst. But themes of young people finding their way in a culture of seemingly endless warfare will resonate across generations.
“This is such a potent time for our country,” Hulce says. “And the search of our characters for what to believe in is gorgeously celebrated through Billie Joe and Green Day’s wonderfully lush score.”
Green Day’s American Idiot shows 7:30 pm Tuesday, Nov. 19, at the Hult Center; $32.50-$52.50.