November 21, 2013
The point of assembling Broadway Idiot, a new documentary opening on Friday, Nov. 22 at Real Art Ways in Hartford, one quickly realizes, was to get people excited about the newest touring season of American Idiot, the musical, which commenced in Portland, Ore. on Nov. 12 and wraps in Denver next May.
It’s a movie-length commercial, in other words. But that doesn’t make the film, which follows the cast and creators of the musical from idea to realization without too much drama or controversy, any less fun to watch. American Idiot, the musical, follows three bored punks, Johnny, Tunny and Will, as they leave their miserable suburban digs in search of real-world adventure. Johnny meets up with the charismatic St. Jimmy, who gets him hooked on drugs, and hooks up with love interest What's Her Name. Tunny goes to Times Square to enlist in the Army, gets shipped off to the Middle East and loses a leg, while Will, who finds out his girlfriend is pregnant, never leaves. It’s all done in operatic fashion, with Green Day’s lyrics as the musical’s only dialogue.
“Those people remind me of my friends, and they remind me of myself,” Billie Joe Armstrong, the Green Day singer/guitarist who wrote the songs for the iconic 2004 album, says in the film. “It’s not Norman Rockwell,” adds Broadway musical director Michael Mayer, who brought the idea to Armstrong. “This is a portrait of America today.”
Armstrong, Mayer and a few others, including cast member John Gallagher, musical director Tom Kitt and choreographer Steven Hoggett, are the Johnny, Tunny and Will of Broadway Idiot. The film plays up the differences between Armstrong, the West Coast punk-rocker from a broken home, and Mayer, who hails from a comfortable upper-middle-class family in New York. “I like to make my own path, but I never thought I'd end up doing Broadway,” Armstrong says early on. His perception of Broadway is of a fun, corny place devoid emotional heft, which he soon realizes isn’t true. He’s understandably protective of American Idiot, a post-9/11 concept record with a loose narrative structure that ultimately sold more than six million units in the U.S. “This album is my baby,” Armstrong says. “I want to make sure nobody f*cks it up.”
Early staging and development proceeds, but Mayer has no idea whether or not Armstrong will give him the thumb’s up to use his songs. A full cast performance of “Last Night on Earth,” re-arranged by Kitt as a trippy piano ballad with Beach Boys-style wall-of-sound chorus, breaks the tension. “When I came on board, the question was how do we take this iconic album that primarily is sung by one person and create characters and stories for a number of different people,” Kitt says. As Green Day’s members — Armstrong, bassist Mike Dirnt and drummer Tre Cool — sit on folding chairs, the cast blows them away, and it’s hard not to get choked up.
The rest of the movie won’t be about gaining Armstrong’s acceptance. So where will the drama come from? Nowhere, really, and that’s fine; Armstrong, hardened by the competitive nature of the music industry and “Hollywood bullshit,” finds acceptance in the camaraderie of the musical-theater world. “It didn't happen in rock and roll music,” Armstrong says. “It happened in theater. That's the thing that kind of blindsided me.”
There’s plenty of backstage action for theater nerds. Scene designer Christine Jones shares her vision for the set, which she describes as “just trying to create a vessel for this event to happen inside of and to create as much potential for all kinds of action to happen.” You get to know the cast, many of whom made their Broadway debuts with Idiot, through backstage jitters and post-show wraps. “I usually am angry when the audience comes for the first time,” says one cast member. “I've been having a great time here in rehearsal, and now you’re going to come with all your opinions.”
The film’s highlight takes place in a recording studio, where Armstrong assembles the cast to re-record Green Day’s “21 Days,” and during their emotional performance at the 2011 Grammy awards. It starts to feel like a reality show, as Armstrong starts to get comfortable shmoozing with the company. “I felt sort of validated as a songwriter,” he says at one point, “my melodies felt validated. People don't talk about these things in the rock world.”
American Idiot premiered at Berkeley Repertory Theatre in Berkeley, Calif. in 2009 and subsequently ran at Broadway’s St. James Theatre for a little over a year, from March 2010 to April 2011, grossing nearly $40 million, attracting more than half a million attendees and winning Tony awards and a Grammy for Best Musical Show Album. During that run, Armstrong performed with the cast on several occasions in the role of St. Jimmy; we see his terror and exhilaration as he gears up for the gig and earns standing O’s. The credits roll amid newspaper clipping of critical raves. Bring on the tour!
Ultimately, you'd rather either catch a Green Day concert or see a production of American Idiot. Until either of those options materialize — the musical ran in Hartford last February, and the next tour hits Waterbury next February — Broadway Idiot is a good way to get excited again.
Nov. 22-27, $5-$10, Real Art Ways, 56 Arbor St., Hartford, (860) 232-1006, realartways.org