Punk rock and Broadway musicals: When those two worlds join together, it’s a sign of the pop culture apocalypse. At least, that’s what we used to think. Then, along came the Broadway show “American Idiot,” based on the landmark, Grammy-winning 2004 Green Day album.
Punk rock and Broadway musicals: When those two worlds join together, it’s a sign of the pop culture apocalypse.
At least, that’s what we used to think. Then, along came the Broadway show “American Idiot,” based on the landmark, Grammy-winning 2004 Green Day album.
The rock opera proved it was possible, even popular, to merge the art forms, as the show was the buzz of Broadway when it opened in April 2010. Now, it embarks on a national tour. (Check out the dates and stops at www.AmericanIdiotTheMusical.com.)
When it came time to build a bridge between the unlikely partners of punk and Broadway, no one pounded more nails than Tom Kitt, the music supervisor, arranger and orchestrator charged with turning Green Day’s punk anthems and power ballads into songs fit for the Broadway stage. And he sees nothing at all odd or unholy about this cross-cultural marriage.
“When I first heard about the idea of an ‘American Idiot’ rock opera, it made perfect sense to me,” says Kitt, a Pulitzer Prize-winner for his score for “Next to Normal.” “It’s a classic, iconic album with a story and a point of view.”
To be fair, the rocky road to the Great White Way had been paved by “Hair,” “The Who’s Tommy” and “Rent” (even if rock purists wince at the thought of filing “Rent” under “rock”).
Indeed, Green Day frontman Billie Joe Armstrong had always envisioned the “American Idiot” disc as a concept album, a rock opera. He and his band mates (Mike Dirnt and Tre Cool) intentionally wrote songs from different perspectives, creating characters that arrive, depart and reappear, telling their stories throughout the course of the album.
Further shaped by director Michael Mayer, the “American Idiot” rock opera follows a character named Johnny, a.k.a. Jesus of Suburbia, on his quest to find something bigger in his life, a rebellion against the status quo, youths yearning for more choices than they’re likely to find in their suburban comfort zone.
The fact that Armstrong had always envisioned the album as telling a story no doubt led to his enthusiasm for the Broadway project. And that’s a big reason why he turned out to be such a generous collaborator. Armstrong never strong-armed the creative process, never played the trump card that he always held.
“I can’t say enough about Billie and the band,” says Kitt. “They were incredibly supportive.”
That was good news for Kitt; he was the one who would be taking these three-minute punk classics –– songs such as “Holiday,” “Jesus of Suburbia” and the title track –– dig into them, re-think them and re-shape them for the stage. It’s a bit audacious, if you think about it. It’s like looking at an artist’s finished painting and saying, “Hand me a paint brush; I need to re-work this.”
Page 2 of 2 - Kitt understands the analogy, but he doesn’t completely accept it.
“I never thought of it as re-working the songs,” he says, “it was just adapting. The album is perfect as it is. It’s a piece of art, so you just have to ask yourself, what other layers are possible? I’m a big fan of the Beatles, and I view it as similar to what [record producer] George Martin did with the Beatles, not that I’d ever compare myself to George Martin. But Martin brought these orchestral layers to the Beatles’ songs. He didn’t change the compositions, he just brought out new layers by adding orchestral arrangements to songs like ‘Strawberry Fields’ and ‘Yesterday.’”
So, as Kitt dove into the songs, studying how the band had created these punk-pop classics, he was impressed and inspired by what he found. In “Wake Me Up Before September Ends,” for example, he found the unlikely inclusion of a glockenspiel.
“That inspired me to bring in a cello,” he says. “And then that opened up the idea of adding strings throughout the score.”
And when Mayer said a certain section needed an extended cello piece, Kitt made sure to honor the tone of the album by creating cello music that was more yo’ mama than Yo-Yo Ma.
“In writing the string pieces for ‘St. Jimmy,’” says Kitt. “I tried to punk them out, with lots of scratches and fast playing.”
“American Idiot,” as a rock album, is less linear in its storytelling than even “The Who’s Tommy” or “Hair.” Kitt admits it’s not a classic “book musical” – the story is virtually operatic; it’s told almost entirely with the songs – but he says the narrative line is clearly there, and the stage piece honors the album’s themes.
Most of all, the show is a tribute to the band and its music. Kitt doesn’t flinch in comparing Green Day to the Beatles.
“The thing that jumps out at you most is just how melodic the band is,” says Kitt. “The songs get in your head in a visceral, adrenaline-pumping way, and yet the music is so beautiful and evocative. It’s funny, because I’ve watched my kids grow up with Green Day’s music and I see how they’ve been shaped by it just like I grew up with, and was shaped by, the Beatles’ music.”
It was vitally important to him that his work on the show never co-opt the music, never deface the band’s signature sound.
A sign that Green Day liked what they heard: They asked Kitt to provide strings on their next album, “21st Century Breakdown.”