Anyone who saw the world premiere of Green Day’s “American Idiot” at Berkeley Repertory Theatre in the fall of 2009 should know that the rock musical has gone through several evolutions.
Director Michael Mayer, on the phone from New York, says that he and the creative team worked on the show constantly during the Berkeley run. More changes happened before the Broadway opening in spring of 2010, and when that production closed after running more than a year, Mayer says more changes were instituted before the launch of the national tour in late 2011.
“This show has been through lots of fine tuning,” Mayer says. “But even if we hadn’t changed a thing, people should still see it again because it’s so groovy.”
The biggest change, which started toward the end of the Berkeley run and was fully instituted for Broadway, was the introduction of a new song. Though comprising all the songs from Green Day’s 2004 album “American Idiot,” the stage version also included a few cuts from the 2009 album “21st Century Breakdown.” The new song, “The Last of the American Girls,” comes from the latter album and was mashed up with the song “She’s a Rebel.”
“The song really helps triangulate the relationship between Whatsername, Johnny and St. Jimmy,” Mayer says. “It’s essentially Johnny saying, ‘Oh, my god. I met this girl and she’s incredible. Is it lust or am I falling in love for the first time?’ It becomes a nice, complex contrapuntal moment.”
The character of St. Jimmy, originally played by Tony Vincent, also went through an evolution when Green Day lead singer Billie Joe Armstrong stepped into the role on Broadway.
“Tony was kind of the embodiment of heroin,” Mayer explains. “The drug metaphor was so much in the forefront of Tony’s interpretation, which I thought was very powerful. Billie brought a prankster, trickster, dangerous comic energy to the role, and that seemed to be very illuminating. He seemed a little more insidious, but you understood the appeal because he was so fun to hang out with. Joshua Kobak, who’s playing the role on the road, is embodying that as well.”
The incredible height of Christine Jones’s Tony Award-winning warehouse set had to be scaled down for the tour, but Mayer says he likes the effect.
“The show is less epic in some ways,” Mayer says, “but you can focus on the characters much more. I’ve noticed audiences around the country responding more emotionally from the very beginning.”
Bay Area fans of “American Idiot” will also notice tweaks to costume, dialogue and choreography—all, Mayer says, to aid in the clarity of the storytelling.
“It’s been good for me to go back and work on the show as we prepare for the movie version,” Mayer says. “Billie Joe will play St. Jimmy, and this journey—I’ve never had a happier experience doing anything—will continue.”
“Green Day’s American Idiot” plays June 12 to July 8 at the Orpheum Theatre, 1192 Market St., San Francisco. Tickets run $31-$100. Info and tickets available at shnsf.com or (888) 746-1799.
Chad Jones has been writing about Bay Area theatre since 1992. He blogs at theaterdogs.net.