Change is the most dominant feature of our existence. It swirls around us, even during times of relative tranquility, with a force and consistency that is both thrilling and terrifying. We do our best to embrace it, resist it, accept it, deny it, all the while loving and hating it. Separately and simultaneously. During periods of tumultuous and rapid change, times like these, the whirlwind of our reactions increases in velocity. Wildly contradictory emotions collide and course through our bodies, threatening to overwhelm us or send us into paralytic distraction. We become tentative. Our focus gets smaller. We try to keep our heads down and focus on the day to day. It’s all we can do to hang on to our heads, never mind our hats.
Yet such turbulence seems to bring out the best in some people. Artists, in particular, seem to have the ability to rise to the chaotic occasion. Whether it’s because they are used to living on the margins of society, because they are in the business of channeling their fear into creativity or because they are more comfortable with the unknown, artists will often head straight into the proverbial heart of darkness. Armed with anger, curiosity and an obsessive sense of mission, brandishing their preferred weapons of creation, they challenge themselves to find out what lies beneath the surface of our trembling psyches.
Enter Green Day, a band for these ages. Mixing totemic rock anthems with melodies that pierce the hardest heart, placing streetwise stories of rage and yearning within the larger sweep of American political history, Green Day creates music that is alchemical: it fills every pore of your slumbering soul and leaves you wide awake, shaking with ecstatic wonder. From Kerplunk! to American Idiot to 21st Century Breakdown, their music is undeniably, insistently and unrepentantly alive. It demands that we see the tempestuous world in which we live and resist the paralysis that threatens to deaden our lives as individuals and as a society. It restlessly pursues psychological and political truths while relentlessly calling out those who would sugarcoat, falsify or deny reality. It demands movement, action, the raising of our voices. It challenges us to be as alive as the music.
As Green Day triumphantly makes their way to our stage, they are flanked on one side by the talents of Michael Mayer, Tom Hulce and the irrepressibly energetic cast of American Idiot, and on the other side by the formidable talents of the staff at Berkeley Rep. Together we have worked to bring you a unique theatrical event, one that tries to transmute Green Day’s explosive vision of the world into a dynamic, multi-dimensional theatrical spectacle. The result will be different: different from traditional regional theatre fare, different from plays adhering to the strict rules of drama, different from musicals that require a happy ending. But we know you didn’t come to the theatre, to this particular theatre, to experience the ordinary. We know you came here to feel alive. As alive as the music will carry us, and then some.
All the best,
We are so delighted to be presenting the world premiere of American Idiot. This is another in a long line of new works that have been nurtured at Berkeley Rep. Many of those plays remain among the most loved of our productions here in the Bay Area long after they’ve become established favorites in theatres across the country. As a nonprofit theatre, we take great pride in our ability to support and develop new work, to champion projects that stretch traditional definitions of theatre and to attract new audiences. In large part, we are able to accomplish those goals because we are supported by a community that is smart, thoughtful and generous.
Berkeley Rep’s engaged and demanding audience has been essential to the special alchemy necessary to create ambitious work. You were among the first to champion Passing Strange, which was just a good idea until it became genre-bending theatrical reality on our Thrust Stage. You took Sarah Ruhl’s Eurydice to heart before it became a commercial success on the “other” coast. And your attentive enthusiasm provided the kickboard that Sarah needed last winter to launch In the Next Room (or the vibrator play), which will enjoy a Broadway run this fall, also directed by Les Waters.
Over the years, your embrace of new writers has allowed us to originate new work by many of the most innovative playwrights working today. Naomi Iizuka, Danny Hoch, Sarah Jones, Tony Kushner, Will Eno, Jordan Harrison, Stew and so many others have been welcomed by all of you. While it takes great artists to produce great work, it takes a discerning audience to give that work a life. I think that between you and Berkeley Rep, we’ve been a pretty good partnership.
American Idiot is only the first production of our upcoming seven-play season. We’ve got six more fantastic shows planned, including three more world premieres. So if you haven’t already done so, order tickets to see them all. The more shows you buy, the better the price. Become a Berkeley Rep regular and become part of the partnership that makes great plays.
by Pauline Luppert
For director Michael Mayer and producer Tom Hulce, there was only one place to debut their new show.
The world premiere of American Idiot, based on Green Day’s seminal rock album of the same name, was destined to be at Berkeley Rep.
“In our minds, this show had to start here,” says Michael, sitting outside the American Idiot rehearsal hall in Berkeley. “Other theatres came to us expressing interest, but for us there was no question.”
Michael and Tom discussed how to begin the work. “We knew we needed to find a good home for the creation of a first production—someplace with a history of taking on adventurous work and with an audience that was similarly excited by new and potentially unconventional work,” Tom says. “Another part of the challenge was to find a place where we felt the artistic and support staff would be both superb and a comfortable fit, and that there would be a common aesthetic language.”
Berkeley Rep’s artistic director, Tony Taccone, first became familiar with Michael’s work in the 1993 New York University production of Angels in America. Taccone asked playwright Tony Kushner who the director was, and he responded, “It’s this really, really talented kid named Michael Mayer.”
Speaking to the cast and crew of American Idiot on their first day of rehearsal in Berkeley, Tony recalled when Michael and Tom—who, along with producing partner Ira Pittelman, had worked together on the Tony Award–winning musical Spring Awakening—approached him about joining forces for American Idiot. Tony heard the words “Green Day’s American Idiot” and he jumped in and exclaimed, “Yes! We’re doing that.”
“I personally had wanted to work at Berkeley Rep ever since Tony took over,” Michael says, “but it never worked out time-wise or play-wise. Until now.”
Part of Michael’s attraction to Berkeley Rep was the Roda Theatre itself, which he and Tom visited for the first time more than a year ago when they were in San Francisco kicking off the national tour of Spring Awakening.
“Tony let us into the theatre on a Saturday morning, and I have to say, it was a revelation,” Michael recalls. “We will never find a better space for this show. It’s modern, and the dimensions are perfect—the audience’s relationship with the stage is fabulous.”
Tom agrees: “The rightness of Berkeley Rep and Tony’s leadership, and the cement, steel and wood container of the Roda all confirmed our instincts to make Berkeley Rep our first conversation.”
To make Berkeley Rep even more appealing, the members of Green Day—Billie Joe Armstrong, Mike Dirnt and Tré Cool—grew up and still live in the Bay Area.
Tom says it was important to work in a location that was accessible to Billie Joe, Mike and Tré. “The possibility that they could live at home and enjoy their daily routines while joining us in rehearsal for significant periods of time on a regular basis was an irresistible prospect and a luxury for us,” Tom says.
When the band’s current tour ends, Michael adds, “I expect they’ll be spending a lot of time with us, right at the crucial moment when the show is fully staged, and they can get the whole picture of it.”
The journey from album to stage began simply. A longtime Green Day fan, Michael immediately loved the album American Idiot, which he calls “a masterpiece…an opera, ready to be staged.” After he and Tom met with the band and their people in LA to talk about turning the album into a piece of rock theatre, Michael recalls asking Billie Joe, “Let me have this for six months to develop the story.”
As Tom remembers, “It only took about six weeks.” Michael’s vision followed Green Day’s Jesus of Suburbia— now named Johnny—and his two friends, Will and Tunny, who all embark on separate journeys that eventually lead them home.
Throughout the process, the band members have continued to be incredibly supportive.
Enthusiasm for this production has been infectious. American Idiot has drawn together a formidable artistic team including Steven Hoggett (choreography), Tom Kitt (orchestrations, arrangements and music supervision), Christine Jones (sets), Andrea Lauer (costumes), Kevin Adams (lights), Brian Ronan (sound) and Darrel Maloney (video and projection). The result of their collaboration may be the most technically sophisticated production ever presented in the Roda Theatre.
While this might be a more technologically complex show than you’ve seen at Berkeley Rep, Michael adds, “At its core, American Idiot is not about the special effects. This is truly an actor driven production.”
Michael’s friends who worked at Berkeley Rep on Passing Strange told him their experience creating a musical that wrote its own rules was “fantastic.” “I’m finding that to be true,” Michael says. “The energy and enthusiasm of the Theatre and the community is incredible. All roads lead to Berkeley.”
by Madeleine Oldham
Every kid grows up dreaming of making his or her mark on the world. Some end up altering those dreams to suit reality. Others alter reality to suit their dreams. Billie Joe Armstrong, Green Day’s lead singer/guitarist, along with bass player Mike Dirnt and drummer Tré Cool, doggedly pursued their musical aspirations in the face of astronomically unlikely odds and have succeeded in achieving heights beyond even their own imaginations, garnering worldwide accolades and acclaim previously unheard of for a trio of punk kids.
Born in 1972, the youngest of six children, Billie Joe Armstrong spent his childhood in the small industrial town of Rodeo, California. His father drove a truck to pay the bills, occasionally finding work as a part-time jazz drummer, and his mother waited tables at Rod’s Hickory Pit. Armstrong’s father died when Armstrong was 10, and he retreated into the one thing that made him feel better: music.
His talent for singing had been discovered by his family at the age of five, and he started taking music lessons and entertaining people in retirement homes and hospitals. Even at such a young age, his effortless charisma charmed his audiences, and it was immediately apparent that he had a natural gift for showmanship. As he got older, Armstrong began to look past the Broadway tunes and standards he’d learned as a small child, and toward the expansive frontier of rock and roll.
An ever-evolving genre, rock and roll repeatedly propels itself into the future with constant reinvention. The long jams of the early ‘70s soon gave way to shorter, punchier songwriting. Punk rock burst onto the scene in 1977, blasting its way through the first part of the decade’s meandering guitar solos with power chords and attitude to spare. New Wave and its love affair with the synthesizer rose up in the early ‘80s as a different answer to the offerings of the previous decade.
And then the revolution was televised: MTV made its debut on August 1, 1981, introducing a new dimension to the world of music. Young people across America were riveted to their television sets, devouring this opportunity to see the songs they heard on the radio interpreted visually. Some artists acted out storylines that accompanied their music; others filmed high-octane live performances. Videos forever changed the relationship between musicians and their audiences. Now any fan, not just those who lived near big cities and could afford concert ticket prices, could see a band play and study the image that band wanted to project.
While he began to dream about what he would look and sound like as a rock star, 11-year-old Billie Joe Armstrong met Mike Pritchard, a middle-school classmate seeking solace from his foster parents’ fighting and financial struggles. The two formed an immediate bond and started playing guitar together for hours on end, planting the seeds of stardom in otherwise unremarkable suburban bedrooms. Music provided the outlet both needed for their energy and their emotions, and the two grew increasingly serious about it over the next few years. A rotating cast of friends joined them for jam sessions, ultimately resulting in the formation of their first band: Sweet Children.
Named after an early Armstrong composition, Sweet Children started slowly, with the boys’ constant recruiting of friends to watch them play in living rooms and at school. They practiced diligently and quickly established themselves as far more serious than your average high-school dabblers.
Though their music was loud and upbeat, few people classified it as punk rock—the songs embraced a heavy pop influence and were considered too soft to fall under punk auspices. Armstrong and Pritchard, however, began to gravitate toward punk ideology and soon embedded themselves deeply in the burgeoning Bay Area punk scene.
That scene galvanized itself when 924 Gilman Street opened on December 31, 1986 (see “The punk rock aesthetic and the 924 Gilman Street Project”). Armstrong and Pritchard, after years of feeling like outsiders, finally found a community of like-minded musicians, activists and artists who welcomed them into their fold with open arms. Gilman, however, did not endorse their music right away. Deemed not punk enough, Sweet Children failed to persuade the booking people to give them a slot at one of the club’s shows. That changed when prominent scenester John Kiffmeyer joined the band as its drummer. Pritchard switched from guitar to bass, thereafter becoming known as Mike Dirnt (see “What’s in a (nick)name?”). The rotating friends petered out, and the lineup cemented with Armstrong, Dirnt and Kiffmeyer. Kiffmeyer added a necessary ingredient of age and experience, lending Sweet Children a punk credibility they previously lacked. The band played its Gilman debut in November 1988.
No one had ever loved the name Sweet Children. It had served its purpose, but in preparing to make their first record, the band retired it in favor of Green Day, an irreverent nod to their penchant for pot-smoking. Local label Lookout Records released Green Day’s first album, 39/Smooth, in 1990 to favorable response. The underground network of fanzines, mail order and touring circuits embraced the band wholeheartedly and word spread quickly. Dirnt graduated from high school, and the band left on its first national tour that very day.
Things shifted when Kiffmeyer went off to college. Armstrong and Dirnt’s drive to take the band to the next level intensified, which did not mesh with seeing their drummer only on school holidays. They turned to teenage superstar Tré Cool to fill the void. Cool’s reputation preceded him as one of the best local drummers on the scene. Though Kiffmeyer was instrumental in securing the band’s early success, Cool’s drumming proved the final piece of the puzzle that pulled its sound together.
The band got better and better, and bigger and bigger. In 1993, they made a monumental decision to leave Lookout Records and move over to Warner Brothers. In punk parlance, signing with a major label was akin to an unforgivably egregious foul, but Armstrong’s ambition persuaded them to go for it despite some of their early supporters’ perceived betrayal. This strategy has backfired for many a band attempting to make the jump from underground celebrities to commercial superstars. Fortunately, the risk paid off in spades for Armstrong and Company.
The stars aligned for Green Day during the early ‘90s. Widely credited with breaking down the barrier between the Top 40 charts and punk rock, Nirvana’s 1991 release Nevermind paved the way for a new, harder-edged sound to enter the mainstream. In the coming years, bands with punk-rock roots would capture the public ear: bands like Rancid, The Offspring and, most popular of all, Green Day.
Their major label debut, 1994’s Dookie, was a smash hit, and the band received an invitation to play Woodstock’s 30th anniversary festival. This event marked their transformation from just another band with a successful album to megastardom. As it did at the first Woodstock, rain pelted the crowd and turned the outdoor venue into a giant pit of mud. When Green Day took the stage, they began with their hit song “Welcome to Paradise.” This ignited some audience members’ ironic sensibilities, and they proceeded to throw mud at the band. Armstrong egged them on, turning the whole affair into a full-on mud fight. The wildfire publicity gained the band a national reputation as chaos-loving, devil-may-care, play-by-their-own-rules rock-and-rollers.
The band managed to stay true to its punk-rooted respect for anarchy and its grassroots values of audience engagement at an event with hundreds of thousands of people in attendance. The band realized it did not have to water down its style, either in personality or performance, and that it just might be possible to balance punk rock with the public eye.
Subsequent years saw the band’s success ebb and flow, and eventually the trio grew creatively restless. Once an artist has a body of work, expectations arise among admirers and fans. Even the most independent-minded person can’t help but feel increased pressure when the public is so eagerly anticipating his or her next move. Green Day got stuck in 2003, but the missing master tapes for their new album provided an unexpected catalyst for recalibration. The band is rumored to have formed a mysterious side project called The Network (their aliases believed to be Fink, Van Gogh and The Snoo) which, despite the band’s public denial that they are The Network, seemed to infuse a long-lost sense of mischief.
Songwriting became fun again, and the band’s creative juices overflowed, generating one of the most beloved albums in recent memory: 2004’s American Idiot. The record netted them that year’s Grammy Award for Best Rock Album.
With American Idiot, they also found a political voice previously unexpressed in their songwriting, one that carried over into their 2009 release and second rock opera, 21st Century Breakdown. Looking back over their 20-year career, the kernels of this voice can be traced to their punk-rock foundation. Instilled in them early on were values of speaking one’s mind, of fighting for what one believes to be justice, of turning fear into something productive, of battling against the insidiousness of apathy and of staying true to one’s roots.
Most of those values are embedded within both rock operas. Green Day have proven their ability to mature as a band over time, without losing sight of where they started. This ability to challenge themselves while preserving their authentic voices has earned them their well-deserved reputation as one of the greatest rock bands of our time.
1,039/Smoothed Out Slappy Hours (1990)
American Idiot (2004)
21st Century Breakdown (2009)
There is one narrative in the record American Idiot: the story of the Jesus of Suburbia who goes to the City, meets St. Jimmy and a girl called Whatsername, and finds himself caught in a struggle between authenticity and fabrication; between emotional connection and the numbing effects of drugs.
When I began to open the story up, I called the Jesus character Johnny and gave him two close friends: Will and Tunny, each with his own story as well. And the show became a three-fold journey of self-discovery. Will, whose girlfriend Heather is pregnant, stays in Suburbia and becomes the victim of his own inertia; Tunny has a television-induced mystical revelation that moves him to enlist in the military, bringing him face to face with his mortality in a senseless war in the Middle East.
Although I was committed to keeping all the songs from the record in order, I found that by incorporating two songs that were released as B sides of American Idiot in Europe, I could flesh out Will and Tunny’s stories more effectively. And when Green Day began work on their magnificent new record 21st Century Breakdown, the new songs were made available to me, and Billie Joe and I decided to use four of them to further enhance the dimensions of our characters.
The larger canvas we were creating absorbed these new songs as if they were written for our story, and the superb arrangements that Tom Kitt created held the entire score together. After our workshop in December 2008, I felt we needed one more song for Johnny to sing to Whatsername—a song that would reveal the truest and most vulnerable side of Johnny—the side of him that St. Jimmy held no sway over.
One night this spring Billie Joe played me a song he has never recorded, one he wrote for his now-wife Adrienne when he was 19 years old. That song, called “When It’s Time,” seemed perfect to me, and when we incorporated it into the show, our score felt truly complete for the first time.
It only took about 10 years or so after the birth of rock and roll for the first rock opera to appear. While a record only needs a loose unifying theme to qualify as a concept album, a true rock opera requires a narrative component. Pete Townshend’s nine-minute suite of songs called “A Quick One While He’s Away” is widely considered to be the original foray into this territory, appearing in 1966 on The Who’s sophomore release, A Quick One. The Pretty Things’ 1968 album S.F. Sorrow claimed the title of first full-length rock opera. Both of these pieces heavily influenced The Who’s 1969 seminal Tommy.
The 1970s celebrated the heyday of the rock opera. The Kinks, Lou Reed, David Bowie, Jefferson Airplane’s Paul Kantner, Queen and Genesis offered their own spins on the idea. The genre easily complimented the popularity of progressive rock at the time—a term used to describe the popular penchant for experimentation and desire to strive for a more arty and less formulaic vibe. The decade built to the 1979 release of Pink Floyd’s revolutionary album The Wall.
Full-album storylines fell out of fashion in the 1980s, undergoing a relatively quiet period until recently. Green Day’s revolutionary releases, 2004’s American Idiot and 2009’s 21st Century Breakdown, mark both a triumphant return and a new chapter for the genre. These two albums stake their claims as the first punk rock operas, and have brought a fresh perspective to a time-honored legacy of rock-and-roll storytelling.
Green Day cites the following records as having a significant impact on the creation of their own brand of rock opera:
by Madeleine Oldham
Punk rock was born in the late ‘70s out of a reaction against the status quo, and in that way shares similar roots to the hippie movement of the ‘60s. But while the hippies chose peace as their primary tool, the punks chose the expression of anger. To many onlookers, this translated as nothing more than an excuse to behave badly. Punk’s flamboyant side made an impression on the world that to this day still overshadows the depth and richness of the movement. Public opinion tends to focus on the obnoxious antics, the righteous anger or the questionable fashion, and dismisses punk as antisocial and unproductive behavior.
But for those it touches, punk rock offers an antidote to a world that seems unbalanced and unacceptable. It quite literally saves lives when lonely, ostracized teenagers find others who share their sense of outrage at the world’s injustices, who understand that rebellion can be healthy and necessary and who know that anger can be channeled to affect positive change. Punk champions the DIY, or do-it-yourself, approach. It rewards participation and frowns on lethargy. Punk believes in equality for all—anyone can start a band, anyone can run a business, anyone can enter politics—and despises elitism of any sort. This value system has shaped many a young mind, famously including those of Billie Joe Armstrong, Mike Dirnt and Tré Cool. Green Day spent their teenage years as active members of punk mecca 924 Gilman Street.
Gilman opened its doors in Berkeley on New Year’s Eve 1986, providing a lifeline to kindred spirits everywhere. An all-ages, volunteer-run, alcohol- and drug-free, independent music venue and community-gathering space, Gilman quickly became a magnet for young punks searching for a place to call their own. Punks all over the world knew about Gilman. The club operated as a collective, and held weekly membership meetings for volunteers, requiring active contribution from everyone.
The club encouraged activism and served as the gateway for thousands and thousands of young people to seize participatory roles in their own lives. This could take the form of playing in bands, organizing benefit shows for particular causes, holding political meetings, gathering signatures, educating other members about issues or connecting with punks in other cities and countries. Punk taught people to get involved, to take responsibility for something.
Gilman adhered to an incredibly strict set of regulations for volunteer conduct, which could at times seem antithetical to a subculture that embraced anarchy and chaos. But the rules worked. They were designed to engender and ensure a respect for others and demanded nothing less. Despite frequent feelings of frustration with the constraints these regulations created, no one can argue that the system didn’t succeed. After 22 years, the club is still going strong and still run by a volunteer collective.
Gilman has also remained true to one of its more controversial original tenets: it continues to refuse support to bands on major labels. Five years after their first show at Gilman, Green Day heard the door slam behind them in a bittersweet irony: the place that had nurtured them and set them on the road to fame and fortune had to make a clean break once that fame and fortune was achieved.
It’s common in the world of punk rock to adopt a nickname. A moniker might be ironic (Tré Cool), literal (Mike Dirnt—named for the sound his bass made when he used to play it without amplification) or even a pun. (Original Green Day drummer John Kiffmeyer went by the name of Al Sobrante, a play on the town he came from, El Sobrante.) Often these sobriquets used derogatory or negative adjectives as surnames—the most famous examples being Sid Vicious and Johnny Rotten—in order to convey a proud refusal to conform to polite societal conventions. Other well-known aliases include Fat Mike, Poly Styrene, Joey Shithead, Richard Hell, Darby Crash, Cinder Block and Dave Insurgent.
by David Fricke
…During the interviews for Rolling Stone’s recent Green Day cover, singer-guitarist-songwriter Billie Joe Armstrong chatted about the impending production—and the shock of hearing someone else sing those songs. A week later, Mayer spoke to Rolling Stone about the theatrical Idiot, Green Day’s influence on Spring Awakening, and Armstrong’s instant recall of old Broadway showstoppers.
When did the notion of doing American Idiot as a musical first come up?
American Idiot is a rock opera. But I was very self-conscious about it. I didn’t want it to come across as pretentious. Someone said, “What is the influence?” I said, “This record has more in common with Rocky Horror than Leonard Cohen.” [Laughs]
The idea was, “Wouldn’t it be great to make a film out of it?” Then the film idea fell through the cracks, which was a bummer. The enthusiasm got lost. Then the guy from Spring Awakening, Michael Mayer—he was doing an interview. Someone asked him what he wanted to do next, and he said he’d love to do the musical of American Idiot. One of the kids from the fan sites put that up. And a year and a half later, lo and behold, we get a call from him.
What did you think of Spring Awakening once you saw it?
I was floored. It was so uncharacteristic of what I thought theater was supposed to be. I had no idea what to expect and how unconventional Michael was, in the way he directed this old German play from the turn of the century.
When I saw the show, I kept thinking that a couple of the songs—“Totally Fucked” and “The Bitch of Living”—sounded a lot like Green Day hits. They had that sound and emotional resonance.
“Totally Fucked”—I remember seeing that and going, “Did I write that?” It reminds me of “St. Jimmy” [on American Idiot]. You forget how talented those people are, these theater kids. They are completely, mind and body, involved in the theater, just as much as I lived punk rock. They embody the whole thing. Then I went to a workshop [for American Idiot], and I couldn’t fucking believe it. It’s incredible—all those voices singing your songs at you.
It is a risky proposition—making a musical out of a record that already succeeds on its own and when you perform it in concert. This takes it out of your hands.
Which is a good thing, especially after seeing what Michael did. There’s no intermission. It’s just blasting straight through for 75 minutes. It’s not a long play. He stuck to the spirit of the record, which is pulverizing.
Like the show I saw you play last night.
It was eerie to discover that you were such a fan of Green Day. When I interviewed Spring Awakening composers Steven Sater and Duncan Sheik, I kept mentioning Green Day whenever the subject of the song "Totally Fucked" came up.
It was the effect I wanted. I was listening to American Idiot a lot when we were putting the final chunk of Spring Awakening together. I was literally like, “Guys, listen to this groove. Listen to that fat guitar lick. Why can’t we have this under here?”
But the American Idiot album is not a complete story, more like songs and a couple of mini-operas.
The people in it are a little older than those in Spring Awakening. It’s not the same adolescent thing. But it is a response to a seriously fucked-up environment, a political and social situation that became untenable.
Why American Idiot instead of another classic punk record? Why not London Calling by the Clash?
American Idiot felt so complete to me. The version we will end up performing will have other songs in it—two B sides from the European release and four from the new album [21st Century Breakdown]. But American Idiot has a huge emotional arc. There was an amazing narrative that was, at times, perplexing and ambiguous, but also so full of possibilities with a multitude of voices. Some of the songs—I heard them as dialogue…
How protective is Billie of his original material?
I am basically doing the libretto. Billie was very much a part of it. I kept calling him and emailing him every different version of my scenario. But the libretto is basically akin to the libretto of The Who’s Tommy—there is no dialogue per se. I am inventing the way in which these songs function as dialogue—as narrative, as emotional maps.
He actually knows a lot about classic musical theater. He grew up with those songs, performing them as a child.
That was the thing that connected us so strongly. After we did the first concert version of the libretto—with these 12 actors and singers, performing the whole thing for the band—we all went out afterwards for dinner. I don’t know why, but at a certain point, Billie and I were sitting across from each other, singing a song together from Gypsy. It was hilarious.
What do you hear in Billie as a songwriter, beyond the punk speed and guitars?
His songs have a richness and emotional pull that you don’t get from other songs in that genre. They are usually one-note rants—terrific, engaging. But there is a purity of humanity deep inside Billie’s songs. And it’s also his voice.
How would you describe it?
It’s unusual—tinged with a real edge, a kind of violence. But inside that shell is a sweet aching yearning that comes through in everything he sings. It seems contradictory. And that contradiction is fascinating.
Do you think he could compose for the theater?
When we were together the other night, he did say, “The next thing, after this, I want to write something completely new for you to direct.”
If you’ve got the gift, who knows where it comes from and why. The great thing is to keep feeding it and take care of it. What is so remarkable to me is to watch him allow that gift to grow and to be unfettered by constraints that people want to put around it. At a certain point, songwriting is more important than image and labels.
He’s not afraid of being uncool.
And you know what? That’s the coolest thing of all.
(From RollingStone.com, June 16, 2009. Copywright Rolling Stone LLC 2009. All Rights Reserved. Reprinted by Permission.)