‘American Idiot’ a very smart idea for Kitt and Green Day

Tom Kitt remembers well the first time members of the iconic punk-pop band Green Day arrived, several years ago, to hear a reading of “American Idiot,” the musical based on the group’s Grammy-winning 2004 album of the same name.  “Green Day were heroes of mine growing up,” said Kitt, 38, the Pulitzer Prize-winning composer who adapted the album’s songs for the rock opera about restless youth during the Bush era.

“‘American Idiot’ is not only one of my favorite albums of all time, it’s become an anthem of a generation. It’s a classic, critically acclaimed work that’s made every list of the most important albums of the last decade.”

So when the band, including frontman Billie Joe Armstrong, walked in for that first reading, “It was gut-wrenching scary,” Kitt recalled. “I really wanted them to be happy and to feel comfortable, and if what they were after was just for me to transcribe the album and have it performed pretty much intact, I wanted to show them we could do that. But I also wanted to show them some possibilities of opening things up a bit, with different kinds of orchestration.”

While the album spotlights a rebellious slacker named Johnny, aka the Jesus of Suburbia, the musical expands to include as well two of Johnny’s friends, whose alienation and anger are fueled by the 24-hour media cycle, suburban inertia, drugs, the Iraq war and other fallout from the Sept. 11 attacks — and, in the words of one song, “this world of make-believe that don’t believe in them.” Kitt was tasked with transforming tunes written for the male threesome into songs for 19 male as well as female cast members (17 on the national tour), backed by an eight-piece band consisting of a string quartet, as well as guitars, base, keyboard and drums. 

“The first moment I relaxed a little was after we performed ‘Jesus of Suburbia,’ because as soon as that final chord hit, there was a big ‘Yeah!’ from Billie,” Kitt said of the reading.  “That’s when I sort of breathed a sigh of relief and knew we were on the same page.”

Kitt, who also composed the music for the rock musical “High Fidelity,” has worked on several productions that take place in suburbia, notably his Pulitzer-winning “Next to Normal,” in which a family struggles with its matriarch’s bipolar disorder. His own experience growing up in a Jewish suburban home on Long Island and in Bedford, N.Y., was hardly angst-ridden.  “I wasn’t hanging out at the 7-Eleven; I wasn’t a smoker or a drinker, and I was doing my school work,” he said from his Manhattan home.  He credits his Reform Jewish upbringing for some of that stability: “I was very lucky in that I had a happy home life and that I was interested in things my parents wanted to provide for me,” he said. “I had a lot of Jewish friends, and there was a sense in those circles of having goals, that those things were possible, and that life was not going to be a dead end.”

Scott J. Campbell, Van Hughes and Jake Epstein in “American Idiot.” Photo by Doug Hamilton

Not long after he graduated from Columbia University, Kitt was pursuing his musical theater dreams with his writing partner, Brian Yorkey, at the prestigious BMI Lehman Engel Musical Theatre Workshop; a TV news story about electroconvulsive (“shock”) therapy inspired the 10-minute final project that would eventually become “Next to Normal.” Despite its unusual subject, the show became a Broadway hit, winning three Tony Awards. 

Even though “Next to Normal” wasn’t among the official nominees for the 2010 prize for drama, the Pulitzer board decided to name it the winner anyway, according to The New York Times.  Kitt received the news during a technical rehearsal for “American Idiot.” “I was completely shocked,” he said.  “I jumped up and down and yelled an expletive many times.”

“American Idiot” began circa 2007 as Michael Mayer (“Spring Awakening,” TV’s “Smash”), the musical’s director and book writer (along with Armstrong), was listening to the Green Day album on a road trip. “I sort of couldn’t get enough of it,” Mayer wrote in an e-mail.  “I was just listening to ‘American Idiot’ sort of constantly. So … I got extremely familiar with the whole arc of the album. … It certainly was dawning on me, day by day, that this really is actually a rock opera just waiting for somebody to stage it.”

Kitt promptly came to mind as a collaborator. Mayer said he had been impressed by Kitt’s grasp of diverse musical styles when they worked together on a previous project. “He was the first person I chose to join me on this adventure,” Mayer said.

Kitt immediately agreed that the album would lend itself well to musical theater; he recalled having had “a visceral response to the material,” he said. “I was in New York during the Sept. 11 attacks, and I knew that everyone had very strong, passionate beliefs about how America should be conducting itself in the aftermath. ‘American Idiot,’ for me, captured those feelings in a cathartic way.

“Green Day is a band that you always felt had something to say, whether it was about the times or love or heartache,” he added of the group that got its start in the Berkeley punk scene of the late 1980s. And “American Idiot,” like “The Who’s Tommy,” which also became a musical, was a conceptual album at heart.  “It had themes and storylines and characters, as well as an epic quality,” Kitt said.

Tom Kitt

The action would feature explosive dance numbers and frenetic video screen projections, but the book consisted primarily of the album’s songs — which put extra pressure on Kitt. “I asked myself, ‘How do I adapt what many consider to be a perfect piece of work?’ he recalled.  “That’s when you look within yourself and worry, ‘I could screw this up.’ ”

He found inspiration in the work of Beatles arranger and mentor George Martin, who had orchestrated the plaintive string quartet for the song “Yesterday.”  Kitt, in turn, brought strings into the mix on “Green Day” songs such as “21 Guns” and “Whatsername.” “They’re the instruments to me that sound most like the human voice, so they can have a real, aching emotional quality,” he said.

Kitt used strings in a different way for the song “St. Jimmy,” “where suddenly they’re scratchy, playing these fast and furious chromatic lines — sort of like punk Stravinsky,” he said.

For Green Day’s “American Idiot,” Kitt’s approach was to create a canon that would allow the performers to repeat the critical line, “Don’t want to be an American idiot/one nation controlled by the media.” “Suddenly you have the whole company coming center stage and singing this in an echo-y way — it just keeps coming at you,” Kitt said.  “I felt that was a really cool way to establish what our show is about.”

The band apparently agreed.  “They were with us every step of the way, and if there was anything they weren’t feeling, we kept giving them new options,” Kitt recalled.  “I always said that if the band thought something doesn’t feel right, I would have changed it in a heartbeat.”

For more information about “American Idiot,” which opened at the Ahmanson Theatre this week, go to centertheatregroup.org.