Tom Kitt wants Green Day to be happy.
The Tony- and Pulitzer-Prize-winning composer of “Next to Normal” has helped adapt the punk band’s landmark 2004 album, “American Idiot,” for the Broadway stage. It opens tonight at the St. James Theater.
Director Michael Mayer and his team — with Armonk’s Kitt as music supervisor, arranger and orchestrator — had one meeting, in a Broadway rehearsal hall in June 2008, to convince Billie Joe Armstrong, Mike Dirnt and Tré Cool that they were in good hands, theatrically and musically.
“I knew Green Day was going to be attending this first presentation and they hadn’t necessarily signed off on it yet,” Kitt recalls at the Broadway haunt Angus McIndoe after a recent preview performance at the St. James next door. “This was our first, and maybe only chance to get them on board.”
Two months earlier, Mayer had approached Kitt to join the project. “Next to Normal” had ended its run Off-Broadway and Mayer and Kitt had just worked on “You May Now Worship Me,” Sherie Rene Scott’s play with music.
Mayer says Kitt impressed him on that project, which is now titled “Everyday Rapture” and opens at Broadway’s American Airlines Theater on April 29.
“I was blown away by his range and his innate theatricality,” Mayer says. “He is obviously a superb theater composer, but it was his imaginative relationship to the pop elements in the show that convinced me he was the ideal collaborator for ‘American Idiot.’ He was the first artist to begin this collaboration with me, and the first one to whom I turned for guidance as the work developed.”
Kitt recalls that Mayer’s “American Idiot” marching orders were simple: “We have 12 people, we have these leads, here’s the script and how I’ve divvied it up so far. Now go.”
Kitt began figuring out different keys and harmonies, taking songs written for a punk trio and expanding them for a band of eight and a cast that now numbers 19.
He treaded carefully at first.
“I needed to show Green Day that if what they’re after is their album, pretty much up as it is with some little changes, that we can do that. I can be as faithful as they need to be, because at the end of the day, this is their baby and they have to be happy.”
Kitt didn’t want to go too far too fast.
“I wanted to go slow and make sure they were comfortable. They don’t know me and my work. I want them to trust me. And I don’t know what they want creatively, if they want their album as is.”
The story of “American Idiot,” as written by Mayer and Armstrong, involves three friends: Johnny (Tony-winner John Gallagher Jr.), Tunny (Stark Sands) and Will (Michael Esper). The slackers are about to set off on an adventure when Will’s girlfriend (Mary Faber as Heather) tells him she’s pregnant.
Johnny and Tunny set off without Will and the action continues to follow the trio: Will getting stoned on his couch and resenting his life; Johnny falling under the influence of the sinister drug pusher St. Jimmy (Tony Vincent); and Tunny enlisting in the Army and going off to fight in Iraq.
Johnny meets a girl (Rebecca Naomi Jones as Whatsername) and Tunny is injured and meets a nurse (Christina Sajous as “Extraordinary Girl”).
When Kitt sat down to listen to the album, “I thought it’s so great that someone still makes an album like this. Not just an operatic album, but there’s not a weak link. Every song on the album is so beautiful in its own way.”
Kitt says the first major departure he made from the album was on the show’s final song, “Whatsername,” in which Johnny looks back to wonder whatever happened to his old girlfriend.
“On the album, it begins with a muted guitar, a beautiful song,” Kitt says.
In his arrangement, “the whole first half is piano and cello and then it slams into punk rock in the middle and ends with just the cello. Everyone was excited about it and when Green Day came to that first presentation, that was one of the things that they praised.”
Kitt told Mayer it was a good sign.
“They wanted us to go forward but they also really loved parts where we deviated a little bit to tell this new story,” Kitt says. “I think we proved to them that we could tell the story, that their material is safe, that we’re going to do right by it, but that if we have an idea, they can trust us for that, too, to see where we might take it.”
Much as “Hair” captured a moment in the life of the Vietnam generation, “American Idiot” captures a moment in the post-9/11, Iraq War generation.
“Green Day leads the way,” Kitt says. “The album is so visceral and so important, that someone took it upon themselves to write a political opera the way they did.”
The song “Holiday” retains its hard-charging wall of sound start and even some of the backup vocals from the album, but Kitt layered on harmonies for more voices above and below and created counterpoint.
“That’s the great thing,” he says. “You hear this album that inspires you to start thinking: ‘I’ve got all these voices. How do I take what they wrote and adapt it for these new voices? Where does it go that’s appropriate and exciting for this new version?’”
The musical took shape at Berkeley Rep, not far from the band’s Oakland home base, so when they were back from tour, Kitt says, they’d stop by rehearsal.
“Billie Joe has worked directly with the guitarists. If there’s a certain way he wants something to sound, he’s actually gotten on stage with them and showed them how to play it,” Kitt says.
Armstrong also had the cast join the band on stage at the Grammys for a performance of “21 Guns” arranged by Kitt.
The pre-Broadway run-up was scheduled around the Green Day tour. The band was in New York for the first week of previews and they will be at the St. James tonight.
As on the album, “Holiday” slides effortlessly into an acoustic “Boulevard of Broken Dreams” that becomes an anthem for disaffected, lost people.
Still, the musical opening tonight is not “American Idiot” the album. And it’s not a Green Day concert.
The musical includes B-sides that were recorded for “American Idiot,” but were only released in Europe; there are also songs from “21st Century Breakdown,” the band’s latest album.
Green Day fans might be surprised to hear a cello and violins and plenty of acoustic guitar in “American Idiot” the musical.
“I knew I wanted strings because to me orchestral touches in rock music when they include strings are always really powerful. George Martin and Radiohead were leading my thoughts there,” Kitt says. “Strings can really help with storytelling and with dramatic music. It’s my favorite sound.”
Still, this is not about Kitt.
“My goal from the start is that anything I write still feels like Green Day, not like me,” he says. “If people suddenly felt that they weren’t hearing Green Day anymore, then it would have been a failure.”
Mayer says Kitt’s contribution is “as distinct as it is inspired.”
“From the outset, we were both cautiously investigating the boundaries of where the songs could take us, and once Billie Joe and the band embraced what they heard, and encouraged us to take the arrangements further, not only did the music take on a life of its own, but the characters and the story I invented were richly enhanced by Tom’s work.”
Whether “American Idiot” joins the handful of great rock operas — “The Who’s Tommy,” “Jesus Christ Superstar,” “Pink Floyd’s The Wall” and “Hair,” among them — is not Kitt’s concern.
“There are plenty of people who will weigh in on what this means,” Kitt says. “All you can feel as a creator is your own inspiration and what it feels like to you. To me, ‘American Idiot’ the musical sounds like a special and new thing, unlike anything I’ve ever been part of.”
Kitt is clearly aware that he’s living a dream.
“For me, it’s the baseball metaphor, when you see a rookie in the majors. Like when Derek Jeter first came up and was playing with Mattingly. And I thought ‘How cool is it to have a poster of this guy on your wall and then you’re in the same infield?’
“I’ve grown up with Green Day. That was college for me, when that first album came out.”
It has been a whirlwind year for Kitt.
A year ago today, “Next to Normal” had just arrived on Broadway and his second child, daughter Julia, was two days away.
One year later, Kitt has two children (son, Michael is 5), two Tonys for “Next to Normal,” and two shows on which he collaborated about to open on Broadway. Oh, and that Pulitzer Prize.
And he’s rubbing elbows with the greats.
“I’m getting the rare opportunity to spend time with my heroes,” he says. “Not just meet them, but spend time with them. How great is that?”
Elton John praised his work from the stage of Radio City during the Tonys telecast. They later exchanged notes and Sir Elton phoned over the summer.
“I take very seriously musical theater and what I hope I’m contributing to it,” he said. “The other night, after a performance of ‘American Idiot,’ a young girl came up to me and thanked me for this and for ‘Next to Normal.’ I said, ‘You just made my night. You just made my year.’
“I’m doing this because of the people who inspired me,” he said. “If I’m doing that for anyone, that means the world to me.”
Kitt said he was reminded of that at a performance of “Sondheim on Sondheim.”
“It was the first time I experienced the song ‘Children Will Listen’ live since I became a dad, and I was crying my eyes out.” (Kitt played one of the “Agony” princes when he was a student at Armonk’s Byram Hills High School.)
“That night, we had a tribute to Stephen Sondheim and a bunch of songwriters wrote songs for him and I got a chance to tell him, from the stage, that there would be no ‘Next to Normal’ without Stephen Sondheim.
“Someone asked me ‘Are you nervous?’ And I said, ‘Yeah, the way you’d be nervous playing a song for God.’ That’s what it felt like. You dream about this moment and you are terrified by it.”
Top photo by Mark Vergari/The Journal News: Tom Kitt outside the St. James Theatre, home of “American Idiot.”
Second photo by Paul Kolnick: “American Idiot” follows the journeys of three friends. From left, Michael Esper as Will, Stark Sands as Tunny and Tony-winner John Gallagher Jr. as Johnny.
Third photo by Paul Kolnick: The “American Idiot” company.