Michael Mayer knows a thing or two about coming of age.
The Maryland-born director won a Tony Award for his work guiding the 2006 Broadway hit "Spring Awakening," which chronicles teens getting a grip on their budding sexuality. In 2010, he directed "American Idiot," a punk rock musical based on the Green Day album of that name, which follows a group of cynical, spent youths as they seek excitement in a big city.
Mayer didn't just direct the latter, but collaborated on the book with Green Day front man Billie Joe Armstrong. "American Idiot," which reaches Baltimore next week as part of a national tour, solidified Mayer's reputation as one of the most gifted figures on the theater scene.
"For me, a journey of self-discovery and identity, regardless of context, is always great material for a musical," Mayer, 52, said. "When you consider the jaded kids in 'American Idiot,' products of those bad Bush years, how different, really, are they from Dorothy Gale in drab Kansas, going off to Oz and coming back home again?"
Those jaded kids appealed to Mayer's imagination the first time he heard the Green Day album in 2004. By then, he was a longtime fan of the band, which sprang out of the Berkeley, Calif., punk scene in the late 1980s.
It was the group's 1994 album "Dookie" that first caught Mayer's ear, with its several hit songs, including "Longview" and "Basket Case," and the much-aired MTV music videos that went with them.
"I was extremely captivated — and surprised that I was," he said. "I started really paying attention to Green Day after that. When 'American Idiot' came out many years later, I was blown away. Nothing they had done previously prepared me for the depth and complexity, the poetry and the politics, the big emotional scope of the songs. I became quite obsessed after that."
When Mayer gets interested in a recording, he stays interested. Repeated listening is a habit he developed growing up in Bethesda. He was a frequent visitor to the county library then, a visitor on a mission.
"I would take out record albums of Broadway shows and listen to them obsessively, imaging the story as I heard the songs," Mayer said. "As I listened to 'American Idiot,' I was having the same physical and emotional experience I had listening to original cast recordings of 'Carousel,' 'West Side Story' or 'Man of La Mancha.'"
As he devoured the "American Idiot" songs — the title track, "Boulevard of Broken Dreams", "Holiday", "Wake Me Up When September Ends," "Jesus of Suburbia" and the rest — Mayer became increasingly aware of their narrative flow and what he viewed as their "epic scale." This was not just a concept album, but an all-out rock opera.
That's not what Green Day initially envisioned. "American Idiot" came about serendipitously, when the master takes for an album the band had been working on, "Cigarettes and Valentines," were stolen. Instead of trying to recreate those tracks, the band decided to start on a totally new project that became "American Idiot."
"Billie Joe told me that he had listened to the Who's 'A Quick One' and 'West Side Story,' not 'Tommy' or 'Jesus Christ Superstar' when he was working on 'American Idiot,'" Mayer said. "The writing demonstrated a kind of maturity that surprised me."
On the album, the action revolves around an anti-hero called Jesus of Suburbia and the characters he meets when he moves to a city — St. Jimmy and a young woman, Whatsername.
Mayer worked with Armstrong on expanding the material from the hour's worth of songs on the album to a 90-minute work for the stage. Other songs by the band were added to fill out the musical, including some from Green Day's second rock opera album, "21st Century Breakdown." As part of the expansion, Mayer introduced new characters as well.
"If it is just Johnny, St. Jimmy and the girl, it ends up being theatrically limiting," Mayer said.
In the musical, Johnny and a buddy, Tunny, seek something more rewarding than suburbs and parents, leaving their equally disaffected friend Will behind with a pregnant girlfriend, Heather.
In the city, complications arise. Johnny falls under the spell of drug-dealing St. Jimmy and the fun-seeking Whatsername. Tunny ends up enlisting and going off to fight in Iraq, where his wounds are treated by Extraordinary Girl.
"I had this idea that the three friends decide to create a mini-revolution," Mayer said. "Each one has to make a choice. We see them cope as well as they can and, finally, find some kind of redemption in the most unlikely place. Johnny returns home with his tail between his legs, a little bit older and a helluva lot wiser."
Almost entirely sung — "You need very little in the way of dialogue to make that story clear," Mayer said — "American Idiot" requires multitalented performers.
"It's very difficult to find them, because they have to bring a real punk spirit to it, and that's something you can't learn," Mayer said. "They have to dance their asses off and scream their faces off. We have a fantastic cast for this tour. The actors are the age of the characters, or close, and everyone is really inside the material."
Since "American Idiot's" Broadway debut, Mayer has been adding to his resume, which includes the NBC show "Smash" and a pilot for NBC, "Hatfields & McCoys," which he is putting the finishing touches on now.
Also getting a lot of attention is Mayer's debut at the Metropolitan Opera in January, directing a much-discussed production of Verdi's "Rigoletto" updated to Rat Pack-era Las Vegas.
"I feel that 'American Idiot' is my first opera, 'Rigoletto' the second," Mayer said. "I love Verdi. I would love to do 'La Traviata.' That would make me very happy."
If you go
"American Idiot" opens Tuesday and runs through May 12 at the Hippodrome, 12 N. Eutaw St. Tickets are $25 to $110. Call 410-547-7328 or go to ticketmaster.com.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun