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Tuesday, 18 May 2010 21:02

Broadway Feature: Director Michael Mayer

Written by
Michael Mayer
Michael Mayer
Everyday Rapture and American Idiot, two new musicals of this current Broadway season, are distinctly different but also share a few things in common: both are nominated for several 2010 Tony Awards, both tell their stories unconventionally, they share the same scenic designer, lighting designer, projection designer and orchestrator, and they are both directed by Michael Mayer. The director, who received a Drama Desk nomination this year for his work on American Idiot, is no stranger to innovative theater.  He received the 2007 Tony Award, as well as Drama Desk and Outer Critics Circle Awards for his envelope-pushing production of Spring Awakening, which has also played in London, Vienna, Tokyo and Seoul, and which recently concluded a two-year national tour.  Everyday Rapture, which started as a small cabaret show in New York, is a semi-autobiographical musical story about a woman who juggles her Mennonite upbringing with ambitions for the stage, performed and co-written by Sherie Rene Scott. American Idiot, a portrait of a restless and disaffected generation that came of age in the dawn of the 21st century, is based on a best-selling record album by the punk rock group Green Day and its lead lyricist and vocalist Billie Joe Armstrong. Last week, Mayer talked to The AndyGram about his work on these two remarkable musicals of the 2009-2010 season.

How did you get involved with Everyday Rapture?

I just fell in love with it when I first saw Sherie perform the show at the Zipper. Dick Scanlan (co-author) is my oldest friend in the world so of course I was going to see it. I offered to help them in any way to take it to the next step of its development.  I was actually thinking that I would be a producer and help them raise money.  But then sometime later they took me to dinner and asked me if I would like to direct it. So the next Spring, in March 2008, we presented a one-night only version of it called You May Now Worship Me at the Eugene O’Neill Theater as a benefit for the Phyllis Newman Women's Health Initiative of The Actors Fund. One year later, in April 2009, Everyday Rapture was presented at Second Stage.

What changes did you make to turn the show into a musical?

For the benefit evening Sherie had the idea of having three backup singers –the Mennonettes. I immediately understood that they were the psychic symbols for her feeling powerful and “the world was created for me” feeling. By the time we reached Second Stage, there were two of them with Sherie in the middle being torn between two opposing ideas -- torn between Jesus and Judy, between her Mennonite past and her Manhattan present – that’s the metaphor. Even though a lot of the material was originally written as stand-alone performance elements, there was an idea at its core that I felt could be integrated into a single narrative. That was one of the things that I brought to the table -- to continually bring it back to that issue. I think Dick and Sherie worked so well together. He can capture her voice so well, and she is an incredible creative thinker about the stories of her own life and the ways in which she wants to refract them through this crazy prism concept of a show.

Where did the Jesus/Judy montage sequence come from?

That was my idea. From the very beginning there were issues around Sherie’s kind of free form relationship to her Christianity, and even as early as the one-night only concert there were people who had some serious objections to that kind of material. There was no montage at that point, but simply her singing “You Made Me Love Me” to a single image of Jesus and even that seemed to put some people off.  It’s this beautiful love song, really. When I think of Judy singing that song, I think of that wonderful montage from That’s Entertainment. She first sang it in The Broadway Melody of 1938,  but in That’s Entertainment they used a montage of Clarke Gable, and I just I just couldn’t resist it. I thought that would be so fun to have a montage of all the Jesus images we’ve seen.

They are all found images.  The only thing we tweaked was the final image where I just said, it would be so nice if he could look down at her and smile and wink. I was so lucky to have Darrel Maloney doing these projections -- he and his assistant Dan -- who could really make that happen on the computer.

Sherie Rene Scott in EVERYDAY RAPTURE
Sherie Rene Scott in Everyday Rapture

Roundabout’s decision to mount Everyday Rapture on Broadway as the last-minute replacement for the final show of the Broadway season, must have come as quite a surprise…

I was in tech – or previews even – for American Idiot when they called -- before they approached Dick and Sherie -- and asked me if I thought it were possible. They said that it would only be nine days after American Idiot opened, and I immediately said yes. It was only after that, when I actually started doing the math and I realized that virtually everyone on the American Idiot team was the same team as Everyday Rapture, that it started to feel very, very difficult.  But it was Dick’s perseverance and dedication, and his ability to pull resources together from all different walks of life that made it really possible. And also Roundabout being so excited by it and being so willing to work within this crazy schedule.

American Idiot, on the other hand, was your baby all the way from the start.  How did that come about?

That’s right. It happened as a result of a conversation I had with Gordon Cox of Variety about rock music in the theater. I had fallen in love with the album earlier on and I very casually mentioned that obviously somebody is gonna be doing American Idiot, it’s such a fantastic piece and it’s already written as a rock opera.  And then Tom Hulce [producer] called me up and said what makes you so sure -- is this of interest to you?  I said I’d love to do it, but I am sure somebody is doing it. He reached out to Green Day and asked if this would of any interest to them.

How did you set about turning the album into a stage musical?

My initial impulse was just stage the album as is. It is a complete work in and of itself-- it’s political and social and it’s got emotional drama.  There is a narrative, the songs are shaped beautifully. It just happens to be only 52 minutes long and there is only one narrative in there.  Once I started working on it - the work actually began in the fall/winter of 2007 -- I discovered there was room for a lot more to happen inside it.  I didn’t restructure anything, actually. I came up with a story of these three guys and the world they were in, and thing that they wanted to do with their lives and how they were going to do it. Then I just went in and decided who was going to sing what. It was a very academic assignment that I gave myself. 

Did you use material from outside the album?

The extra material came after the story started taking on its own life. I discovered material from the European release of American Idiot. I found two songs that I thought would be good and used them. I found some text that Billie Joe Armstrong had written for special packaging for the CD and I felt that could be useful. And then once we got Green Day on board and they came and heard a version of the show in June 2008 and loved it, Billie Joe started sending me the material that he was developing for their new album and made that available to me.  It was extremely organic -- the opposite of a jukebox musical.

I guess you haven’t put a musical together like this before?

I don’t know that anyone has. It is completely singular in that way. And that was very exciting for me. At a certain point in your life you get tired of doing things the same way and this offered me an opportunity to really branch out in terms of the way I am creating. 

John Gallagher Jr in AMERICAN IDIOT
John Gallagher Jr. in American Idiot
Photo: Doug Hamilton

Can we talk about your staging style for American Idiot? I’m thinking particularly about “Favorite Son”, where one of the young men, Tunny (Stark Sands), is seduced into joining the army through images of a celebrity sports star.

I’m very proud of that section because when I heard that song, I thought it’s like this crazy recruiting song.  It was a very out there idea I had and I was just so thrilled that it works so well in that way.

American Idiot makes a particularly strong comment on our culture and you use the very vocabulary of that culture to tell this story.

That was very important to me, the way it needed to be communicated.  The songs move very quickly. We needed to embrace the ADD culture we are in. Honestly, it was literally like creating an obstacle course for myself. Every part of it became the challenge for me.

How would you respond to the description “MTV for the stage”?

I would be very proud of myself if that’s what people walked away with. I think that is part of the way we will have to tell our stories now. That’s how a lot of young people get narrative information now.  And I think there’s something a little bit priggish about some people who would regard that as a negative. The culture can and should, and will, whether you like it or not, dictate the way in which we tell our stories and the way in which we receive information. I think it’s kind of putting your head in the sand to not embrace that and not to try and explore what that means in a live theater experience.  So if you say that to me, it makes me really happy.

What about your new project your “reincarnation” of Burton Lane and Alan Jay Lerner’s On a Clear Day You Can See Forever, which will be presented by Vassar and New York Stage and Film at the Powerhouse Theater this summer?

It’s an idea I had when I was working on Sideman at New York Stage and Film. I was walking across the campus one morning just singing some of the songs from Clear Day, because I always loved that score, and I had an idea about to fix the musical.  So it is now 14 years later and I am finally going to get an opportunity to try it out on its feet, so I’m really excited.  God only knows how work like Sideman and Spring Awakening, Everyday Rapture and American Idiot with less conventional means of telling a story, will affect the way that I actually do stage this new version of Clear Day, but I will say that that after American Idiot, to go back to a problematic gem from the 60s, from straight-up Broadway—it’s kind of delicious.

Gerard Raymond writes about theater, film, travel and culture and lives in New York City

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Last modified on Friday, 18 June 2010 11:32