Originally published on Forbes.com.
Taking a work of music that rails against the suburban middle class and adapting it to the quintessential middle class genre, the Broadway musical, may seem bizarre. It did to Green Day’s Billie Joe Armstrong. “My fear,” he says in the documentary Broadway Idiot, which chronicles the adaptation of Green Day’s American Idiot to Broadway, “was that it was just going to be sort of absurd, not relatable and corny.”
But for Michael Mayer, Tony Award winning director of Spring Awakening, adapting Green Day’s American Idiot to the stage held the promise of resurrecting Broadway’s roots as the place where storytelling and popular music intersect. “When rock and roll happened,” Mayer told me, “Broadway music became sort of ghetto-ized, it became ersatz music a little bit. It didn’t speak on its own to a larger audience the way Gershwin’s or Cole Porter’s music did back in the golden days of Tin Pan Alley.”
As chronicled in a new documentary by Doug Hamilton, Mayer convinced Green Day to adapt their album to the stage. Though skeptical at first, Armstrong became enthralled by musical theater as an artistic genre and as a community. He was a world-famous rock star completely out of his element. And he loved it. By the end of the process, Armstrong had a leading role in the Broadway production.
What made Broadway so attractive to this punk rocker at the top of his game? And what lessons can we draw from his experience?
Be punk about your career. According to Hamilton, the source of Armstrong’s transformation was his punk spirit. “Billie is anti-establishment and he believes you’ve got to crash through barriers to do something new,” he told me. “At the beginning of this process, he exhibited that by turning his baby over to Michael [Mayer] in a way that was extraordinarily generous. But then something else happened on top of that and that was his own willingness to become something different. Ultimately,” he added, “that was the story that I was interested in because it’s a more universal story than making a Broadway show. It’s really about an artist at a very high level who is willing to try something totally new and take the risks in order to do that.”
It takes courage to try something new, especially when it’s something that is outside of what is valued in your own community. Doing a musical exposed Green Day to ridicule from their punk peers. But they did it anyway. I too made a punk move in my career when I left a comfortable tenure-track position as a professor of entrepreneurship to write about rock n’ roll. I knew that some people would view it as a step down. Being punk about your career means doing something that you’re passionate, or at least curious about, even if it exposes you to criticism.
Put yourself in a position where you feel safe to make mistakes. Once people become experts in something, they tend to become risk averse. Green Day had already proven their willingness to take risks when they madeAmerican Idiot, a political album with operatic scope that was a significant deviation from the bratty punk anthems of their early days. But moving to a different genre altogether upped the ante on the likelihood of messing up. Mistakes were not just likely, they were inevitable.
As a director, Mayer actively promoted risk taking as part of the creative process of putting the musical together. “You have to create a space that is safe for people who have not necessarily worked together before to be vulnerable with each other, to explore their own personal relationship to the story and to come together to create a unified experience for the audience,” he said. “What I try to offer personally is a safe room where there is no judgment. The way we learn how the show works is often learning what doesn’t work.” In making American Idiot, the pain of failure and regrouping was evident in creating the choreography for the song “Wake Me Up When September Ends.”
The freedom to make mistakes was liberating for Green Day, as it can be for the rest of us. The great thing about starting something new as an adult – whether learning a new skill or trying a different kind of job – is that you experience the playfulness and experimentation that you lose once you became an expert.
Find new communities. Green Day came out of a small scene of punk rockers who hung out at Berkeley’s Gilman Street Project. But when they became successful, they were ejected from that community as supposed traitors. They would never again experience the sense of belonging they enjoyed as part of a group of striving unknowns. Or so they thought. As Armstrong worked to craft American Idiot the musical, he rediscovered the joy and love and excitement of being part of a creative collective.
“The world of creating theater is incredibly seductive,” explains Hamilton. According to Mayer, the very nature of learning music together creates a powerful union between people. “All the words that you use to describe a group are the actual things that they’re doing,” he said. “They’re harmonizing together. They’re blending their voices together. They’re dancing together. They’re breathing together.”
The rest of us can energize our careers by seeking out new mentors who can inspire us, teach us new skills, and get us excited about new ideas. We can find mentors through websites such as pivot planet, which pairs people interested in switching careers with mentors who can show them the ropes.
It appears for now that Broadway’s and Armstrong’s transformations are here to stay. More and more rock n’ roll musicians are coming to Broadway, from Bono and The Edge making the music for Spider-Man Turn Off the Dark to Sting and David Byrneputting on their own shows. “It’s a very exciting time to be making musical theater,” said Mayer, who is working on a Broadway production of Hedwig and the Angry Inch. Billie Joe Armstrong, on his end, has recently signed on to star in an independent feature film. In the clip below, he talks about the camaraderie he found in Broadway that he had not experienced in rock n’ roll:
Broadway Idiot, which chronicles the theater adaptation of Green Day’s American Idiot, is out now in theaters in the U.S. and Canada and on demand.