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Turning A Punk Album Into A Broadway Score

Date: Dec 15, 2010


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If you think of American Idiot as "the Green Day musical," then you're not exactly wrong. The score is made up of their songs, after all. But the band members didn't just ship their CDs to the St. James Theatre and ask the orchestra to play what they heard. It took a team of theatre professionals---including orchestrator Tom Kitt and music director Carmel Dean---to transform Green Day's punk anthems into Broadway-ready tunes.

To begin, Kitt, the Tony and Pulitzer Prize-winning composer of Next to Normal, had to take music written for a 3-piece punk band and arrange it for 19 vocalists and 8 musicians. “You have to do justice to something that is already so perfect, so there’s this pressure of not wanting to come in and do the wrong things to what’s already there,” he says.

One of his most radical departures comes during “Whatsername," which closes both the show and the American Idiot album. The Green Day version is a mid-tempo rocker with drums and electric guitars, but on stage, it's slower, lusher, and more introspective. “I felt for the last song in this very emotional show after all of this incredible energy and sound has come at us, it would be nice to just take a breath and really be a little more naked," Kitt says. "I took what was a nude guitar-bass-drum groove on the album and made it a cello-piano arrangement and a vocal arrangement behind that. That felt like I wasn’t trying to do something just for the sake of doing it. It was going to work for our show.”

Another highlight was arranging “21 Guns,” a rebellious anthem that features most of the cast. Kitt had to modulate the music to suit all the male and female voices in the ensemble, but he didn't want the song to sound disjointed. “If you were able to really sense the modulations that occur, you might not have the same emotional experience that the original song gives you,” he says. “I think I was able to find good keys for the singers that were related enough that you never were too aware of the modulation that occurs.  I also was able to save the key of C Major for the very end, which gives the song a nice surprising lift, as it is the first time that everyone on stage is singing the chorus.”

When he arranged the score, Kitt considered what the performers and musicians could handle night after night, but the show is still physically and vocally demanding. That’s where Dean, who is onstage in costume conducting the band, comes in. “It’s my job to keep the momentum going and make sure everybody’s morale is kept up,” she says. In order to maintain the vocal quality, she does a 15-minute warm-up with the cast before every show and a more extensive vocal brush-up every other week.

Kitt is a constant presence at auditions, promotional events, and rehearsals for new actors, but for the most part, he lets Dean, the cast, and the band run with the production. “There’s that wonderful thing opening night where you give it to the actors,” he says. “You say, 'This is now your show,' and it’s a proud moment.


Linda Buchwald blogs for StageGrade and her own blog, Pataphysical Science. Follow her on Twitter: @PataphysicalSci