Director Michael Mayer on 'American Idiot,' the hazards of theater

Ever since his smash hit "Spring Awakening," Michael Mayer has been one of Broadway's hottest, busiest and most distinctive directors. We spoke with Mayer about the tour of his Broadway production of "American Idiot," which opens Tuesday in Chicago, his work on the Broadway revival of "On a Clear Day" and his central involvement in the NBC drama series "Smash," which premiered Monday night.

Q: When I saw "American Idiot" on Broadway, my first thought was that the huge set would be impossible to tour.

A: The main thing was to keep as many elements as we could, knowing there was a lot that was not tour-able. In the end we decided to junk the literal set that we used in Berkeley and on Broadway and go for a different thing that was inspired by our Tony Awards presentation. Something that was more skeletal. Instead of those giant white walls, we've got shortened walls that are black, but we've actually increased the number of TV screens. So it's more like all those screens are floating in negative space. Everything is in a more horizontal environment, and that puts more focus on the people. They're not as overwhelmed by the set. The emotional journey of the characters really pops now.

Q: More than most Broadway shows, "American Idiot" is an experience akin to a rock concert, no?

A: Even more now. The sound is intense. It will be loud and visceral, but it won't be quite as deafening as it was in a more controlled space. We're opting for clarity over volume.

Q: Are the performances similar?

A: I've encouraged this cast to embrace their connection to the audience. The entire thing is almost all direct address.

Q: Billie Joe Armstrong and the Green Day guys seemed to be at the theater nearly every night in New York. Expecting them to show up in Chicago?

A: That was a very special thing for us to have them so engaged. But they're working on their new album. They'll be involved again as soon as they come up for air.

Q: You must have been disappointed with the reaction to your production of "On a Clear Day," which has now closed.

A: No offense, but I haven't read a single word that a critic has written about me since 1994. But yes, I got the general idea. I heard about some of the nastiness. You give yourself an assignment that's very tricky. That's what I have dedicated myself to doing since "Spring Awakening." Life is too short to do anything that's not challenging. I tried some things that are difficult to do. I did not do it because I thought it would make money or that it would be a big hit. I tried to do it with authenticity and heart and respect for the original creators. I did it for all the right reasons, and if people didn't like it, what can I do about that?

Q: You cast the Chicago star, Jessie Mueller.

A: She was great. I'd work with her again in less than a heartbeat.

Q: And you directed the much-hyped pilot for the NBC show "Smash," and several of the other episodes.

A: If people don't tune in, it won't be because they don't know about it. I've never been involved in anything that has had this kind of push. We're all having a very good time. The scripts are really fun. It's authentic, I think — the rehearsals all look the way they do in reality, and the dance numbers are all staged in exactly the same way and then filmed for TV. And the scripts are soapy enough to have enough drama. It has been fun to create this new kind of TV family, which is a different animal but also very familiar.

Q: And now you're about to find out if enough people care about the process of putting on a Broadway show to get a TV show renewed.

A: The waiting has been a bit weird. The trick with the show, I think, has been to let the Broadway theater be a metaphor for any endeavor, any drama. You know, right after we announced that "Clear Day" was closing, I was looking at this episode whereBrian D'Arcy James' character on "Smash" says, "I hate the theater," and I was thinking, "Amen." We are so vulnerable. People don't understand how much we put ourselves out there.

"American Idiot" runs Tuesday through Feb. 19 at the Oriental Theatre, 24 W. Randolph St.; tickets $27-$95 at 800-775-200 or broadwayinchicago.com

cjones5@tribune.com

CHICAGO

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