American maven

Broadway director Michael Mayer is excited about his upcoming visit; leading a workshop to coach Israeli actors and directors.

American Idiot play 311 (photo credit: Paul Kolnick)
American Idiot play 311
(photo credit: Paul Kolnick)
You might think Michael Mayer, the director who has become the toast of Broadway with his megahit musicals Spring Awakening and American Idiot, would be a bit blasé about travel, but he sounds like a gushing tourist when he talks about his upcoming visit to Israel.
“It’s something that I’ve always wanted to do but haven’t had the opportunity before,” Mayer said in a recent phone interview from his New York home.
“I’m jazzed about it.”
Mayer will be in Israel to give master classes at the Stage-Center International Theater Workshop in Tel Aviv from December 22-25. The Workshop was founded and is run Rivi Feldmesser-Yaron, and the Ministry of Culture is co-sponsoring Mayer’s visit. Actors, directors, other theater professionals will take part in these two master classes, which will be held at the Nachmani Auditorium at 4 Nachmani Street in Tel Aviv.
Mayer will do some hands-on work with these participants on how to direct a song in a show, and they will also choose a song from the Eagles’ Hotel California album and discuss how to present it.
The general public may also attend and observe the master classes for a fee.
Excitement is running high in Israel’s theater community over Mayer’s visit. Although international theater luminaries occasionally visit Israel (director Peter Brooks was here to accept the Dan David Prize a few years ago), there are few working directors today who have the kind of superstar status Mayer does. Mayer has had a long and distinguished career in the theater, directing such revivals as Thoroughly Modern Millie, A View from the Bridge, The Lion in Winter and You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown, but the 50- year-old director broke new ground with his show Spring Awakening in 2006. He won the 2007 Tony Award for Best Director, and the production won seven other Tonys, including for Best Musical, Book, Score and Featured Actor.
The show is an unusual and original hybrid: Based on a late 19th-century German play, it revolves around a group of teenagers dealing with angst, sex, drugs and suicide, but Mayer chose singer-songwriter Duncan Sheik to write a rock’n’roll score (Steven Sater wrote the lyrics). Mayer also brought in moderndance innovator Bill T. Jones to do the choreography.
The New York Times, not known for throwing around superlatives, gave it a rave, with Charles Isherwood writing in his review: “A fresh breeze of true inspiration blows steadily through this ambitious if imperfect show.” Fans of the television series Glee may be interested to know that Lea Michele had a key role in the Broadway production.
“Things changed in a big way for me when Spring Awakening opened,” recalled Mayer. “It really struck a chord with people, and I felt I’d found a new métier for myself.”
BUT AS sweet as the success was, it didn’t come easily.
Mayer struggled for seven years to bring Spring Awakening to the stage.
“I thought of it as a little art project,” he said. “I did not think it would be on Broadway, I didn’t think it would be a big commercial success.”
Mayer followed this up with another Broadway success that brought new voices to the New York theater: American Idiot, based on a concept album by the group Green Day. The show is about an alienated group of suburban young people during the presidency of George W. Bush.
“American Idiot was an expression of a very specific moment. It’s a very political album, during Bush’s first term. You have these young people thinking: ‘What the hell have we done? Who are we?’ It’s a challenge to youth.”
Mayer said that Green Day’s frontman, Billie Joe Armstrong, saw Spring Awakening and decided that Mayer was the right director to turn Green Day’s music into a show.
“It gave him the confidence that I could do it. It wasn’t South Pacific. It wasn’t a jukebox musical. He got excited because it felt fresh and there was a real voice musically. And that’s what he was trying to do with American Idiot.”
Mayer takes understandable pride in the fact that his musicals have broadened the traditional Broadway audience.
“If you go and see American Idiot and look at the audience, you’ll see it isn’t the typical theater audience.
It’s a more random collection of people. It’s more egalitarian; there are students, teenagers, as well as the older theatergoers.”
But now that Broadway shows have gotten so expensive, how do students afford to see his shows? “The good news is that it’s in a very big theater, so that means the balcony is extremely affordable,” he said. “If I had a wish, it would be that older people who are afraid of the show, who think that it will be aggressive and loud, would come and see. Because when they do come, they are surprised by the heartfelt quality and how moved they are.”
Growing up, Mayer’s strongest musical influence was The Wizard of Oz.
“It was my first, foremost and ultimate influence. It was shown once a year on TV, and I cared more about that than my birthday. It had magnificent performances, gorgeous music and a story I could connect to.
And I developed an adoration of Judy Garland as a performer. It’s informed everything I’ve done. Just as Dorothy is trying to get out of Kansas, the characters in American Idiot yearn to get out of suburbia.”
Mayer is currently working on a revival of the show On a Clear Day You Can See Forever, which he hopes to bring new life to. But he’s taking a break from that to tour Israel, which he hopes will be “a mind-blowing experience.”
For information about buying tickets to observe the master classes, go to the website