April 28, 2010

"American Idiot" Brings Punk to Broadway

Broadway producers have been conducting a secret guerrilla war over the past year.  Their unsuspecting prey: straight guys in their late 20s to early 40s who usually go to see a musical only when their mom is celebrating a birthday or their girlfriends or wives make attendance a prerequisite for post-show nookie. 

The current revival of Hair, the original rock musical, was the first salvo, although it aimed more at Baby Boomers.  It was quickly followed by Rock of Ages, the boisterous but amiable tribute to the big-haired metal bands of the ‘80s.  There have even been a few outlying skirmishes like the emo-musical Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson that is running at the Public Theater through May 30. 

But last week, they rolled out the heavy artillery: American Idiot, a stage version of the eponymous 2004 concept album by the punk revivalists Green Day opened at the St. James Theatre, where in recent years such Broadway classics as A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum and Gypsy have played.

The guys sitting in the row behind my sister Joanne and me probably think of a forum as an internet site where people exchange gripes, a gypsy as a punch line in a Monty Python routine, and a Broadway musical as something to be avoided at all costs. But there they were, four abreast, bottles of beer in hand (the audience is allowed to carry drinks to their seats) and fists pumping in the air as the guitars in the on-stage band screeched the title song that opens the show.

If you’re a diehard traditionalist, you may not like their being there or the show they’re championing.  For
this is really more a concert than a musical. The show is nearly all sung through and the lyrics are hard to follow without the album notes in hand or the words emblazoned in your memory from hours of repeat play.

Nor is there much of a book for American Idiot. The sketchy plot (concocted by Green Day frontman Billie Joe Armstrong and the show’s director Michael Mayer, who won a Tony for the rock-inspired Spring Awakening) follows the lives of three blue collar guys who make bad choices—one becomes a teen dad, another signs up to fight in Iraq and the third is seduced into drugs by a Mephistophelean dealer known as St. Jimmy. (The bar in the St. James lobby has been temporarily named after the dealer and, clueless as I am, I thought at first that it was a play on the theater’s name). 

But if you’re a more free-thinking fan of Broadway musicals then you may find yourself rooting for American Idiot. Its music isn't my genre of choice but I couldn’t help but respond to the enthusiastism of the young folks in the audience. Just as at the Metropolitan Opera House, the most avid and vocal fans are in the cheap seats up in the rafters. And so while, the greyheads around me in the orchestra sat largely stone-faced, the shaggy-haired ones in the balcony cheered after each number (click here to watch some highlights from the show).     

Even I appreciated how Mayer pulled all kinds of tricks out of his hat (including aerial ballets) to camouflage the missing narrative. Christine Jones’ arresting set design is anchored by three dozen TV screens of different sizes that attempt to supply a storyline with news images from the last decade. 

The energetic 19-member cast, lead by Spring Awakening’s John Gallagher, Jr. and the lovely and affective Rebecca Naomi Jones from Passing Strange, barely stops moving throughout the show’s 90 minutes, although I wish Steven Hoggett’s choreography had been less derivative of the moves Bill T. Jones did for Spring Awakening.  I also wish Mayer had treated the black male characters less stereotypically; if the black guy in one number in the second act had a larger codpiece it might have poked me in the eye and I was sitting in the eighth row.

Green Day’s melodies, including some of the band's other songs interpolated into the score, are catchy enough but, at heart, this is a jukebox musical, which means what book there is has to be gerrymandered around the songs. I wish Armstrong (who has professed to have been a show-tune geek as a kid) and his bandmates had written an original score. But judging from the response of the guys sitting behind me, the show seems well on its way to winning the hearts and minds of its target audience. 


Geraldine said...

It's very interesting to think of the show as a stepping stone towards a new kind of audience, very cool! Great review too!

Marcus J Hubbard said...

I really want to see American Idiot! It looks like the best musical opening this season on Broadway... I hope it comes to London!

jan@broadwayandme said...

Geraldine and MunchkinMarcus, many thanks for taking the time to comment. Please come back and say what you think of the show should you see it. Cheers, jan