American Idiot : Punks Take Broadway

4 minute read
Richard Zoglin

Billie Joe Armstrong, the lead singer and lyricist for the punk-rock band Green Day, claims he was a big fan of show tunes while growing up near Oakland, Calif., even singing standards with a group of friends for hospital patients in the area. That might reassure Broadway traditionalists, who could be in for a shock at American Idiot , the thunderous new rock musical based on Green Day’s Grammy-winning 2004 album. Rock purists, on the other hand, may see it as a sign that the California punk trio is getting soft. Nobody ever said rock and Broadway were an easy match.

Indeed, the relationship has been fraught for years. For the first decade or so after Elvis, Broadway and rock ‘n’ roll barely acknowledged each other. Then came Hair , the counterculture earthquake of 1968 — after which the couple pretty much returned to living separately. With a few exceptions ( Jesus Christ Superstar , Chess ), mainstream theater didn’t really embrace the rock idiom until the mid-1990s, when Rent became a surprise Broadway hit and the doors began opening to a missing musical generation. Today, more than half of the new musicals running on Broadway can be loosely categorized as rock, from alt-musicals with rock-inflected scores like Next to Normal and the Afrobeat hit Fela! to songbook shows that recycle pop hits from the ’60s and ’70s ( Jersey Boys, Mamma Mia! ). Not one but two of this season’s offerings tell stories from the formative years of rock, one fictional ( Memphis ) and one real ( Million Dollar Quartet ). And Bono, of all people, is writing the score to Spider-Man , due to hit Broadway next season.

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American Idiot is something else entirely. The music, for one thing, is as pure a specimen of contemporary punk rock as Broadway has yet encountered: loud, fast and angry, driven by a propulsive beat, supercharged guitars and a lot of free-floating angst. (The album’s 13 numbers are supplemented by several from Green Day’s 2009 follow-up, 21st Century Breakdown .) Yet there’s enough variety — from the booming but oddly lyrical “21 Guns” to the mournful “Boulevard of Broken Dreams” — to make it work as a fully shaped theater score.

Where the show falls short is as a fully developed narrative. Director Michael Mayer (who oversaw Spring Awakening , the rock hit of three seasons back) worked with Armstrong to flesh out the album’s very loose story line about a disaffected suburban kid looking for meaning in the media-anesthetized Bush II years. Now there are three main characters: one goes to the big city, finds a girlfriend and falls under the spell of a satanic drug dealer; another goes to war in Iraq and winds up a casualty in a military hospital; a third stays home, planted on his couch smoking dope, while his girlfriend has a baby and leaves him.

But even Movin’ Out , the Twyla Tharp dance show that framed Billy Joel’s music with a similar jerry-built story of high school friends who go their separate ways, did a better job of turning disconnected songs into a sustained narrative. American Idiot , despite its earnest huffing and puffing, remains little more than an annotated rock concert. This puts a heavy burden on set designer Christine Jones, who has built a striking, sky-high backdrop of faded poster art and video screens, and choreographer Steven Hoggett (who worked on the acclaimed Scottish performance piece Black Watch ). Hoggett seems to run out of ideas after a couple of rounds of group head-banging — though a fantasy dance between the hospitalized war victim and a veil-wearing girl who floats down from the ceiling comes as a nice surprise fairly late in the game.

Still, American Idiot deserves at least two cheers — for its irresistible musical energy and for opening fresh vistas for that odd couple, rock and Broadway. Will old-school theatergoers get impatient with 95 minutes of alienation and power chords? Will hard-core rock fans decide Green Day has sold out? Possibly both. The question is whether there’s a big enough audience in between to make this marriage last.

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