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Critic's Notebook: 'American Idiot' and the fate of the contemporary musical

May 20, 2010 | 12:15 pm

American idiot broad 1

Does “American Idiot,” the artfully laid out Green Day jukebox musical now at the St. James Theatre on Broadway, represent the dawning of a new age or the end of a line? To put it another way, should we be celebrating the breakthrough spawned by “Rent” and “Spring Awakening” or looking into reform school options for this decadent grandchild of “Hair”?

For those of you who have seen the work either at Berkeley Rep (where it had its world premiere) or in its current incarnation in New York, there’s no need for an immediate answer. But please understand that the fate of the American musical might just hang in the balance.

The show, which is in contention for the best musical Tony (along with "Fela!," "Memphis" and "Million Dollar Quartet"), has polarized critics. Ecstatic raves (“the first great musical of the 21st century” exclaimed Richard Ouzounian in the Toronto Star) have body-slammed against withering pans (“a half-exploitative, half-lobotomized attempt to fake a youthgasm,” lamented Scott Brown in New York magazine). Reading the roundup of immoderate appraisals can be a bit like eavesdropping on strangers after the bartender shouts “last call!”

American idiot broadway 11 When I reviewed “American Idiot” in Berkeley, I was impressed by the musical’s “kinetically entertaining” surface, less so with its “dramatically sketchy” book. Yet for me the pros definitely outweighed the cons, and swept up by the energy of the encounter, I couldn’t help noting how this “concert-musical hybrid” managed to pull off “what rock bands have set out to do from the beginning -- lay down a style that defines a new zeitgeist.”

The show, mesmerizingly directed by Michael Mayer, who was unaccountably snubbed by the Tony nominating committee, was just as captivating the second time around when I caught up with it on Broadway. To my younger friends, I’d recommend it heartily. And anything that can knock a few years off Broadway’s aging demographic is, on balance, a good thing. (Not to be an alarmist, but if the current rate of graying continues, theatergoers will very likely be on the endangered species list by the next decade.)

Still, I must confess that the production’s hard-driving pop-punk dazzle is of a peculiarly ephemeral order. The most memorable aspect of “American Idiot” is the vitality of its multilayered style. On a purely aesthetic level, the musical makes a lasting impression, thanks to Mayer and his integrated design team. But the resonance of the “story”—and I put “story” in quotation marks because I’m not sure if it’s quite the right word to describe the wisps of narrative Mayer elaborated from the lyrics of Green Day’s Billie Joe Armstrong — has turned out to be more evanescent than the show's explosive din of curtain call applause.

Incorporating tracks from Green Day’s multi-platinum recording of the same title (expertly orchestrated by Tom Kitt) as well as from the more recent “21st Century Breakdown,” “American Idiot” wasn’t eligible for Tony consideration in the best original score category. But its book, which follows three male figures struggling in the George W. Bush era to find a path out of their suburban alienation and anomie, was rightly passed over.

All snarl, spit and slacker allure, John Gallagher Jr. (a Tony winner for “Spring Awakening”) takes on the central role of Johnny. This rebel without a cause leaves the strip-mall wasteland of his adolescence for the anonymous big city, where he’s split between his love for Whatshername (Rebecca Naomi Jones) and the drugs of St. Jimmy (Tony Vincent). Meanwhile, Johnny’s similarly discontented hometown buddies run into their own brick walls — Will (Michael Esper) stalls on his couch after learning that his girlfriend Heather (Mary Faber) is pregnant and Tunny (Stark Sands) heads off to the chaos of war.

The most you can say for this shadowy collage, in which the angst is generalized, the history more or less decorative and the action fragmentary, is that it doesn’t overdramatize the generational cri de couer of its source material. Green Day’s concept album falls short of a rock opera, and the musical proceeds accordingly in bursts of imagistic adrenaline.

The inventive staging goes a long way toward covering up an obvious truth — that the qualities that can make an indie-rock album so compelling — attitude, mood, grit — are probably not going to be able to sustain a theatrical journey. Drama needs more connective tissue.

Part of the genius of “American Idiot” lies in the way Mayer, who received a Tony for his equally superb direction of “Spring Awakening,” was able to pack so much throbbing stage life into what is, in effect, a live-performance video. Case in point: the “Extraordinary Girl” number, in which a badly wounded Tunny, hallucinating in a military hospital, dreams up a burka-clad beauty (Christina Sajous) who leads him into some high-flying maneuvers, was one of the most stunningly choreographed scenes this season.

But hypnotic pictures in the theater, while startling and seductive, can’t haunt the way a more coherent story can. Musicals don’t need gnarly plots. They survive by their wits, which is why a caper will often suffice and a rambling book can seem like an obstacle course. Yet without a solid emotional structure, the work can only rouse nervous systems, not hearts.  

For those of us bemoaning the decline of the book musical, let us remember that for every “Oklahoma!” there are scores of bloated casualties. Indeed, it's probably tougher to turn a complicated play into a musical than a trove of moody songs. But without a playwriting sensibility to guide the project, not even the most enduring contemporary classics will be able to get off the ground, as “Million Dollar Quartet,” the Broadway show featuring gems immortalized by Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash and Carl Perkins, makes clear.

The golden age of the American musical was a time when the theater, believe it or not, was a source of popular music. Broadway numbers became repackaged into radio hits. But theatrical songwriting turned increasingly specialized (i.e., marginalized) in the post-Sondheim era, a matter for rarefied tastes.

The jukebox phenomenon, which has only lowered the literary bar for musicals, is easy enough to blame. But what seems like a marketplace strategy to cash in on our endless appetite for the familiar can also be seen as a desire to locate a shared tradition. It’s no wonder that “American Idol” has had such an influence (deleterious, I’ll grant you) on modern musical performance. In our atomized culture, any success in gathering a mass audience is impossible to ignore, even if it entails power ballads and a complete lack of subtlety in interpretation.

But what ultimately defines the musical is the dance between speech and song. “American Idiot” has an enviable catalog of music and one of the boldest, most instinctive directors working today. What’s missing is textured characterization and sharp thematic vision. The show does indeed look and sound like a 21st century original. Yet in the way it brushes off the challenge of story, it also signals that we haven't quite arrived at a new era. 

-- Charles McNulty

Photos: Top: "American Idiot" on Broadway. Bottom: John Gallagher Jr. in "American Idiot" on Broadway. Credit: Bryan Bedder/Getty Images