Green Day's American Idiot
Wednesday, June 13, 2012
The Orpheum Theatre
Better than: Bitching about people who are making something new.
There are two kinds of people in the punk world: Those who think the members of Green Day were sellouts for turning their heart-shaped-hand-grenade 2004 hit American Idiot into a Broadway musical, and everyone else. (Who either accepted that Green Day "sold out," as some would say, long ago -- or didn't care in the first place.)
The former position is tough to hold when one considers that Green Day frontman Billie Joe Armstrong honed his ear for melody and his rockstar theatricality singing show tunes to nursing home patients with his father long before he'd ever heard of punk rock. If it wasn't already clear from his soaring, McCartney-esque hooks and the three-act mini-narratives of his verses, Broadway is in this guy's blood.
But the Green-Day-as-musical-sellout position is even harder to reconcile with the reality of the American Idiot musical itself, which works far better as a demonstration of the band's songwriting talent than a compelling story or a statement of social protest. American Idiot the musical adds lots of emoting, but only the thinnest layer of plot to the songs of the songs of the namesake album and its follow-up, 21st Century Breakdown. If anything, the spiky-haired naysayers should be flattered that director Michael Mayer gave Green Day's music the starring role in the production, accompanying it with meager characters (more like archetypes, as many critics have pointed out) and an all-but-threadbare storyline.
American Idiot is visceral. The production opened at the Berkeley Rep in 2009 and on Broadway in 2010, and had reviewers cheering its volume, intensity, and irreverence. The touring production that begins its run at the Orpheum Theatre this week certainly lives up to that reputation, piling on one rock anthem after another, dancers wriggling and slamming and flailing around onstage in a reminder that these songs are supposed to speak for a generation, not just one person. The backing band sounded eerily flawless last night -- if they weren't quite as sonically overpowering as one of Green Day's arena shows, they were more precise. Watching music director Jared Stein standing behind his keyboard at the side of the stage, conducting the ensemble with crisp cues from his hands, one wondered if these musicians might surpass the more famous originals in versatility.
The production's story, however, lurches from one song to the next as it follows its main characters -- three white dudes from the suburbs -- in a Bush-era coming-of-age tale. Two of them (Johnny and Tunny) head off to the big city to chase their dreams; the other, Will, is forced to remain home after getting his girlfriend pregnant, and he languishes amid his bong, his bottle, and his frustrations. Listlessly watching TV in the city, Tunny is inspired to join the military. He goes to war (presumably in Iraq) and loses a leg. That leaves Johnny, our hero, alone among the skyscrapers, where he promptly develops a smack addiction and a pal in his mischievous pusher, St. Jimmy. He romances the sultry Whatshername, but struggles with his own shortcomings. He also forgets to shower a lot.
The forces driving these characters are alluded to in the set's dazzling array of TV screens (replete with clips of late-night garbage and threat-level fearmongering), punk imagery, urban grit, and suburban ennui. But most of the most important events in the story are left to be articulated by the songs themselves. The characters never get the kinds of good, plot-twisting lines that might make them seem like real people, instead of catch-alls embodying the broad fears and conflicts of an era.
In the moments when the characters and the songs closely align, though, the richness of sentiment can be spectacular. When the three main characters sing lines from "American Idiot," sneering at "subliminal mindfuck America," it feels like both an accurate portrayal of them as people, and a winking acknowledgment of the song's adolescent naivete. When Will's girlfriend, Heather, strides out holding a positive pregnancy test and sings "Dearly Beloved," from the "Jesus of Suburbia" suite, it gives the song a poignancy Billie Joe never could. The trick of having different characters sing various pieces of one song from different perspectives adds a vividness to the music that just isn't there on the album cuts, as good as they are. (Though some of the players, Will's Jake Epstein in particular, aren't quite as good at summoning the misfit snarl that punk rock vocalizing demands.)
Whatever one thinks of Green Day, or of the dubious concept of "selling out," American Idiot begged for a musical treatment like this. As the world's first punk rock opera, the album contains just enough of a narrative to tempt a fleshing out with a real storyline. The album's tale isn't totally cohesive, though, and American Idiot the musical comes up short in terms of actual story. Its characters are mere projections of young people, not the rather complicated real things, and the plot fizzles out halfway through, arriving at an unsatisfying and inconsequential-feeling conclusion. While the album was notable for its bold rejection of post-Sept. 11 paranoia and its vehement (if simplistic) indictment of the most destructive presidential administration in modern American history, the musical only refers to politics in vagaries.
Still, as a visual presentation of one of postmillenial rock's most important albums, American Idiot is a valuable work. It's blunt, loud, free of nuance, and a reminder of the uncanny power of three power chords and a soaring melody. And it's good fun. So anyone complaining about Green Day selling out for making a musical should see the production first. The punk rockers didn't bend to Broadway for this -- Broadway bended to them.
Personal bias: I'm a notorious Green Day fan/apologist, but this was my first time seeing the musical.
The crowd: A mix of press, Twitterati invited as a welcome gift during their first week on mid-Market, and what appeared to be regulars at the Orpheum. I wondered a lot about what those with gray hair and Gucci handbags were thinking when they walked out of the theater.