My review for writing workshop:

A Musical for the Masses

“If you’re going to do a rock opera,” says Billie Joe Armstrong, “You gotta do it right. It’s gotta be louder, and it’s gotta have energy.” He’s speaking of course of his musical debut on Broadway: Green Day’s American Idiot. The super-imposed, rock-album -meets-musical features songs and lyrics from the band’s two-time Grammy award winning album; since its release in 2004, the record has sold over 12 million copies worldwide.

Every seat in the St. James’ theatre on 44th and 8th Avenue was occupied on the Thursday night I attended; the audience, looking much the part of a concert crowd, was fringed and speckled by those of older generations, those who might have lingered once as concerned parents in venue parking lots, and younger generations who probably have no idea what punk is. That night’s performance happened to be the last of a three-night series called “American Idiot U”, which offered discounted tickets for New York co-eds and allowed them to linger for an enlightening post-show panel featuring none other than Billie Joe himself (the producer, lighting designer, a few actors, and the music supervisor were scheduled to appear as well).

Working with Billie Joe and his bandmates isn’t director Michael Mayer’s first experience with rock stars. Duncan Sheik, the quasi-one-hit-wonder who sang “Barely Breathing,” wrote music for Spring Awakening, based on the German play written in 1891 by Frank Wedekind. This too is a rock musical (although it lends itself somewhat to the folksier side of the spectrum) and is now on a global tour. There are two major differences between Mayer’s first stab at rock-musical fusion and his second. Spring Awakening was adapted from a play. American Idiot was built from a rock record. Albums such as Green Day’s might not be the most story-telling medium; yet, it’s the mish-mash of melodies and lyrics that the show takes after.

“I think having a show on Broadway, its breaking boundaries,” Billie says. Knowing and accepting that this production isn’t traditional in a Broadway sense is the first step to enjoying the performance. For us impatient New Yorkers, and others attending who might feel just slightly frenetic and Blackberry obsessed, Mayer’s show gyrates and gallivants through 21 numbers in 90 minutes, without an intermission. A simple, non-descript red curtain shields the audience from the Tony Award winning stage smattered with newspaper clippings shouting “Dead Kennedy”, WANTED ads, show posters, ticket stubs and the “We Can Do It!” woman, interspersed by an anthology of television sets – plasmas, flat screens, and whatever televisions were called before remote-controls, HD, and 1080dpi. The televisions are synched together – flying through clips from the past few decades and occasionally, between numbers, requesting the audience to “Pay Attention Please,” as if we might have started to drift.

“It’s much more than a bunch of cool kids bouncing their heads and singing. Broadway’s absolutely ready for punk,” a cast member proclaims. The first number, which shares the same name as the show and the album, features a group of punked-out boys and girls bouncing around and slamming their heads against the air (albeit in tandem, to which I give my kudos to Olivier Award-winning choreographer Steven Hoggett for cultivating the effects of noggin banging). The number also introduces the three main characters, Will played by Michael Esper, Tunny played by Stark Sands, and the endearing Johnny, played by John Gallagher Jr. who debuted the role of Moritz in Spring Awakening. Johnny bears some resemblance to Marc Cohen, the self deprecating narrator of Rent as he shares dates, letters to his parents, and musings between numbers. The show sparkles with riffs of other Broadway favorites; when Tunny heads of to the military and comes back without the bottom half of his left leg, I couldn’t help but think that he made out better than Claude did in Hair. The production seems to intensify once-novel subjects of other Broadway trend-setters, drugs, sex, and war. However, I never quite felt akin to this particular cast in the way I felt for Mimi and Roger, Moritz, or the counter-culture tribe that “bares all” to the audience before intermission.

Despite resemblances, the show has a few original moments (I was especially distracted by Will, who spends almost the entire show singing, strumming his guitar, and making out on a beat up old couch on stage right) and the spotlight is entirely stolen by the character of St. Jimmy, played by Tony Vincent. Regardless of the fact that I found him absolutely creepy, he is the quintessential “bad boy” and provides the audience with a conundrum – to figure out whether or not this St. Jimmy dude is Johnny’s psychological side kick. That was the post-show panel’s deepest question, and perhaps a segway for the nod to blatant and reoccurring drug use to which Billie Joe replied, “Hey, one night you start out having just a few drinks and then wake up on Sunset Boulevard and get picked up by a bunch of Mexican Gangbangers.”

American Idiot is like a mirage in that it looks and feels like Broadway but down deep it’s still a rock concert. And while I was delightfully entertained, I wondered what exactly did the show give us? Like any billboard favorite would do, the cast gave the audience an encore as result of the former’s standing ovation, an acoustic version of “Time of Your Life” where the cast stood in a chorus line, cradling guitars. Broadway productions have historically given the audience something, “On My Own,” “Seasons of Love,” “Music of the Night” have become staples for family road trips, concert bands, grade school programs for the arts, and network quirks like Glee. What does American Idiot on Broadway give us that 12 million people don’t already have?