Tuesday, March 30, 2010

American Idiot on Broadway [Review]

Last Friday, I went to see the (third) Broadway Preview of American Idiot. The musical is a staged performance of the Green Day album of the same name, padded out with a bunch of songs from 21st Century Breakdown and a couple other sources. The cast was largely the same as the original off-Broadway show, with only one substitution amongst the leads (Tunny was played by Stark Sands, vs Matt Caplan in the original run, which is actually pretty irrelevant because I have no idea who either of them is).

Greenday was, I think, the second band I ever really listened too. The first was R.E.M., because I heard "Stand" when it was the theme song to the short lived and extra terrible Fox comedy Get a Life staring Chris Eliott. I don't really remember how I got introduced to Green Day, but probably it involved me getting friends who were not also huge nerds who introduced me to the "radio." This was right when Dookie came out, and I had just turned 17. Its universal message of impotent-teen-aged-to-early-twenty-something-rage (and frequent masturbation) connected with my high schooler brain, and I listened to that album constantly. I have a vivid memory of listening to the album on headphones while working as an office temp over that summer at my dad's company. At the end of the summer, I was mortified to learn that the secretaries all had heard me singing "When I come around" under my breath for the last three months.

I of course was late to the whole Green Day thing, as they'd been doing the pop-punk/impotent-male-rage thing for years. I never retroactively got into their older albums, but I did once hear the following amazing story about one of their early club shows in the East Bay area. The concert attendee in question, being a dumb 18 year old going to a pop punk show in California, had brought with him a homemade prop. This prop consisted of a huge pile of old bread he had found discarded behind a bakery, which he had pressed into the smallest ball he could manage and placed inside of a fishnet bag. At the concert, he swung said bag in a circle around his head, spraying smooshed bread across the floor and the other Green Day fans. Naturally, he lost his grip on the bag, which sailed across the room and hit Billy Joe in the head. I cannot for the life of me remember who told me that story.

My own Green Day concert memory comes from 1996, during the height of their first round of popularity. I went with my friend Brian to a giant arena show, where I was lamely in the seats, watching the cool people be cool on the floor. But it was still awesome. Green Day's music is often simple--I used to joke that they'd bust out that third cord for the really emotionally intense portions of the song--but I've always found it really powerful and visceral. When amped up to concert levels, the wall of heavy guitar chords completely surrounds you, and the drums pound into your brain in a way that's both punk and primal. I remember turning to my friend and asking him what it is that makes a band fade away or last for decades, and if he thought Green Day would still be around in 20 years. He told me he expected them to break up in a year or two.

After the mid 90's, Green Day first got mediocre (Insomniac) then "experimental," which is to say, super lame. I barely remember Nimrod except that it spawned the lame song that was in every freaking movie in 1997. I don't think I'd ever heard of Warning before writing this review, though upon investigation sorta did like that title song. And I guess my friend was right, cause I'm pretty sure they did break up in there somewhere. Then I graduate and go off the grad school and mostly forget about my impotent early twenty-something male rage.

Jump ahead to 2004 and the release of American Idiot. I had pretty much stopped listening to Green Day by the time "Boulevard of Broken Dreams" became the new radio single. It took me a while to realize I really liked that song, that it had gotten inside of me in the same way the old stuff did when I was in high school. It was a couple years before I bought American Idiot, which has since become one of my most-played albums. It has the same power and sheer volume (in the breadth sense, not the magnitude sense) that I loved from the old Green Day. It also had a maturity to it, and more variety in song construction than Dookie ever did, without the lameness of Nimrod. The concept-album angle was sort of interesting, but the music was what sold me. I mean, the story is basically the same impotent-early-twenty-something-male-rage shtick of the old Green Day, but now being sung by a pack of thirty somethings. I wasn't particularly interested in the story of Jesus of Suburbia, St. Jimmy, and Whatshername, but I did like their songs.

And so, now here we are in 2010 and Green Day has a rock musical opening on Broadway, twenty years after their first album (suck it, Brian). The plot of American Idiot the Musical is the same as the 2004 album, and everything they wrote in the 90's: impotent male rage. In some sense, it seemed absurd to watch a show written by guys pushing 40 about 20 year olds raging against the world but powerless to change it, or even really do anything interesting. On one level, I feel like they should move on already. On another, they're really good at telling that story.

The show stars John Howard Gallagher, Jr. as Johnny, aka Jesus of Suburbia, in the tale already told by the concept album. Gallagher is best known for originating the role of Moritz Stiefel in Spring Awakening, so he has good young-male-impotent-rage credentials. A lot of the show reminded me of Spring Awakening in fact. Some of the choreography was similar, the set was a mostly bare stage with occasional furniture, and the story, while simpler, is another one of those male coming of age in a world that sucks stories. The music, being Green Day, was a lot more intense, and the pace overall more frenetic.

The show was a lot like a staged Green Day concert, or maybe what a Green Day show would be if it were choreographed by the person who does Lady Gaga's videos. For me, the show evoked a lot of my late high school, early college concert experiences, with that wall of alt rock sound, familiar songs, and dancing that was like a completely cracked up and yet perfectly coordinated version of the kind of flail-dancing I associate with outdoor alternative shows in the mid 90's. The show follows Johnny as he rages against his crappy town, leaves his crappy town, moves to New York, meets a drug dealer named St. Jimmy and the super hot punk girl Whatshername, who doesn't get pants until the last 30 minuted of the production. One of his hometown friends comes with him, hates the city, enlists in the army and gets seriously wounded, while his other best friend never leaves town due to knocking up his high school girlfriend. Then the show ends after everyone has screwed up their lives and crawled back to their crappy hometown. Hooray!

The set was pretty amazing. The show made excellent use of vertical space. Action happened almost to the top of the stage, with the actors running up fire escapes, flipping out of hidden windows, and flying around with some pretty impressive wire work. The set incorporated dozens of flat screen tvs that blast a stream of images during most of the show, holding still only during Johnny's brief moments of dialog when they display a static message that starts as "Please Stand By" and evolves over the show. I remember "Please Come" and "Please Help Me" but am blanking on most of the others. The set is rendered steadily more chaotic as the show goes on, with paper and spray paint and glitter everywhere. I would hate to be on run crew for this show.

The highlights for me include St. Jimmy, who had a ridiculous emo-dbag haircut combined with an old-school punk attitude and singing style, and who stole the show whenever he was on stage. I also loved Whatshername, who was completely intense when dancing and beautiful when singing (and also didn't wear pants, as previously mentioned). overall the music was great, and I thought the numbers where they orchestrated out the songs into multi-part harmony were fantastic, as it led that same wall of sound feeling the guitar has to the vocals, and I wish they had done more of that. The show had an on stage punk band (not Green Day themselves) and i totally fell in love with the riot grrl conductor keyboardist with her thigh high chucks.

The show made me ask a few questions, such as who the hell says "You know what? I think i might like to try heroin tonight." And also, seriously, why still tell the same story over and over, Green Day? On the other hand, the story wasn't really the point and I have to give credit to any rock musical with a plot that's coherent; brilliant and meaningful may be asking a bit much. I also wonder if American Idiot is pitying the millennials, in a way. After all, Green Day got to rage for its own sake in a world that was pretty good. The current kids have to rage against Bush's America, Iraq war and American Idol and all. Is that the timeless message, that 90's rage was for fun and the 00's were really depressing? Well, deep philosophy it was not, but it was still an insanely fun show.

One final story. About ten minutes before the show started, the people in the orchestra seats when completely nuts. I was in the back row of the balcony, and like all the other dopes who stood up like that would make the floor transparent I couldn't see anything. After the show ended, me and my sister got funneled to some sketchy back stairwell, where we were suddenly stopped with like fifty other people because some bodyguard had closed the door at the bottom telling us we couldn't exit yet. So there I was trapped in a back stairwell filled with people of all ages who were completely cranked up from sitting through the craziest staged concert we had ever seen, when my sister quips, "...and, this is where we burn to death." While that would have been a punk rock way to go, we eventually escaped with our lives. Probably this was all the fault of Green Day themselves, who we suspect were at this show, being the first preview on a weekend. But I didn't see them, so for all I know, it was Barak Obama, Jimmy Paige, and the Pope holding up our exit.

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