The idea of a punk rock musical may strike some folks as patently absurd. How can you take one art form — gritty, rebellious, brutally minimalist — and marry it to another — polished, family-friendly, harmonically complex — without crippling them both? Some fans, in other words, are simply never going to warm to the idea of a Green Day musical, no matter how good it is.
But they’re missing out. American Idiot, which opened Tuesday night at Broadway’s St. James Theatre after a run at the Berkeley Repertory Theatre, is about as rock’n’roll as musicals get.
It honors the 2004 Green Day record of the same name — that brilliant piece of agitprop that won the trio a Grammy and a second crack at stardom — without losing its angsty charm.
Of course, it helps to have a Tony Award-winning director on board who knows how to bring rock to Broadway. Michael Mayer, the man behind the rock musical Spring Awakening, directed and co-wrote American Idiot along with Green Day frontman Billie Joe Armstrong.
The album’s characters — St. Jimmy (Tony Vincent), Whatsername (Rebecca Naomi Jones), and Johnny “Jesus of Suburbia” (Spring Awakening‘s John Gallagher, Jr.) — are given a few new friends, Tunny (Stark Sands) and Will (Michael Esper), and set on a stage plastered with posters and embedded with dozens of video screens, with half a car body hanging overhead. Idiot loosely chronicles the characters’ various destinies in a post-9/11 society: love, pregnancy, drug addiction, and the war in the Middle East.
Fortunately, Mayer’s decision to focus on the music instead of the story (there couldn’t be more than 50 lines of dialogue in the whole show) largely pays off.
Despite Steven Hoggett’s sometimes overzealous choreography — what’s up with that spastic half-head-bang, half-mosh move everyone keeps doing? — much of American Idiot feels like a real rock show that just happened to take place in a Broadway theater: There’s a live five-piece band on stage and the songs are performed in the same order as they appear on record (with a couple tracks from 2009’s 21st Century Breakdown thrown in). And thankfully, no one relies on musical theater’s ubiquitous vibrato. Gallagher and his buddies act like rock stars, not Clay Aiken.
For the most part, Tom Kitt’s arrangements stay true to the Green Day originals. Despite the string section and added vocal harmonies, “American Idiot” and “Are We the Waiting” hit just as hard as they do on the album. Kitt’s most notable contributions are the occasional medleys, including a turbulent back-and-forth between “Last of the American Girls” and “She’s a Rebel,” and his reimagining of show-closer “Whatshername” as a bittersweet ballad. Getting every cast member to strum along to “Good Riddance (Time of Your Life)” is also a winning, if predictable, encore.
Despite many critics calling American Idiot “revolutionary” for the easy balance it achieves between theater and punk – between Broadway and the alleyway – the musical is also a celebration of a dying format: the album. The show’s success has almost entirely to do with the power of the original American Idiot, and the uncanny way those nine songs expressed a nationwide malaise.
Mayer and his cast certainly deserve credit for performing that music with such honesty and vitality. But it’s Green Day who deserve our loudest applause.