Producer Vivek Tiwary invited me to American Idiot on Sunday night, composer Billie Joe Armstrong’s last performance as St. Jimmy. I’d seen the show opening night, when Green Day attended, but did not perform unless you count the last curtain call. I’ve been thinking ever since about the next time I’ll see the show, and that’s something that Sunday didn’t change at all.
Some of my friends may find this remarkable, because I’m a notorious loather of Broadway musicals.* Hated Rent, thought the music in A Chorus Line was worthless, liked the first act of Dreamgirls pretty much despite myself. With Tommy, I liked what Des McAnuff did to straighten out the narrative and the way the production used video elements more than that version of the music. (I’d forgotten ‘til now that it also played at the St. James.)
But American Idiot, as rewritten and directed by Michael Mayer, is such a breakthrough that it no more needs Billie Joe’s charisma than it does an orchestra. (Billie Joe did a fantastic job, creating a very different Tony Vincent, sly and crazy rather than sinister and slithering.)
When Billie Joe as St. Jimmy appeared at the top of the stairs, high up at the back of the stage, the audience went off like a rock concert. But it didn’t stop the show for more than a few beats, anymore than similar mania stops rock shows. American Idiot is way too close to a rock concert for that. A great rock concert, one that renders you alert to everything from the ways you’ve changed or haven’t since you went to your last one to how this one is going to change you, too.
Idiot has very little to do with any of the shows mentioned above, although like McAnuff’s Tommy it uses video screens and a few other elements on its simple, efficient but high tech set. The performances (particularly from the Idiot himself, John Gallagher) are way better than anything mentioned above, Dreamgirls included, yet they are Broadway not rock’n’roll performances–that is, you always know you’re seeing an interpretation, and you’re meant to know it.
What makes Idiot different and important is very simple: It trusts the music. The show is high volume, rock’n’roll show loud—they’ve had to turn it down in order to avoid bothering the play across the street—and the musicians, a very fine eight-piece band handpicked by Green Day, rock to the bone .
The singing challenges, even if it never changes, the Broadway paradigm. Walking out of Sweeney Todd years ago, I asked Brian DePalma why I hated such shows. He said, “Well, you love stories and you love music. In musicals, story is compromised by having to stop for the songs, and the music is compromised because it has to tell the story.”
That’s part of what I mean by trusting the music. This music can tell the story by itself, we know that from the album. And by music I mean music: The sound of each song, not just its lyrics.
In rock, slurring notes (thus, inevitably blurring verbal phrases) is a requirement, part of the link to the South and to blues. By that measure, Broadway singing is marred by excessive enunciation. Part of what letting the lyrics slur and be buried in sound means is that in Idiot the actors make music with facial expressions much more similar to the way that they speak than in conventional musicals. One of my favorite memories from Sunday is thinking, “Gee, I’m sitting in the fourth row and in no danger of seeing anybody’s tonsils.”
Trusting the music in this way also means trusting the listeners. Between the volume and the slurring, there’s absolutely no danger that the audience can fully grasp in one sitting any plot points established by the lyrics, especially in a show that probably doesn’t have 90 lines of spoken dialogue in 90 minutes. The trick is not caring—or rather, giving the performers the permission to act is if all is perfectly understood.
Which is back to trusting the sounds. Or as Pete Townshend elaborated in an interview last year, “in a pop song the function was different to the songs from music theatre. There was already a story being experienced, by the listener – the context was already established.” That is, you know things about the story because of the sounds and the fragments of lyrics you do acquire, not from the lyrics as a whole.
The American Idiot plot isn’t all that hard to grasp anyhow, being a story many times as old as rock’n’roll’s evolution into rock, which is when it hardened into almost a formula: Drugs, sex, war, music, and a whole lot of pain on the way to some specks of dawning maturity. It’s not a story to be trivialized (though many have tried) but like every kind of aural epic, the quality comes down to how passionately it’s rendered. On the album, Green Day treated it like autobiography without ever denying the inherent clichés. Gallagher and his onstage mates, Stark Sands and Mike Esper, greet the challenge of relaying it with only partial help from the lyrics as if it were a brand new thing in the Broadway world—which I think it is. So American Idiot seems excited about itself, which is what makes me want to go there some more.
A lot of this has to do with Michael Mayer’s courage in letting it happen like this, but I think it’s also about who the show brings into the St. James. You can see Sunday’s post-curtain number on YouTube and it’s worth seeing. As every night, the entire cast appears with acoustic guitars to sing Green Day’s “Good Riddance (Time Of Your Life).” It’s a beautiful moment because it is a rock song in the Townshend mold and because it speaks to what someone—like me—might take from the show: “It’s something unpredictable / But in the end it’s right.”
Sunday, before everybody else started strumming, Billy Joe brought a folded piece of lined paper out of his pocket and laid it before him on the stage. He crouched over it and sang a farewell to the show. When “Good Riddance” ended (this part isn’t on YouTube), he accepted a bunch of roses from a fan in the front row. He paused, then handed her his guitar. The entire house roared its approval.
Security personnel confronted the girl with the guitar when she got to the aisle. She clutched it tightly as her girlfriend chastised the women from security: “He gave it to her.” “It’s not his,” the woman from security replied.
For about two minutes it was a standoff, with the crowd hooting its outrage. (“You’re going to like what’s in the papers tomorrow a lot more if she keeps it than what’ll be in ‘em if she doesn’t” I muttered to Vivek, who already knew that.) Then somebody sent word from backstage—probably that Billie Joe’s wages could be docked for the price of the guitar–and the fan left with the guitar. The crowd went nuts again. Not so much because this was justice. But because it was looking for another excuse to go nuts again.
You wonder why I want to go back? That’s so rock’n’roll I’m pretty sure it doesn’t happen at rock shows any more.
*Love straight plays, have since I saw a collegiate King Lear in junior high school. When I first moved to New York, a friend worked at Circle Rep and I got to see a batch of plays, including the original production of Lanford Wilson’s Hot L Baltimore, that rank with my greatest cultural experiences. I even liked A Raisin in the Sun in its Puff Daddyy incarnation, though not because of Puffy. My friend Vivek was a producer on Raisin and he’s got a more prominent role in producing Idiot but I’m not sure I’d risk The Addams Family even for him.