American Idiot

Thursday night I saw American Idiot, the rock musical based on the Green Day album. I wasn't sure what I was gonna think about this one -- it got generally positive reviews, but several people I know really don't like it. But I was quite pleasantly surprised. It's an incredibly cool, interesting show.

I realized as I watched it that this was the next logical step in the art form after Rent, though where Rent still has traditional musicals in its roots, American Idiot really doesn't. It works physically much like Rent, using a basically empty stage, the band right there on stage, but even more integrated into the action than in Rent. There's very little furniture, lots of ensemble work, and a lot of direct address to the audience.

American Idiot chronicles a year in the life of three friends who are lost in the labyrinth of modern day American culture. You might call them slackers, but that would trivialize the complexity of these characters' journeys. As the story begins, the three decide to head for the Big City, but one stays home with his pregnant girlfriend, and one decides to join the military, while the third pursues a life of sex, drugs, and rock and roll. All three ultimately find their paths unfulfilling, and they end up back home, much the wiser... though still lost..

In some ways, this is a classic story built on the hero myth, and while there are echoes of Rent here, there are also echoes of Tommy, Act II of The Fantasticks, and other works, yet it's still very much its own, very original work, with a very distinctive, authentic rock voice that Broadway doesn't often hear. I found myself really emotional at the end, as I realized that as much as I've always known what I wanted to do with my life, there are always those moments in life when we feel lost. It's a universal experience. And far from being just a rock album on stage, this is a fully realized rock musical with some interesting things to say about our culture and our times -- the show begins with a video montage of very dark, depressing news stories, setting the angsty tone of the show.

The cast is absolutely amazing, freakishly high energy, and absolutely immersed in their characters. The hip-hop-ish choreography is incredible. The walls of the set, are covered with newspaper, rising all the way up past the proscenium, dotted with TV screens, and here and there the word OBEY is written across the papers. The lights are spectacular, sometimes feeling like a rock concert but doing much more than that, really accomplishing mood and storytelling, like good theatre lighting should. There's only a little dialogue, most of it spoken to the audience.

All in all, I loved it. Very powerful, very intense, very emotional. It's got a great score, it's beautifully directed, and the acting is everything I want from a piece of theatre -- honest, truthful, and consistently surprising.

For those who hate American Idiot, you have to remember that this show is not the same animal as The Full Monty or Hairspray or Hello, Dolly! This is rock theatre. Its aesthetics are different, its language is different, its goals are different. Rock theatre generally tells much more primal tales. American Idiot is a triple hero myth, as each of the three lost friends have to take their own path and face their own obstacles, each cross into the underworld, learn something about themselves, and then return to their people with their new knowledge. The central guy even has to face his own "evil wizard" in the person of the drug dealer. It's classic stuff. The tragedy of the ending is that the three friends are still lost at the end. They've learned something but it's not enough in this oppressive, over-stimulated world of ours. I think what the show is saying is really truthful and really timely.

Personally, I love this trend toward emo rock musicals. The key to musical theatre is emotion, after all, and emo rock is the most emotionally expressive language American youth has right now. Rock theatre isn't just about the rock anymore. I think Hedwig and Rent started that. That's why we did Love Kills last season and why we're doing the pop opera Bare in June...

I don't know if New Line could produce American Idiot -- the spectacle is a big part of the Broadway production, but like many shows, it may work as well or even better small and intimate. I never say never...

See this one when the tour comes through! This is one of the several directions the musical theatre is heading right now, and I couldn't be happier about that!

Long Live the Musicals!