Our overall approach to American Idiot won't be significantly different from Michael Mayer's brilliant original, but we'll be in a much more intimate space – our stage will be only fifteen feet deep and we'll have only seven rows of audience, seating a total of about 140. And that kind of intimacy automatically changes a show fundamentally. Our actors will be as close to our audience as a real punk band would be to its fans in a club. And the anger and aggression will be much more palpable, much more personal.
The only slight flaw I found with the wonderful original production was the cool choreography. It was really great but it didn't feel like it belonged to that story. Punks don't do choreography. And yet, it's such a high-energy show that it demands lots of physicality, like a good rock concert. The solution I came to was twofold. First, I decided not to hire our outstanding resident choreographer Robin this time; I will stage all the movement in the show (no doubt with a hearty assist from Dowdy). Second, I decided I didn't want anything on that stage to ever look like a dance step.
Instead, I've assembled a movement vocabulary of stomping, walking, running, clapping, falling, etc. Now, in all fairness, the original choreography also used moves like these, so my approach isn't revolutionary, just a slightly different, arguably more focused, more authentic path. I'm not saying the choices in the original production were wrong; they were trying to speak to a Broadway audience, including lots of tourists and non-English speakers. But I think our movement will feel more organic to this punk rock fable and its music, and so will our actors.
The more I read about punk rock, and watch documentaries, the more I understand it in a way I haven't before. I had a decent understanding of it, after studying glam and punk while working on both Rocky Horror and Hedwig, but the punk scene was/is much richer and more varied than I thought.
My biggest takeaway this time? The music itself really is just part of it, maybe not even the biggest part of it. This story defines it better than I could...
A guy walks up to Billie Joe Armstrong and asks "What’s Punk?" So Armstrong kicks over a garbage can and says "That’s punk!" So the guy kicks over another garbage can and says "That’s punk?" And Armstrong says "No, that’s trendy.”
It's rebellious, but it's more than just that. It's also personal. It's angry, aggressive, I-Have-No-More-Fucks-To-Give rebellious, but on a very personal level. And its authenticity comes from the fact that the anger is arguably justified and the aggression at least understandable. There are things in the world we should be angry about. The attempted national brainwashing of all of us during the "War on Terror" was something to be angry about.
The Punkers hated New Wave, because that was just Punk without the anger or aggression, just artistic and aesthetic rebellion, rather than social and political rebellion. I will admit that I loved New Wave, I guess because I was a bit of a rebel but not all that angry...
But the more I learn, the more I think about it, the more I'm tempted to say that New Line is Punk. Not all our shows are angry, but some of them are very angry, and almost all of them are quite aggressive. Most of them are artistically, culturally, and/or politically rebellious. I'm not saying New Line is Sex Pistols Punk. More like Talking Heads or David Bowie...
Or Green Day.
Surely that, coupled with Jerry Springer the Opera and Bukowsical, qualifies us as at least honorary punks...
Webster's defines punk rock as "rock music marked by extreme and often deliberately offensive expressions of alienation and social discontent." I think that definition is a bit narrow, but it does describe a fair amount of New Line's work. Wikipedia says, "Punk bands typically use short or fast-paced songs, with hard-edged melodies and singing styles, stripped-down instrumentation, and often political, anti-establishment lyrics. Punk embraces a DIY ethic; many bands self-produced recordings and distributed them through informal channels."
That definition excludes Green Day today, although maybe the truth is that Billie Joe Armstrong and his band mates are pushing the boundaries of punk, allowing it to evolve into an even more expressive (or at least more complex) art form. And that's something to celebrate. Or maybe the real truth is that you can't adequately define punk because the whole point of punk rock is to deconstruct rock and roll, to live outside conventional definitions.
After all, how do you describe American Idiot and Green Day's other work? Certainly they are a punk band, by most definitions. But they write incredibly catchy, melodic songs, so are they pop? They also write serious, dense, poetic lyrics, so are they alt pop? They write ballads and pop anthems, but they're about politics, society, drugs, the media, religion, government, all infused with "alienation and social discontent."
Sounds a lot like New Line...
Green Day is definitely punk in their aesthetic, their politics, etc., but they're also much than just rejection and rebellion. American Idiot is a magnificent piece of work, with real depth and insight. It delivers what all great art must – politics, poetry, and popcorn, or in other words, the issues of our times (politics), serious artistic expression (poetry), and pure entertainment (popcorn). In fact, now that I think about it, a lot of contemporary musicals do.
The biggest, overarching theme I've noticed in common between the two time periods is the use of fear. After 9/11 the nation was plunged into an ear of fear, the fear of violence, sure, but more than anything else, fear of The Other. It was a crazy, fucked up time, and American Idiot captures that moment so insightfully.
Hear the sound of the falling rain,
Coming down like an Armageddon flame;
The ones who died without a name.
In the intervening years, between then and now, the country came (partially, from time to time) to its senses, but now it's election season again, there have been a few high profile terrorist attacks, and the GOP is back in the fear business. It's the same as last time – "The end of the world is coming, and only I can save you." Or as Green Day characterizes it...
Zieg heil to the President Gasman!
Bombs away is your punishment!
Pulverize the Eiffel Towers
Who criticize your government!
In American Idiot, Bush is making America considerably scarier for liberals and young people (who tend to be liberal). In 2016, Obama has made the world considerably scarier for conservatives (by making it less scary for The Others). Yet in both periods, it's the Republicans who use fear to win votes. In both periods, Democrats talk about hope and change, but both Bush and Obama delivered on change, and their very different kinds of change scared different kinds of people.
Then again, I guess there's an argument to be made that Trump himself is punk...
I'm struck at every rehearsal how much these songs sound like they were written a few months ago, and how much they describe 2016. It will be interesting to see if our audiences find the connections as powerful as I do.
It will also be interesting to see what our audiences think of this punk rock musical, especially in our theatre, as intimate as a punk rock club, though much cleaner and better lit. American Idiot really is punk, but I don't think most people understand punk. I think they'll enjoy finding out.
I bet a lot of people in our New Line audience have a little punk in them.
This experience is already exhilarating.
Long Live the Musical! And Punk!