This Sensation's Overwhelming

We used to call them "concept musicals," shows for which the central theme or metaphor is as important (or more so) than the story. Steve Sondheim and Hal Prince perfected the form but they didn't invent it; after all, there were The Cradle Will Rock, Love Life, Hallelujah Baby!, The Fantasticks, and a few other shows that arguably qualify as concept musicals, that came long before the Sondheim-Prince Revolution.

But the concept musical flourished and evolved in the 1960s and 70s, practiced most powerfully by Sondheim and Prince, Kander and Ebb, Michael Bennett, Bob Fosse, and Tommy Tune.

We still have concept musicals, but we generally don't use that label anymore. Maybe it's because the elements of the concept musical (i.e., Cabaret, Company, Follies, Chicago, Grease, Hair, Rocky Horror, The Wiz, Working, A Chorus Line, etc.) have become more integrated into the art form as it has evolved in this new Golden Age of musical theatre.

If we were still using that label, there would be lots of contemporary shows that qualify: Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, The Scottsboro Boys, The Blue Flower, Passing Strange, The Wild Party, High Fidelity, Bukowsical, Spelling Bee, A New Brain, Urinetown, Bat Boy, If/Then, and so many others.

And American Idiot.

It's worth noting that New Line has produced all but three of the shows I just listed.

But because we routinely produce many of the most adventurous, most difficult conceptual musicals, actors who are new to our family sometimes have a hard time understanding these shows and their place in these shows. In some cases, most notably Hair (the first time) and Lippa's The Wild Party, our actors didn't fully "get it" until all the production elements came together a few days before we opened. To be honest, with Hair, it really wasn't till we got our first audience sobbing at the end of the show...

American Idiot is one of these concept musicals. It's difficult to understand intellectually what Michael Mayer did with this story, and how he uses the ensemble.

In American Idiot, the ensemble starts the show as friends of Johnny, Tunny, and Will's. After a prologue (the title song), in which the actors are outside our narrative, announcing our intentions for the evening, they move inside the story. In the second number, the "Jesus of Suburbia" medley, the ensemble plays our heroes' community. But once we finish that medley (ending with "Tales of Another Broken Home"), everything changes.

Now we move into concept musical territory...

The whole middle part of the show, starting with "Holiday" and ending with "Wake Me Up When September Ends," largely leaves the concrete world, for an inner world of emotion, fear, dislocation, isolation, anger... And for this middle section, the ensemble acts more as projections of Johnny, Tunny, Will, Heather, and Whatsername; and/or they are the outside world through our heroes' warped, angry, drugged-up eyes. Just as St. Jimmy is a projection of Johnny's dark side, Jimmy's acolytes and mourners are a further projection of Jimmy.

So throughout most of the story, the ensemble takes on an entirely conceptual role, illustrating and extending the inner turmoil of these fucked up young men and women. Only at the beginning and end of the show, the ensemble plays real people in Johnny's real word.

In most Hero Myth stories, the hero has companions who go on his journey with him (think the Tin Man or C-3PO). In this story, our heroes' friends do accompany them on their journey, but only inside our heroes' heads.

In a normal Hero Myth story, Tunny and Will would be companions on Johnny's journey. But Michael Mayer and Billie Joe Armstrong are doing something more interesting than that with this show. They set out to tell a story about America's reaction to 9/11 and the War on Terror, but American didn't have just one response. So Mayer and Armstrong split up the usual merry band and they give us instead three hero myths and three heroes who take very different journeys.

And the ensemble spends the show jumping around from inside Johnny's head, to inside Tunny's head, to inside Whatsername's head...

All this works and the audience accepts it, partly because we've all been prepared for this kind of thing by other concept musicals. It's rare that an ensemble gets used in so many different ways within a single show, but the surrealism of much of the show (because it's almost all interior and/or drug induced) makes it all feel like a unified whole.

It also works because of the consistency and artistry with which Mayer and Armstrong use the ensemble. As one example of this craftsmanship, the character of St. Jimmy, one of the leads and arguably the antagonist, is also inside Johnny's head, and Jimmy bridges those two worlds, the concrete and the interior, the real world of the characters and the metaphorical world of the ensemble.

I'm very lucky that our actors trust me. Even when they don't understand exactly where we're headed, they accept that I do know, that I will protect them, and so they try anything I ask of them.

So much of my staging for American Idiot is expressionistic, conveying emotion rather than any concrete ideas or images. And we see now, as we run the whole show at each rehearsal, that all that conceptual stuff is making sense to the actors. We can see them making connections within scenes, and over the course of the show. We can see them fully embracing many of the wilder moments. We can see, just from the commitment and fearlessness onstage, that our actors are getting comfortable, feeling the longer arcs of the story, understanding their place in this wild, poetic, conceptual universe.

In our audition notices, we always say, "We need intelligent, fearless, singing actors who are willing to take risks onstage." And we mean it. Without the high level of talent and fearlessness we are lucky to assemble for each show, we could not do the kind of work we do. We sure couldn't do American Idiot. Lucky for us, we get the very best talent in the area working with us because of the kind of smart, adventurous, brilliant shows we produce.

The best actors, musicians, and designers want to work on challenging, brilliant material. I am very fortunate to be able to provide that material for these amazing artists to work on. I truly love my job.

We open next week!

Long Live the Musical!