But it will never leave me. It's a part of me now. It has changed me.
It was a spectacular, sold-out run, that garnered rave reviews and standing ovations. And as often happens when I work on New Line shows, I discovered a depth of meaning and artistry that I had only glimpsed before we started work.
I thought the Broadway production was brilliant, a kind of minimalistic spectacle, but also so smart, so emotional, so relevant. But once we started working on the show, especially after we moved into our theatre, with a playing space about fifty feet wide and about fifteen feet deep, and an audience of only seven rows; then we could all see how different the intimacy was going to make our story – just as it has done for so many other New Line shows. Our space allowed for a subtlety and naturalness of acting that would've gotten lost in a Broadway house, and also for a really immersive experience for the audience, with Johnny and Whatsername copulating about a foot from the front row, more than once, and the Statue of Liberty dry-humping Tunny (in "Extraordinary Girl") almost as close.
This is not just great music, or just an exciting night of theatre. This is an extraordinary piece of writing, even more extraordinary for the fact that these lyrics were never meant to tell a literal story onstage, and yet to the credit of both Billie Joe Armstrong and Michael Mayer, they tell a rich, meaningful, primal, universal story.
And I've been thinking about that lyric now for weeks. It's so fucking wise. It's telling us to stop worrying about shit, stop trying to control shit, just follow your road – your "Real" as Passing Strange would put it, or your Bliss, as Joseph Campbell would put it – and embrace the journey. Both good and bad, easy and difficult, yin and yang. You can't get to peace or enlightenment without understanding how to relax and accept your road.
Every lyric in the show is beautiful and complex and crazy catchy (I still can't get "Holiday" out of my head!), but the last one became my favorite. Mostly, I think because it expresses a kind of wisdom I'm clumsily chasing after...
Another turning point, a fork stuck in the road...
What a great way to start a lyric. Billie Joe Armstrong often takes cliches and complicates them, all throughout this score. Here, he takes the image of a fork in the road, a choice, and he combines it with the cliche, "Stick a fork in it, it's done." This choice is "done." You chose a road and there's no going back, so deal with it.
Time grabs you by the wrist, directs you where to go.
In other words, you can't direct your destiny; you can only stay on the road and keep moving forward. In time, you'll see where you're going, and you have to learn to embrace the journey, the struggle, the learning, rather than fixate on the endpoint.
So make the best of this test and don't ask why;
It's not a question but a lesson learned in time.
In other words, stop struggling against obstacles and setbacks and injustices. Accept that they are part of the journey, part of the soup of experience that forms the person you are. Why? is a silly question. An embrace doesn't question; it trusts. We all have to learn to trust our road, our "Real." This was a lesson I had to learn with directing shows; to stop trying to aim at a destination and instead, let the material, the "road," take me wherever it will. And my work is better now.
It's something unpredictable but in the end is right...
It's unpredictable because, as Chip Tolentino rightly told us, "Life is random and unfair. Life is pandemonium." After all, if it's random (and it is), then it must be, by definition, not "fair." But your road is right for you because it is your road. It's unpredictable, but ultimately, it is the only right road for you.
I hope you had the time of your life.
This line delights me, especially in this spot in the show, as a kind of epilogue. Our audience has just gone on three Hero Journeys, each one representing a human life, and most everyone in our audience has identified with one or more of our heroes. In sharing these universal Hero Myth stories with our audience, we have literally given them the time (90 minutes) of their lives (in metaphor). And we hope it has enriched them, even if only subconsciously.
The second verse starts:
So take the photographs and still frames in your mind,
Hang it on a shelf in good health and good time,
Tattoos of memories and dead skin on trial –
For what it's worth, it was worth all the while
I think this verse is telling us that memories are beautiful and healthy things, but living in those memories, rehashing the past, regretting past decisions, nursing scars from past wrongs will take you down the wrong road. You wonder if you made the right choices, took the right turns, but the fourth line reassures us, "For what's it's worth..." (if you'll take the word of a punk rocker) "it was worth all the while."
Every experience, every hurt, every triumph goes into making you the person you are. It is worth suffering through the bad times because they make you strong and give you perspective. It is worth making mistakes, because we learn and grow from them.
And then song repeats several times that amazing, wise, Zen-like couplet:
It's something unpredictable but in the end is right;
I hope you had the time of your life.
I know I had the time of my life with this extraordinary piece of theatre. I know our actors and musicians did. And I'm pretty sure our audiences did.
I've read in several sources that this song was written as a fuck-you to an ex-girlfriend, but I cannot figure out how this lyric could be that... It's so wise and enlightened... It's hard for me to believe that the genius who wrote "Wake Me Up When September Ends," "Boulevard of Broken Dreams," and "Jesus of Suburbia" wrote a song just to say fuck off... Armstrong has so much more to say than that.
After all, the main body of the story ends with a fucking wall of sound in "Whatsername," as the entire cast sings:
And in the darkest night,
If my memory serves me right,
I'll never turn back time,
Forgetting you but not the time.
In other words, even when life is at its worst and most difficult, these characters will now remember that the past is past, that we can never really Go Back. We can only make choices and move forward. We may forget the details of what's past, but we won't forget the hard-learned lessons. We have been changed by what's past and it leaves its mark on us... we are never the same again... even if Johnny can't remember her name...
We've done several shows in the last few years that share this central theme, a lesson that most of us need to hear. To find your path and stay on it, to follow your bliss. It was the central theme of Passing Strange, and our hero, The Youth, could only become a full person and a mature artist by learning that. It was also a central theme of the outrageous musical Bukowsical, about the life and art of Charles Bukowski. Maybe it's most explicitly expressed in Kander & Ebb's 1969 musical Zorba, which we're seriously talking about doing next season.
The opening number of Zorba, its statement of purpose, is called only "Life Is" and for a good reason. Life is good and bad, wonderful and terrible. Trying to make it one or the other is always doomed to failure. Life isn't an adjective; it's a road. And the richness of life is in everything along that road.
Zorba and Passing Strange and American Idiot tell us that this existence is all there is so you have to learn to love it, to grab it and hug it to you, whether it's good, bad, trivial, or profound – not because it's wonderful in a musical comedy way, but because it's Life. At the end of Zorba, Zorba tells us that he lives like he might die any minute. That's not life-denying; it's life-embracing. I always understood Zorba's philosophy to be that he does not judge the experiences of life, he swims in them. He tells us he's free at the end of the story because he has no fear of what lies ahead. As far as he's concerned, whatever lies ahead is fine with him. It's just Life. He's very Zen-like in that way...
The central struggle of the story is not to "fix" the problems of the world, but to grow up and face them and engage with them. Like the ends of Company, High Fidelity, Pippin, Passing Strange, and other shows, we don't really know if Johnny, Will, and Tunny are going to be okay. We don't know if they'll get jobs, if they'll find lasting relationships. All we know is they're all three taking a step in the right direction.
Just like Bobby does in "Being Alive"...
What a joy it's been to work on this rich, artful material, and what a privilege to lead this merry band of awesome misfits to make this beautiful, honest, brutal piece of art. We are the light.
I am forever grateful, to the brilliant artists who write the shows we produce, to the fearless and endlessly talented New Liners who bring my ideas to vivid life, and to the smart, adventurous, incredibly enthusiastic St. Louis audiences who gave us yet another sold-out run.
I love my job! Thank you, everyone!
Long Live the Musical!