****Spoiler alert for the new Green Day musical on Broadway, “American Idiot”******
The challenge with taking a well-known, critically acclaimed rock album and making it into a musical is how to translate it so it fits the medium. I’ll admit, as a fervent Green Day fan, and staunch listener to I was highly skeptical when I first Green Day’s music was being adapted to a Broadway show called “American Idiot,” after their 2004 album, despite assurances from early reviews that the show had gotten Green Day’s blessing and would be performed with minimal tampering.
The show is still currently in preview, so one rainy night (tonight), I went to see it. From the very first chords of “American Idiot” (the title piece), the goosebumps started. With John Gallagher’s character, Johnny’s narration, it was a bit reminiscent of Rent, especially with the grunge-like style and punk dance choreography that was clearly emulating not only Billie Joe Armstrong’s performance persona, but embodies the anxiety and discontent the music portrays.
I was impressed by the fidelity of the musical music to the original album. I mean, I think it was a good move – Green Day with jazz hands probably wouldn’t have worked quite so well. Other than a few deviations and remixes (in one instance, “She’s a Rebel” was mixed with “Last of the American Girls,” a song off the 21st Century Breakdown album), the music didn’t change much from what you would hear from the American Idiot album (other than the interweaving music lines and different characters singing different parts). Even the core instrumentation was the same – rhythm guitar, bass, lead, drum set, and other auxiliary instrumentation as needed (piano, cello, violin, timpani). The entire musical was framed by the “American Idiot” album.
But as the characters’ situations got murky about halfway through, the music’s structure itself deviated from the structure of the album. There were more remixes, and more insertions of their 21st Century Breakdown album songs in there, as well as an awesome misdirect. Johnny, sitting on the bed of Whatsername, starts playing the first few notes of “Wake Me Up When September Ends.” Very familiar, well-known notes. Except, it’s not “September” – it’s another song completely, called “When It’s Time” – a song Billie Joe wrote for his wife, but has never been performed before the musical.
One a very obvious level, this was for the fans. Any die-hard fan of the album would recognize that the production keeps very close to the album, and would have known that “September” isn’t supposed to happen yet (and indeed, “September” is sung later, at the right time). The framing of the music to make us expect “September,” then not satisfying that expectation follows the act of rupturing the familiarity of the album that occurs all throughout the second half of the show (there’s no intermission). If we were expecting the “American Idiot” album to be presented on stage in all its unmodified glory, well, some of us may have been disappointed (after all, we like to be flattered – to think we know what’s to come, and this musical doesn’t give us that satisfaction), but more importantly, it ruptures the familiarity, like Johnny leaving home ruptures the familiarity of suburban America (of course, we will see that familiarity isn’t always good either, as Will, the guy who stays home, gets progressively more discontent as he feels he’s left behind).
The only slightly awkward thing I thought was the choreography – just the fact that there was choreography (the choreography itself, as I said before, seeks to emulate that punk feel, and I feel like it does it very well), but it is the only time that the musical really feels Broadway. The way Billy Joe moves on stage is completely spontaneous (at least, it feels that way – it helps that he’s the only one moving that way), and choreography, by definition, is NOT completely spontaneous – it is planned. It’s antithetical to the spontaneity, the unplanned-ness of Green Day.
There was also absolute media saturation in the show – right in your face. There must have been 20+ screens all playing news clips and such, and a projection that turns the entire stage into a projection show, as media saturates us and turns us all into American idiots, right?
Overall, it was a thoroughly enjoyable show, and certainly nostalgic for those of us who were obsessed with the album when it came out in 2004. A rock opera for our anxiety-ridden society today.
The night also included Soondubu and concluded with a stranger on the train giving me chocolate and, together with a couple of tourists from Chile, telling me I’m very “elegant.” It was a good good night.