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Broadway Tackles Punk Rock In 'American Idiot'

Last week, a stage version of Green Day's mega-hit CD, American Idiot, opened on Broadway to reviews that ranged from rapturous to derisive. Audiences, which have run from preteens to grandparents, have been flocking to see this not-exactly-Disney family musical.

Director and co-author Michael Mayer says it's time for the American musical to enter the 21st century.

"We now live in an age where the people who grew up with rock music are outnumbering the people who didn't," Mayer says. "And I feel that the future of musical theater kind of depends on our ability to embrace and pull together the popular music of the day -- as has been Broadway tradition since the beginning -- and theater craft."

It was Mayer's idea to take Green Day's 2004 album, which is all about alienation and anger during the Bush years, and put it onstage.

"It was such a fantastically rousing, angry, gorgeous response to the world that we were living in that I was very quickly addicted to it," he says.

A Punk-Rock Opera

Green Day singer and guitarist Billie Joe Armstrong says the band already thought of the album as something of a rock opera.

The central character in the Green Day album is called Jesus of Suburbia. On Broadway, Mayer has created three characters -- all suburban slackers -- and sets them on a journey of self-discovery.

They've been glued to their TVs, they've been living in this 7-Eleven parking lot where they hang out, and the world just keeps passing them by," Mayer says. "They decide that they are going to find what they can believe in 'in this world of make-believe that don't believe in them.' "

The journey has its bumps. Mayer has written and directed what might be called Broadway's first full-length live-action music video. The plot is conveyed almost entirely through visuals: There's virtually no dialogue, and even though the actors sing, they tell the story mainly through movement. Meanwhile, dozens of video screens support the narrative.

Sex, Drugs, Rock 'N' Roll

John Gallagher Jr., who won a Tony Award in Mayer's production of Spring Awakening, plays the lead character, Johnny.

"It moves so quick that you have fewer beats to convey to the audience what's happening," Gallagher says. "What's the emotional through-line here, what is this character going through, without relying on, 'Here's the moment in the dialogue that really tells you what these characters are going through."

For example, "Last Night on Earth," which has been imported from Green Day's latest album (21st Century Breakdown), features two couples onstage: One has just shot up heroin and is doing a kind of pas de deux with rubber tourniquet tubes, and another, which has just had a baby.

"You've got the two of them writhing in ecstasy and doing a kind of exquisite, almost gymnastic kind of ballet," Mayer says. "They're just enraptured with the drugs and with each other. Meanwhile, you find out that Heather has given birth to her baby and she's singing the same song, as a lullaby."

Mayer's scenario doesn't ignore the Iraq War. Tunny, the angriest of the three slackers, joins the Army, gets seriously injured and falls in love with a nurse.

Tre Cool, Green Day's drummer, says it's been a kick to see how various generations of theater-goers have been reacting to this 90-minute display of sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll. The band's members say they're proud to call American Idiot, currently playing at the St. James Theatre on Broadway, the loudest show on Broadway.

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

What Albums Would You Turn Into A Broadway Musical?

Michael Petty

Strange as it sounds, The Carpenters' 1972 album A Song for You fits nicely into this theme. A concept album that, after the fact, actually charted Karen's life over the 10 years before she died at 32. Besides the telling title song, track by track, it perfectly spells out Karen's rise to fame, her "Top of the World" days, "It's Going to Take Some Time" to try and "Get [It] Together" "Hurting Each Other" saying "Goodbye To Love," and the sad "Road Ode" to her overextended tour schedule that led her to sickness and death. Amazingly, even during the short "Intermission" song before one flips over the record, she carefully sings, "I'll be right back, after I go to the bathroom!" Sad but true. Give the record a listen to see for yourself. Perfect musical theater.

Mark Gordon

Liz Phair's Exile in Guyville comes to mind. The album seems almost like a tragic prophecy today. A similar album is Television's Marquee Moon. Both singers are searching for, losing and finding meaning in a decayed and unfamiliar landscape. It would be very difficult to bring Marquee Moon to the stage, but it would be a great accomplishment, as well.

Dave Reckoning

XTC's The Big Express might work; it just sounds... big, like a stage presentation. The challenge would be stringing together the industrial small-town, blue-collar nostalgia and juxtaposing it with the anti-violence messages of other tracks. Skylarking might be good, too, since it offers such a cohesive vision, but thematically, it's a bit more obscure.

Joe Mammy

Black Sabbath's Paranoid. A sci-fi revenge tale with a heart. The story is set 40 years in the future and begins with an effed-up stoner guy, Ozzy, who at the behest of his girlfriend joins a group of anti-government types who are protesting militarism ("War Pigs"). He starts being followed by Big Brother-type government agents and breaks up with his girlfriend, who thinks he's just being "Paranoid." Alas, the antiwar group's worst fears are realized, and the world is devastated in a nuclear confict ("Electric Funeral," "Hand of Doom"). Surviving on "Rat Salad," Ozzy reconnects with his protester girlfriend, who has found a group seeking to escape the poisoned earth and start a new colony in space. They launch their space probe, and at first, everything' is cool ("Planet Caravan"), but something goes wrong and Ozzy is turned to steel in the great magnetic field. He turns his rage upon his cohorts, kills the people he once saved and returns to Earth to wreak vengeance upon the warmongers who caused it all ("Iron Man"). I call copyright!

Jeff Lunden is a freelance arts reporter and producer whose stories have been heard on NPR's Morning Edition, All Things Considered and Weekend Edition, as well as on other public radio programs.

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