Wednesday, April 21, 2010

The (Green) Day Broadway Went Punk

(Note: This is not a review. I have not gotten to NYC to see American Idiot on Broadway, but hope to at some point. For opening night reviews, which are almost all quite positive, see the NY Times, Post, Daily News, USA Today, Entertainment Weekly, Chicago Tribune, TheatreMania and BackStage)

Being cool has never been much of aspiration for me and I'm sure many will attest to my not achieving this lack of a goal, which I consider an entirely empty and needlessly restrictive ambition.

But while I never cared, and generally preferred except for occasional bouts of gym class bullying, that I was not one of the popular kids in high school, I also did not feel compelled to overtly seek out ostracism.

So although, or likely in part because, my father often played Broadway musical recordings in my house, way back when I never had--and certainly didn't express--much fondness for showtunes. Sure, Singin' in the Rain always brought a smile, but I was a rock 'n' roll kid at heart.

In the mid '80s, I went to see Springsteen, The Kinks, Ozzy, The Scorpions, Rush and Ratt, but when my parents took my two sisters to see Cats and Evita at downtown theaters, I had no interest. Even in the college dorm, where individuality was a bit more accepted, I blared U2, R.E.M. and the Outfield, not the Phantom of the Opera cast album. I don't think I was ever consciously concerned with the insinuations of homosexuality that--sadly but likely still--accompany a male's penchant for musicals, but I'm sure this subconsciously infused my disinterest, and even disdain, for the art form.

Though I saw a handful of musicals in New York, London and Chicago throughout the '90s, it wasn't until 1999--when I saw a touring production of Cabaret with Teri Hatcher, as well as Rent for the first time--that I really became a devout fan of musicals. Since then, possibility somehow freed of any lingering reservations after the passing of my father, with whom I had a somewhat tempestuous relationship, I have attended nearly 300 performances of stage musicals at all levels in various locales, have dozens of movie musicals on DVD and am in my 14th season as a Broadway in Chicago subscriber (there's often more than one season per year).

And while I enjoy musicals of many varieties--including classic showtune showcases like Annie Get Your Gun, My Fair Lady and The Music Man--given the prevalence of rock music in Broadway scores over the last 17 years, on the morning after the Broadway opening of a musical created by the world's best punk band throughout that span--Green Day, whose 2004 album American Idiot is now a show of the same name--I'm here to tell anyone, of any age, something that has become increasingly obvious:

Broadway Rocks!

For not only has legendary rock music been utilized in popular Broadway shows like The Who's Tommy, Jersey Boys, Rock of Ages, Million Dollar Baby and myriad other "songbook" musicals, not only has rock (and hip hop) powered groundbreaking Tony Award winners from Rent to Spring Awakening to In the Heights, not only has rock legend Elton John scored the hugely successful Billy Elliot plus past mega-hits like The Lion King and not only is Green Day now represented--and its show a critical success--on the Great White Way, soon to be followed by U2's Bono and the Edge (unless money woes forever derail Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark), but whereas rock was once the domain of music about individuality, rebellion, self-empowerment, alienation and rage, it has been far usurped even in this regard by Broadway.

This week's Rolling Stone magazine is a special issue on the State of Rock, with a supposed "40 Reasons to Get Excited About Music." I eagerly read it, but was excited by almost none of the reasons--except for the fact that Chuck Berry still plays regular club shows in St. Louis--and was perplexed both by the heavy focus on MGMT, despite the magazine giving their new release just 3-out-of-5 stars and calling it "a hazy, hit-and-miss album," and the complete exclusion of the rock revolution that's happening on Broadway.

Much more astute and satisfying was Entertainment Weekly's preview of American Idiot, in which the show's co-creator and director Michael Mayer, who also directed the wonderful Spring Awakening, states, "It's time again for Broadway to have music that is what people are listening to now."

Quite admittedly, I'm not really sure what people are listening to, especially those considerably younger than me. There are so few platinum-selling or arena-filling artists, outside of a few old rockers and aging rappers, that I kind of doubt that there are many consensus favorites on the confiscated iPods of a high school classroom. But I have an inkling that musicals still engender the same "no way"--if not a more deplorable "how gay"--response among your average 14-24 year-olds, particularly males, as they did when I was in that demo.

Sure, the Chicago run of Wicked always saw a decent turnout of kids, and I'm sure Billy Elliot will entertain more than a few, but my guess is that only those in the Drama Club and others happily "doing their thing" will openly admit an interest. Even with the popularity of the High School Musical films and the TV show, Glee, musicals are likely far from mainstream fare for most high school and college kids. After the cast of American Idiot performed on the Grammy Awards, I heard someone convey the perception that Green Day had "sold out."

Given my own youthful predilections, as cited above, I can't castigate teens, or anyone for that matter, for not having an appreciation for Broadway, or even an open ear. But whereas the stigma of "liking musicals" was silly even when it was referencing Ethel Merman, the Jets & Sharks snapping away, surreys with fringes on top and singing Cats, that perception of Broadway is now almost completely archaic.

While the conversion of popular rock songs into Broadway numbers has only occasionally worked spectacularly--and shouldn't completely render the composition of traditional showtunes obsolete--anyone who doesn't believe that the music, and message, of original, rock-influenced shows like Spring Awakening, Avenue Q, Hairspray, In the Heights, Passing Strange, Next to Normal and Billy Elliot haven't been better than most of what passes for popular, even youth-oriented, music and movies these days, clearly hasn't been paying attention.

Back on July 25, 1965, Bob Dylan "went electric" by playing with an electric blues band for part of his set at the Newport Folk Festival. He was instantly booed and for awhile folk fans were up in arms, but popular music was forever changed for the better. Last night, Broadway went punk, and per the many positive reviews that I've read, American Idiot promises to further amplify the new directions being taken in musical theater.

I just hope that people who might truly love what they once ignored, or even scorned, realize there is--more than ever--no reason why they shouldn't change their tune.

Here's a video off YouTube of the song American Idiot from the final Broadway soundcheck on March 23.

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