On second thought, maybe the Beatles didn't kill the Broadway musical. For half a century, theater folk have cursed rock and roll—including a certain diabolical quartet from Liverpool—for driving show tunes from American hearts and turntables: out went The Sound of Music, in came the sound of acid trips and fornication. Hair and Rent made it to the stage, but they felt like exceptions to the rule. They didn't give you much reason to imagine a time when pop music would enjoy a robust and ongoing presence on Broadway. That is, they didn't help you to see the last couple of seasons coming.
If you could unscrew the lids of Broadway's theaters around 9 o'clock tonight, this is what you'd hear: the Afrobeat of Fela Kuti, the Europop of Abba, doo-wop from Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons, proto-rock from Johnny Cash and Elvis Presley, and mixed-up hits from hair bands like Foreigner, Journey, and Whitesnake. Then there's the music written explicitly for the stage: the soul of Memphis; the hip-hop and salsa of In the Heights, which won the Tony Award for best musical; and the rock score of Next to Normal, which just won the Pulitzer Prize. Like never before, the traditional sound of a Broadway orchestra shares the Great White Way with all sorts of once-anathema pop styles, packed together like stations on the dial.
American Idiot is the latest musical to join them, and probably the loudest. Based on Green Day's 2004 album-length rock opera of the same name, the punk-pop show tells the story of three disaffected young men trying—with the help of sex, drugs, and battered guitars—not to lose their minds in George W. Bush's America. Under the direction of Michael Mayer (who co-wrote the show's libretto with Green Day frontman Billie Joe Armstrong), it has raucous energy and frequently spectacular stagecraft. It doesn't hold together as well as it should, but there's still something entirely welcome going on here.
Unlike too many of its predecessors, American Idiot isn't trafficking in nostalgia—the material is too new (and too bleak) for that. Nor does orchestrator Tom Kitt trade the album's jagged edges for a Broadway-friendly pseudopop mire. In other words, the show makes the case that there need not be a chasm between the music that people hear on Broadway and the music they hear, well, everywhere else. With the arrival of Green Day and its punk-pop opera, Broadway takes another step toward the cultural relevance it lost half a century ago—another step back from the wilderness.
To understand how a trio of rock stars from Oakland could be good for Broadway, it helps to appreciate what a filthy art form the theater is, and has always been. Exorbitant ticket prices conceal—but can't erase—the wonderfully vulgar DNA of every show that reaches these stages: they're descended from the satyr play, the leggy blonde kick line, the seedy vaudeville routine. Theater is a magpie art that needs to refresh itself constantly with the energy that's sloshing around society. When it doesn't, you end up with the Broadway musical of the last few decades: an era in which Sondheim couldn't write his darkly brilliant musicals fast enough to arrest Broadway's slide into a bloated, self-referential style that made the place verge on being a punch line.
Two recent shifts have allowed Broadway to catch up to the music of the last 50 years. The first is generational: the people putting on shows, and buying tickets to shows, have grown up with rock. (In fact, the most telling sign of a new audience's arrival wasn't a rock show per se: The fact that Avenue Q, a dirty puppet show that riffed on Sesame Street, could sustain a six-year Broadway run meant that something major had shifted.) The other reason that pop musicals are thriving is that gifted artists have worked out a production style that suits the new material—no small feat when you realize how ridiculous the phrase "the new Broadway musical from Green Day" would have sounded just a few years ago. Even now it's a little crazy.
Lucky, then, that when it comes to bravura stagecraft, American Idiot represents the state of the art. Scenic designer Christine Jones has erected towering walls of rock posters studded with TV screens, like a madhouse constructed entirely of media—just right for a show in which a character bemoans "this hurricane of f--king lies." Lighting designer Kevin Adams (like Jones, a veteran of Spring Awakening) pops off explosions of color all around you, which means the show doesn't just look different from other musicals—it's a different sensation to watch it.
You get the same feeling from the charismatic cast, who spare you the massively awkward sight of actors pretending to play musical instruments. Johnny (John Gallagher Jr.) doesn't just howl Green Day's lyrics of disaffection when he flees the suburbs for big-city adventures: he accompanies himself on acoustic guitar, making the early choruses of "Wake Me Up When September Ends" a plaintive solo ballad. His friends Will (Michael Esper), who gets stuck in the burbs, and Tunney (Stark Sands), who marches off to war, find chances to do the same. Backed by the onstage band, the show has the energy—and frequently the look—of a rock concert, which suits its evocations of helplessness, alienation, and rage.
Yet for all the audacious spectacle and terrific cast, it still leaves you wanting. Mayer and Armstrong add little dialogue to the lyrics, which aren't as resonant as they seem to think. They give you little reason to care about Johnny, who fancies himself the Jesus of Suburbia, or his drug troubles, or his girl (Rebecca Naomi Jones). If this sounds familiar, it's because the charge of weak storytelling has been leveled at most of the 21st-century pop musicals. I've never bought the complaint that pop songs can't sustain a character or carry emotional weight the way show tunes can (cf. Lennon-McCartney, Stephin Merritt, etc., etc.). In fact, the predicament of pop musicals seems to differ only slightly from the predicament of all musicals from Show Boat on: namely, that getting words and music in sync to tell an emotionally weighty story is a damned tricky business. Oscar Hammersteins are few and far between.
Maybe the best news about the arrival of Green Day—and the sonic expansion of Broadway that the band embodies—is that the next young Hammerstein might be a little easier to find. There's no telling where the outward grasp that Broadway has shown in the last couple of years will end, but it shows no signs of slowing down. A theater scene that's willing to assemble the 21st-century musical from every corner of the culture is bound to be an exciting place, even if it's a rowdy mess. No, especially if it's a rowdy mess.