I’ve been struggling with this post. My home computer also went bust. It’s not been the easiest to critique Green Day’s American Idiot and it’s gotten to be quite long, so I’m going to break it up into several posts. The first one focuses on The Book (Spoilers Here Lurk); The second post will focus on The Arrangement and The Cast the third and last on The Choreography and The Direction with some concluding remarks.
A little more to the left, please. Thanks.
Choreography: The choreography of American Idiot, which occasionally is brilliant (again, “Give Me Novacaine” and “Before the Lobotomy/Extraordinary Girl”), lands somewhere in the approximation of how “disgruntled youth” dance… on Broadway. Frankly, the Critic in me cringed a bit while the Fan tried not to notice the funny-looking head movements timed to the “oohs” of songs or the scene in the bar where the cast seems to play shoulder paddy-cake with each other instead of punching each other out. At certain points I kept hearing myself say, “ooh, don’t do that.”
Choreographer Steven Hoggett did the work for Black Watch, about a Scottish regiment serving in Iraq, and his work from that show (a drama, not a musical) blended emotional intensity with pure movement that brought tears to my eyes. His work on Black Watch, clean, crisp and spare, gave an already dynamic piece the sense of doom and drama that served the story well. Here, the overwrought quality of the movement, or “febrile” (feverish) as Isherwood of the New York Times enthusiastically called it (which is exactly what dancing to a punk song is reminiscent of) was a bit of a distraction. Alternating between the manic in an approximation of the mosh pit/pogoing aspects of punk, and quiet sign language and approximations of the hand gestures that Billie Joe himself often uses onstage (sparingly and with a distinct purpose or meaning), came across to me as Gilman-light made for Broadway. It’s not that the choreography was bad… No… It was that there was so much of it, in line with the recurring themes of the show of being overwhelmed with images or movement hyperactivity. And while the choreography was pretty neat during “American Idiot” (more of a temper tantrum than a statement) and “Holiday” (particularly in the moment where part of the scenery becomes a bus), some of it just kinda made me laugh, which may be what Hoggett and Mayer were going for anyway.
Some moments needed staged combat techniques, particularly when Johnny pulls a knife on Whatsername when she startles him from his drug binge. A scene that should have been full of menace… real danger causing Whatsername to leave… could have had more precision in it. As the scene played, Johnny loosely flaps the knife around, and there never seemed to be a hint that she was in real danger from his drug-fueled manic moment. In real life she might have actually gotten cut.
Hoggett’s work sparkles the best during “Novacaine” and parts of “Before the Lobotomy”/”Extraordinary Girl” and when Will and Heather are breaking up during “Too Much Too Soon.” Why does it work in these songs the most? There’s exquisite precision and a sense of danger during these songs. “Novacaine” finds Will on the brink and Tunny under fire; “Too Much Too Soon” finds Heather and Will physically struggling (though that have could be more tightly choreographed with stage combat as well) and “Lobotomy/Extraordinary” mixed rigged flying of the actors (at once giving me the dual shock of thinking “oh no, it’s Peter Pan, but oh wow, is that hard and difficult to do as well as Caplan and Sajous do it”) between Tunny and the Extraordinary Girl. This number ends with an ominous ballet that works in one way but seems overwrought at the same time, but it builds well with the song’s finish. I also enjoyed “Last Night on Earth” as Whatsername and Johnny shoot-up together and are lasciviously entwined with the rubber tubing of their binge.
I can’t quite articulate what it was about the choreography that didn’t wow me overall but it probably has something to do with the fact that there really didn’t need to be so much of it. Just because it’s a musical doesn’t necessarily mean that it has to be choreographed to within an inch of its life, particularly if the actors aren’t necessarily dancers. Sometimes, less is more beautiful and precision in movement can convey a thousand emotions. Just ask Billie Joe when he makes a heart with his hands or shoots himself with his finger at the right moment. Simple can be beautiful. It just has to not look like it’s trying too hard to mean something.
Direction: I have never seen a play or musical directed by Michael Mayer, so there is nothing for me to base his past work on. What I saw in this work was a capable director who does not take the story and power of American Idiot far enough. It’s too safe. Musically and thematically, the album is more hard-hitting than the musical that I watched.
Mayer took on a huge project: crafting an album with a thin storyline into a musical play that would be accessible to both a Broadway and non-Broadway audience as well as a fan-based and a non-fan audience. Something for everyone. It’s a challenge that any director would have trouble with, but Mayer (and Armstrong) go in the right direction: expanding the story while keeping it mostly based in the original storyline and keeping the music intact with the additional songs from 21st Century Breakdown and the AI b-sides. I think were he (and Armstrong?) went just a wee bit wrong is taking the emotional “fuck you” and bite out the story.
American Idiot is a very confrontational album. It screams in your face and dares you to like nine-minute songs and tells you that the world around you is full of idiots, including yourself. It’s an anthem of longing, rage, turmoil, failure and forgetting, and yes, coming of age and all the crap that entails. Well, at least, it’s those things to me. Mayer seems to have taken the story and stripped it of real anger and reality. What’s left is a great looking show, but it’s a bit too hollow, a bit too slick, a bit too one-dimensional.
I keep coming back to the “heart like a hand grenade” metaphor, a line from American Idiot‘s “She’s A Rebel,” (“…She’s the symbol.. Of resistance… And she’s holding on my heart like a hand grenade…”). It’s the best metaphor that I can use in describing what I mean in terms of the absence of an overall emotional punch to the staged action for me. I have often thought of this line in terms of my own anger and frustration, and the beating of my heart within my chest. Sometimes my heart feels like an explosive with a hair trigger that could detonate from the rampage of stupidity that I find around me from both within me and from without. Whether it’s the crumbling of our infrastructure to the idiocy of politics or the daily drone of commerce and desire or the horrors of war and genocide or my own big mouth, inertia and stupid actions, my beating heart, full of rage and love, feels dangerous. There were times during the Bush administration that I could have literally spontaneously combusted with it all, and American Idiot was a direct outlet for my frustrations. Though I may be way older than Johnny or Whatsername, I have the exact same feelings of a life denied that the rough character sketches of the musical have. I listened to this album a million and one times and often, by the time I got to “Whatsername,” I was able to diffuse the bomb within my heart, but it took a lot of ugly emotional turns before it fizzled. I wanted to have that feeling translated to the stage. Again, it’s the lack of real, hard emotions that I have a problem with in the show. I just didn’t feel it from the stage action as I did from the music. Hence the reason I enjoyed the show a lot more the second night that I saw it, when I let myself feel the star of the show, the music.
The San Francisco Weekly had a good but fairly mixed review on the show back in September and they felt that the show lack a narrative arc. I felt that the narrative arc was there, it was the emotional one that was just a bit lacking.
The Set and Design: Just a word about the set and design. The set by Christine Jones, from the hanging car to the breakaway railing that turns into a bus to the soaring metal staircases and the wall full of posters and television screens was phenomenal. The lightscape and lighting design by Kevin Adams was excellent, too. Kudos all around to the design team as well as the rigging team for the fly work during “Lobotomy/Extraordinary.”
Conclusion: Overall, the show is solid but it needs major emotional work. I never felt that there was any real danger… it was superficial. What bothered me the most is when Johnny comes clean from his drug habit: it’s all a little too pat and easy with throwing his pills down the drain and the toy gun with the “bang” flag that St. Jimmy shoots himself with. On the first night that I saw the show, Johnny pours his pills down the gutter and declares he’s done with drugs, and two audience members got up and cheered. I thought to myself, if it was that easy to quit a habit or kill your evil twin, everyone would do it in a snap. Where was the actual pain of quitting the drugs that made you lose the love of your life? I didn’t see it onstage.
The battle between the Fan and the Critic tore me apart. I wanted to love Green Day’s American Idiot, and in many ways, I did, but in several ways, to me, it’s too mainstream and sanitized for my taste. The first night that I saw the show, my critical theatrical sense railed at what I saw on stage and the second night, my inner fan and love for the music and the basic story and onstage energy overcame but couldn’t quite conquer my sense that an anthemic album had been presented as conventional musical theater. At the same time, given the opportunity and some tweaks to the show, I would go back to see it again. If the price were right, maybe a few more times even.
Why? Because I love the music and to hear it done well live is worth it.
American Idiot is in workshop mode at the Berkeley Repertory Company. The “Berkeley Rep” is one of the finest regional theaters in the country, on par with Chicago’s Steppenwolf and The Public Theater in New York. It certainly is the best theater in the State of California specializing in non-traditional and just a bit left of center forms of theater and it’s known for always pushing the envelope. Green Day’s American Idiot is at the perfect venue to workshop a well-constructed but emotionally unfinished piece in the exploratory stages of a move to another theatrical space. This musical deserves to be on Broadway or a large off-Broadway house and it certainly will get there. I only hope that by the time it arrives that a little reworking of the emotions set forth by the musical story sink deeper into the actors and rips my hand grenade heart out of its chest and pulls the pin.