Maddy Kloss: The curtain rises on “American Idiot” to reveal a tableau of cast members outfitted in shredded punk-rock garb. The silence is quickly shattered when the guitar riffs of the title song sound, transporting the audience to an angst-ridden rock concert.
Actors thrust, writhe, and shout complaints about their stifling suburban lives—throw in a bizarre scene featuring a wounded soldier dancing in midair, and it becomes evident that this production makes no attempt at subtlety.
I’ll readily admit that “American Idiot” could’ve benefited from knowing when to hold itself back. However, it’s redeemed by John Gallagher Jr.’s stellar turn as Johnny, a frustrated, naïve kid-turned-heroin-addict. Following up on a Tony Award win for his part in “Spring Awakening,” Gallagher has perfected the art of portraying troubled young men without becoming his own cliché.
Gallagher lends his raw, effortless voice to orchestrations by another Tony winner, Tom Kitt, CC ’96. Apologies to any diehard Green Day fans who are still around, but Kitt’s lush arrangements render the musical’s score better than the original source material.
Yes, “American Idiot” is overdone, but it highlights Gallagher’s and Kitt’s talents admirably. If this is the future of the Broadway spectacle—rather than commercial monstrosities like “Shrek the Musical” or “The Addams Family”—that’s okay with me.
Steven Strauss: Why is Broadway’s future between those two options? What about the economically viable yet artistically sound productions such as “Spring Awakening” and “Next to Normal?”
“Shrek the Musical” and “The Addams Family” are outdated commodities in a recession-stricken world where the big-budget musical blockbuster is becoming an economic impossibility. But in no way should shows such as “American Idiot” that don’t require a book or an original score be the substitute.
The cast’s energy was phenomenal, as were Gallagher and most of the production elements, but that’s just not sufficient. The story isn’t coherent enough to have emotional resonance, nor deep enough to work on an intellectual level, so what other level is there?
It’s great that “American Idiot” has the to potential to bring a new type of audience to Broadway, which is in desperate need of a new revenue stream. But is the show they’ll be paying to see any better than a normal Green Day concert? What else differentiates a rock opera from a rock concert if not the story and characters, neither of which exist in “American Idiot?”
Kloss: Actually, I found the show to have a great deal of emotional resonance, even though I’m hardly as angry and anti-establishment as any of the characters. When Johnny heads home after realizing his “exciting” world of sex and drugs isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, his pain and disappointment is evident—while you may not have sympathized with him, I was moved.
As for your comparison of the show to a regular Green Day concert, that’s simply unfair. “American Idiot” does have a story—it grew out of a narrative implicit in the Green Day album of the same name. Lack of dialogue does not imply lack of plot—the show has a soul (albeit an angsty, self-loathing one) that can’t be found at a rock concert.
In all, it seems like what you object to most is that “American Idiot” supposedly fights the notion of the modern, fully original musical. However, I see a world in which intimate, lower-budget shows like “Next to Normal” and “Spring Awakening” can peacefully coexist with compelling, innovative jukebox musicals like “American Idiot.” Having the latter on Broadway does nothing to minimize the achievements of the former.
Strauss: Maybe saying “American Idiot” lacks a plot was a tad extreme. Yes, there is a coherent story that (sometimes) connects the songs, but did it really have to be so shallow and trite? How many times have we seen these stories before: the lost teenager ruining his first amorous escapade due to drugs, the soldier who finds his heart overseas, an accidental father wallowing in his own sadness with bongs and booze?
I realize plot isn’t currently the main focus at the St. James Theater—that’d be the music, which I must say is performed with an almost undeniable exuberance that had me enjoying myself for the few first numbers. But, in the words of the great, unconventional new musical “[title of show],” “American Idiot” proves to be doughnuts for dinner: an idea that sounds great, but 30 minutes later you’re in the mood for something meatier.
I wanted more substance, something beyond excellent production numbers hurled at the audience one after another. Maybe it’s a tad elitist of me to say it, but musical theater has always been about the synthesis of story and song. I’m fine with modern artists stretching the form, but when one of those two characteristics is sub-par, you just don’t have a great musical. Enjoyable? Yes. Great musical? No.