American Idiot

by Obed Medina

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Tuesday March 20, 2012

Scott J. Campbell in "American Idiot"
Scott J. Campbell in "American Idiot"  (Source: Doug Hamilton)

Yes, Rodgers & Hammerstein did bequeath the narrative form to the musical genre, thus irreversibly changing the way we have come to love musical theatre. The integrated book and lyrics took us out of the jukebox format of pop music of the 1920s and 1930s.

Then, in the 1950s rock and roll tried to wedge itself into the musical landscape with rocky results, to say the least. It wasn't until the 1970s that rock music found a viable alternative on the Broadway stage with "Hair" and "Jesus Christ Superstar." Those musicals captured the cultural and political zeitgeist in a cohesive and entertaining way.

Flash forward a few decades and what you see on stage is a return to the 20s and 30s with all kinds of music dominating the stage - yes, even rock and roll and 80s hair metal band music. That's not to say that there isn't any room for these types of musical genres. With "American Idiot," Green Day's concept album of the same name now on stage and touring the U.S., you can add punk music (or at least post-punk) to the mix.

As an album "American Idiot" (and it's follow-up "21st Century Breakdown") works well in its original format. Green Day's Billy Joe Armstrong created a concept album centered on a character named Jesus of Suburbia, an anti-hero of sorts.

Along the way, other characters are introduced to flesh out Armstrong's anti-hero, thus creating a unified musical work that explores themes of rage vs. love, media control, government and un-patriotic acts, and drugs and redemption, among others. The album itself is a solid piece of musical achievement representing some of Green Day's best work.

However, on stage, that solid clarity of themes is diluted into a half-conceptualized idea that relies on a flashy set piece, multi-media, an aerial ballet, and a lot of aggressive choreography that seems forced and trivial. That director Michael Mayer has won numerous awards and high critical praise for this musical (as well as the tepid "Spring Awakening" a few seasons back) seems more a testament to the need for musical theatre to revitalize itself than to the claim of this being a groundbreaking musical.

Sure, it's attempting to call to a younger audience, but at the same time, it dumbs itself down by assuming the target demographic is not capable of being entertained if not constantly bombarded by lightning-quick MTV-style formatting.

Green Day's music in "American Idiot" and Tom Kitt's musical arrangement that complements the punk sound on stage are the only things that really work well. Steven Hoggett's choreography is so overwrought it almost seems the dancers are competing to avoid elimination on "RuPaul's Drag Race."

It's hard not to compare "American Idiot" to a seminal piece of musical theatre that premiered almost twenty years ago. Christine Jones' expansive set and some of Andrea Lauer's costumes evoke the world and characters inhabited by Larson's Pulitzer Prize-winning "Rent" and the comparisons don't end there. Armstrong and Mayer's minimalist book echoes much of that storyline, right down to one of its characters hawking his guitar for a ride back home. Whether this is a viable comparison or not, it is worth pointing out that, indeed, "American Idiot" hardly merits the "groundbreaking" tagline.

So, can punk work on a Broadway stage? Of course it can. Green Day's riveting music of angst, disillusion, and, yes, even hope already proves that. If only the rest of it would fall in line.

Performances through April 22 at the Ahmanson Theatre, 135 S. Grand St. For tickets and information please call (213) 972-4400 or

Obed Medina is a playwright & theatre director in Los Angeles.