Rock and Roll's Day Has Come

By Mccarter, Jeremy | Newsweek, May 3, 2010 | Go to article overview

Rock and Roll's Day Has Come


Mccarter, Jeremy, Newsweek


Byline: Jeremy Mccarter

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 punchline.

Two recent shifts have allowed Broadway to catch up to the music of the last 50 years.

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