Magazine article The New Yorker

Wheels of Misfortune

Magazine article The New Yorker

Wheels of Misfortune

Article excerpt

Broadway is glutted these days with musical revivals, jukebox musicals, musical spectaculars--all nostalgic glances backward with no purchase on the present. These revivals don't know how to celebrate, because they don't know what to celebrate. The old triumphalist stuff of Broadway song--abundance, goodness, progress, romance, transcendence--doesn't play the way it used to. Irony, the sound of limitation, has become the culture's default position. The older generation, for whom the musical's sense of promise was both a credo and a backbeat, has laid waste the environment, sent the younger generation off to die in a phony war, and saddled it with eye-watering debt. This desolation, however, may have delivered to the young a rare new lyrical moment, one of those occasions when, in Tennessee Williams's words, "our hearts are uncovered and their voices released and that's when poetry comes and the deepest emotion."

Green Day's "American Idiot" (at the St. James), a theatrical reimagining of the punk band's 2004 album, which sold twelve million copies worldwide, does a sort of demolition job on Broadway-musical architecture. Like the 2006 Tony Award-winning show "Spring Awakening," it is an exciting example of the innovative director Michael Mayer's single-minded attempt to drag the musical into the twenty-first century. In telling the show's minimal story, Mayer, who co-wrote the book with Billie Joe Armstrong, Green Day's lead singer and guitarist, aims for the same kind of swift narrative leaps that the songs make. Jumping between vivid, fragmentary moments, letting sensation substitute for psychology, "American Idiot" provides a dramatic experience that is akin to channel surfing. Out of the emotive bric-a-brac, the audience constructs a backstory: three disaffected youths, Johnny (John Gallagher, Jr.), Will (Michael Esper), and Tunny (Stark Sands), decide to leave suburbia ("this hurricane of fucking lies") and go in search of themselves. Johnny finds drugs; Tunny finds himself in the military and then an amputee; Will, who never actually leaves home, gets a girl pregnant and finds himself a couch potato. By the finale, all three are back in suburbia, having learned nothing and got nowhere. As they sing, early in the show, "This is how I'm supposed to be / In a land of make-believe / That don't believe in me."

Mayer has a strong, playful visual sense and a terrific working relationship with his scenic designer, Christine Jones. Together, they create a dynamic, brutalist playpen for the slacker heroes, which speaks as eloquently about anomie as the ear-splitting songs do. "Don't want to be an American idiot / One nation controlled by the media," the cast chants. High on the fumes of the culture's decay, the kids snarl their alienation inside a kind of technology castle; forty-three television screens of different sizes blink oppressive imagery from towering walls. Fluorescence and adolescence agitate the air. Neither symmetry nor melody seems to exist. Green Day's sound is all rhythm and power chords, a thump of tribulation and terror that carries over into Steven Hoggett's choreography. Punching, kicking, elbowing, jerking their hunched bodies around the stage, the ensemble perform a semaphore of fright that resembles a syncopated Billy Blanks Tae Bo cardio workout.

With its extraordinary stage effects--scaffolding is transformed into a bus, a rubber tourniquet used for shooting up turns into a spider web that ensnares the addicts--"American Idiot" answers the digital age's requirements of speed, instant gratification, and accessibility. It is a rip-roaring and original musical event. It has not, however, cracked the challenge of characterization. The show has personality, but its characters don't. On the night I saw it, Green Day made an impromptu post-show appearance onstage. "This is my first time on Broadway," Armstrong said, impishly working the cheering crowd before the band launched into a few songs. …

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