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Broadway Tackles Punk Rock In 'American Idiot'

Last week, a stage version of Green Day's mega-hit CD, American Idiot, opened on Broadway to reviews that ranged from rapturous to derisive. Audiences, which have run from preteens to grandparents, have been flocking to see this not-exactly-Disney family musical.

Director and co-author Michael Mayer says it's time for the American musical to enter the 21st century.

"We now live in an age where the people who grew up with rock music are outnumbering the people who didn't," Mayer says. "And I feel that the future of musical theater kind of depends on our ability to embrace and pull together the popular music of the day -- as has been Broadway tradition since the beginning -- and theater craft."

It was Mayer's idea to take Green Day's 2004 album, which is all about alienation and anger during the Bush years, and put it onstage.

"It was such a fantastically rousing, angry, gorgeous response to the world that we were living in that I was very quickly addicted to it," he says.

A Punk-Rock Opera

Green Day singer and guitarist Billie Joe Armstrong says the band already thought of the album as something of a rock opera.

The central character in the Green Day album is called Jesus of Suburbia. On Broadway, Mayer has created three characters -- all suburban slackers -- and sets them on a journey of self-discovery.

They've been glued to their TVs, they've been living in this 7-Eleven parking lot where they hang out, and the world just keeps passing them by," Mayer says. "They decide that they are going to find what they can believe in 'in this world of make-believe that don't believe in them.' "

The journey has its bumps. Mayer has written and directed what might be called Broadway's first full-length live-action music video. The plot is conveyed almost entirely through visuals: There's virtually no dialogue, and even though the actors sing, they tell the story mainly through movement. Meanwhile, dozens of video screens support the narrative.

Sex, Drugs, Rock 'N' Roll

John Gallagher Jr., who won a Tony Award in Mayer's production of Spring Awakening, plays the lead character, Johnny.

"It moves so quick that you have fewer beats to convey to the audience what's happening," Gallagher says. "What's the emotional through-line here, what is this character going through, without relying on, 'Here's the moment in the dialogue that really tells you what these characters are going through."

For example, "Last Night on Earth," which has been imported from Green Day's latest album (21st Century Breakdown), features two couples onstage: One has just shot up heroin and is doing a kind of pas de deux with rubber tourniquet tubes, and another, which has just had a baby.

"You've got the two of them writhing in ecstasy and doing a kind of exquisite, almost gymnastic kind of ballet," Mayer says. "They're just enraptured with the drugs and with each other. Meanwhile, you find out that Heather has given birth to her baby and she's singing the same song, as a lullaby."

Mayer's scenario doesn't ignore the Iraq War. Tunny, the angriest of the three slackers, joins the Army, gets seriously injured and falls in love with a nurse.

Tre Cool, Green Day's drummer, says it's been a kick to see how various generations of theater-goers have been reacting to this 90-minute display of sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll. The band's members say they're proud to call American Idiot, currently playing at the St. James Theatre on Broadway, the loudest show on Broadway.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Jeff Lunden is a freelance arts reporter and producer whose stories have been heard on NPR's Morning Edition, All Things Considered and Weekend Edition, as well as on other public radio programs.