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Broadway Tackles Punk Rock In 'American Idiot'

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Broadway Tackles Punk Rock In 'American Idiot'

Broadway Tackles Punk Rock In 'American Idiot'

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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Punk rock, 20-something slackers, dancing junkies. Broadway? You bet. 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. But audiences who run from preteens to grandparents have been flocking to see this not-exactly-Disney family musical.

Jeff Lunden reports.

JEFF LUNDEN: Director and co-author Michael Mayer firmly believes it's time for the American musical to enter the 21st century.

MICHAEL MAYER: We now live in an age where the people who grew up with rock music are outnumbering the people who didn't. 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.


BILLY JOE ARMSTRONG: (Singing) Don't wanna be an American idiot. Don't want a nation under the new media...

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

MAYER: It was a pretty grim moment in our time, and 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.


MAYER: (Singing) Don't wanna be an American, don't wanna be an American idiot. One nation controlled by the media. Don't wanna be an American, don't wanna be an American idiot. One nation controlled by the media. Don't wanna be an America, don't wanna be an American idiot. One nation controlled by hysteria. Calling out to idiot America...

LUNDEN: Billy Joe Armstrong is Green Day's lead vocalist. He says the band already thought of the album as something of a rock opera anyway.

JOE ARMSTRONG: It was how do you make a rock opera but make everything really catchy as hell? That's just the biggest challenge, where it doesn't become sort of bloated and go off into the stratosphere somewhere, you know, you can't find your way back.


Unidentified Man #1: (Singing) I'm the son of rage and love; the Jesus of suburbia. From the bible of none of the above. On a steady diet of...

LUNDEN: 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.

MAYER: 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. And they decide that they're going to find what they can believe in, in this world of make-believe that don't believe in them. Maybe there's something out there.


SIMON: (Singing) But there's nothing wrong with me. This is how I'm supposed to be. In the land of make of believe, that don't believe in me...

LUNDEN: But the journey has its bumps. Michael 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, while dozens of video screens support the narrative.


SIMON: (Singing) I walk a lonely road. It's the only one that I have ever known. I don't know where it goes, but it's home to me and I walk alone...

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

JOHN GALLAGHER: It moves so quick that you have fewer beats to convey to the audience what's happening, 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.


SIMON: (Singing) With every breath that I am worth here on Earth, I'm sending all my love to you...

LUNDEN: For instance, "Last Night on Earth," which has been imported from Green Day's latest album, "21st Century Breakdown," features two couples onstage - one who have just shot up heroin and are doing a kind of pas de deux with rubber tourniquet tubes; and another who have just had a baby. Michael Mayer...

MAYER: So you've got the two of them writhing in ecstasy and doing a kind of exquisite, almost gymnastic kind of ballet. 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.


Unidentified People: (Singing) I'm sending all my love to you...

LUNDEN: 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 an Army nurse.

MAYER: And the audience ever night during "21 Guns," as she takes that blanket off of him in his hospital bed and you see that stump, and that beautiful, haunting song, it does something to people, and it brings it home.


People: (Singing) One, 21 guns, lay down your arms, give up the fight. One...

LUNDEN: 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 show the band is proud call the loudest on Broadway.

TRE COOL: You know, the silver foxes out in the audience, they've seen every show on Broadway except ours, and then they come and they've got their arms crossed at the beginning. They're a little, you know, hmm, you know, you better wow me. And then, like, by the third or fourth song they're, like, bopping their head. And at the end they're crying. It's pretty awesome seeing that. And also it's cool to see, like, parents connecting with their teenagers there. Like, 'cause I've seen a lot of, like, teens with their parents and it's, like, a really good opportunity to seem like a cool dad or a cool mom to take your teenager to "American Idiot," you know.

LUNDEN: "American Idiot" is currently playing at the St. James Theater on Broadway.

For NPR News, I'm Jeff Lunden in New York.

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