American Idiot: Theatre or Death

15 Oct , 2015  

It’s 2015, and we’re in a time of loss. Grace Lee Boggs is gone. So are Sandra Bland, Trayvon Martin, Tamir Rice and many, many others.

Citizens of Oregon, Missouri, Baltimore and Syria have learned the hard way that America proffers no refuge for the tired, huddled masses yearning to breathe free. In place of the light by a golden door, our black-hearted politicians propose a golden wall.

Propaganda is insidious. Social media has given a voice to countless marginalized groups—people of color, women, the LGBT community, ISIS.

What a mindfuck.

That‘s what vocalist/guitarist Billie Joe Armstrong, bassist Mike Dirnt, and drummer Trė Cool, members of punk rock band Green Day, would say. For them, it is likely that 2001, 2003 and 2004 were similarly absurd. In 2001, we were visited by national tragedy. In 2003, we began the Iraq War. The same year lead singer of country music band the Dixie Chicks, Natalie Maines, criticized the war and then president George W. Bush during a concert performance. In response, stations banned their album, fans gathered their albums in piles and bulldozed them, strangers sent death threats. And yet, fellow musician Merle Haggard described her criticism as a verbal lynching. To say that Green Day released 2004’s American Idiot— a 13 track rock opera opus criticizing the Bush administration, news media, and post-9/11 American culture—in hostile territory is an understatement.

And yet, American Idiot was a massive success. The album’s harsh truths broke through the glossy bullshit that the media and the White House were selling. Through punk—music that is anything but joyful noise unto anyone but the lord. Yelling. Screaming. Distorted, screeching vocals.  Even the album artwork was a call to arms—a heart shaped grenade dripping with blood. Have some heart. Get out there! Make some noise! Blow shit up!

Then Armstrong and director Michael Mayer turned American Idiot into a Tony and Grammy Award winning musical. It seems misguided, but it’s not so far-fetched. Mayer is no stranger to dark, complex musicals about maturation. He directed Spring Awakening. He created a similarly dystopian book for American Idiot, the musical. Johnny, Tunny, Will, Whatsername, Extraordinary Girl are disenchanted young adults lost and hoping to be found. Tragically, the world is not looking for them. Mayer calls the musical and album a “response to a seriously fucked-up environment, a political and social situation that became untenable.” Also, the musical is loyal to the album. Armstrong contributed to the book and Mayer kept most of Armstrong’s lyrics in the libretto.

Moreover, punk and musical theatre are not so different. For one, Armstrong performed in musical theatre as a child. (Now you know how he came by his theatrical flair.)

Two, despite what you may have heard, musical theatre can drop the scales from your eyes just as well as punk rock. Punk and musical theatre are the enemy of complacency. Yes, even so-called musical theatre pablum like Mamma Mia aims to shock you. Not to scandalize, mind you. But to break through your false cynicism. To place electric paddles onto your chest, press down, and send jolts of electricity straight to your heart. (Yelling “Clear!” is optional.) To make you admit that you care about the human condition and world around you. (You’re not fooling anyone.)

And three—they keep us all from slitting our wrists. If not for the artists and artistry, we could not know what we know about the world and still live. Onstage or backstage, they are the shamans of the 21st century. They ingest the frustration, the rage, and the impotence, then transform it into something that we can truly hear.

The artists of Standing Room Only Productions have taken on this burden. But don’t worry about the company and its cadre of artists. American Idiot isn’t a backbreaking production for them because they’ll be lifting with their formidable legs. They have everything they need to make an imaginative, exhilarating production of the coming-of-age tale. And they have, according to storied Houston Press critic D.L. Groover who calls the production imaginative and exhilarating before comparing it to the work of  Pietro Mascagni and Giacomo Puccini.

Punk-rock as transcendent and timeless as Puccini. Unsurprising. SRO is skilled at taking large scale works and stripping them down while retaining the beauty and bombasity of the show. This approach allows the audience to see a musical in a new light. Without pyrotechnics and other ostentatious theatrical effects—which have their place, mind you—the voices, characters, and music move to the forefront. This is the perfect fit for a music heavy, character driven musical whose director and librettist says, “[I chose] the sparest of dialogue, because I didn’t want to have any extraneous words.”

The company has an eye for casting as well. Think of the eargasm giving cast of Defy Gravity: A Stephen Schwartz Songbook. For American Idiot, they have chosen an eager and energetic cast from a huge pool of talent. Over 90 performers auditioned. Only 13 were cast. Many veterans also return, including Musical Director Tamara Robertson (Assassins) and Director Chris Patton (Assassins). Many cast members return too, like Connor Lyon (Assassins), who stars as Heather; Ronna Mansfield (Tommy, Defy Gravity, and Great American Trailer Park Musical), who stars as as Extraordinary Girl; Ragan Richardson (Tommy), who stars as as Whatsername; and Justin White (Assassins, Tommy) who stars as Johnny.

Several returning cast members performed in SRO’s electric production of The Who’s Tommy last season. And quite a few will appear in lead roles in American Idiot. This production is primed to be charged. 88 minutes and no intermission with a cast that shines, a story that shines, and a score that shines.  Disaffection and disillusionment don’t stand a chance. Not only is that very theater, it is very punk. At SRO, neither is dead.

This piece was commissioned by SRO Productions. Photo credit: Christine Weems.

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