The Problem with American Idiot

July 18, 2010 at 7:01 pm (Review) (, , , )

Broadway’s American Idiot, based on the Green Day album of the same name, is the best Green Day cover band concert you could ever imagine. The performers belt the record’s songs with theatrical ease, backed by an expert on-stage band. They transform solo tunes into duets and group numbers, adding new layers to the familiar music. Behind the performers, a magnificent set rises into the rafters, full of staircases and ladders and swings and wires constructed for the elaborate dance sequences that accompany the songs. Dozens of television sets mounted on the walls add an extra touch, displaying appropriate (or purposely discordant) images and mingling with the stage lights to dazzle the audience. It is, by all rights, an audio-visual spectacular of epic proportions.

Unfortunately, American Idiot purports to be more than a concert, and its successes on the musical front are met by equally great failures in the arenas of plot and character.

I’ve never been a fan of so-called “jukebox musicals,” musicals that construct a story around non-theatrical music from a particular popular artist or artists. Mamma Mia is perhaps the most famous example, mixing as it does a wholly original story with pop hits by ABBA. The story is actually lovely, but the music is so ill-fitting, and so antithetical to the needs of musical theater, that the play falls apart. The lyrics don’t move the plot along, and the musical sequences feel like jarring interruptions of the story rather than natural outcroppings from it. When music is not written for the theater, it rarely works in the context of a play.

Given this history, I was wary of American Idiot at first. But a number of factors differentiate it from the garden-variety jukebox musical. For one thing, it’s based on a concept album that always had some amount of narrative structure to it. For another, the play was conceived, and co-written, by Green Day frontman Billie Joe Armstrong. This isn’t the case of a nebulous outsider trying to squeeze an artist’s oeuvre into a play; instead, it’s more like The Who’s Tommy, a rock musical created by those who wrote the music to begin with. With these factors in mind – and with an explosive Tony Awards performance in my recent memory – I decided to give the show a shot.

(Spoilers for the play abound from this point on.)

But some of my initial reservations proved accurate. While American Idiot, as an album, does have a narrative structure, the songs are not inherently theatrical. The lyrics are both too repetitive and too complicated – and too abstract, in many cases – to really move a story along, because only viewers who have memorized the songs before attending the show can follow every word. I knew several of the songs in the production going into the play, but not well enough to figure out all the metaphoric intricacies of the lyrics in the moment. Musical lyrics can certainly be complex – just ask Stephen Sondheim – but Green Day’s songs lack a directness and strong narrative quality that songs written for plays need.

This problem was compounded by the fact that, unlike Mamma Mia, there are very few moments in American Idiot that are not musical. Characters say a few words between songs – largely in letters written to each other – but for the most part the play is the music, and that makes it very hard to truly grasp the narrative of the story. I’m sure that fans who have seen the play many times were able to get more out of the story than I did, but repeated viewings shouldn’t be necessary to understand a piece of entertainment that costs $40 or more each time.

And then there was the story itself, and the characters. While American Idiot, as an album, serves as a fascinating, complex indictment of the Bush administration and the problems of life in early 21st century America, the play is basically a story about how very hard it is to be a white, straight, middle class, able-bodied 20-something guy living in the suburbs. And while I’m not opposed to stories about people with that amount of privilege (if I were, I would have to discount about 80% of all Western media), the story told here only serves to highlight how ludicrously selfish and stupid its characters are.

The three protagonists – Johnny (John Gallagher Jr.), Will (Michael Esper), and Tunny (Stark Sands) – are long-time friends still living at home, spending all their time drinking and smoking pot and playing video games. Suddenly seized by the need to leave their “empty” suburban lives, the friends decide to move to the big city and see the “real world.” Unfortunately, Will’s girlfriend, Heather (Mary Faber) reveals she’s pregnant, and he decides to stay home to take care of the baby. Johnny and Tunny still follow through with their plan, but Tunny, depressed and aimless, winds up joining the army and going to Iraq, leaving Johnny alone to sink into a life of drug abuse. After the death of Johnny’s (possibly metaphorical) drug dealer, the loss of Tunny’s leg in the war, and the separation of Will from his wife, the three friends reunite in their hometown to close out the play.

The fact that I was able to describe the entire plot in that tiny paragraph says something about how thin the story is. It’s also impossible for me to give a fuller description of the characters’ personalities, because, since they’re only expressed through non-theatrical, poorly-functioning songs, they essentially have none, no matter how hard the (very competent) actors tried. The only character I felt anything for was Tunny, since his wartime trials and tribulations are much more serious and sympathetic than the completely self-inflicted, selfish misery his friends go through. But he still lacked any real personality, and I realized partway through the play that I only felt anything for him because I was mentally inserting details of Stark Sands’ military character from HBO’s Generation Kill.

Then there’s the play’s women problem. While the leads are all white, Johnny’s love interest, Whatsername (Rebecca Naomi Jones) and Tunny’s war nurse/love interest, The Extraordinary Girl (Christina Sajous) are women of color. Neither has any more personality than the leads, which I wouldn’t have expected, but unlike the leads, they don’t get the opportunity to express anything from their own point of view – they don’t even have actual names — and thus become little more than fetish objects for the men. This is especially problematic in one scene, in which Tunny hallucinates his nurse dressed in a burqa, which she sexily strips off to reveal a stereotypical midriff-baring harem costume. Not only is she a fetish object, but she’s a fetish object representing a stereotypical image of the very real women of the Middle East.

I’m a huge fan of RENT, and American Idiot, with its rock score, disaffected young characters, and drug-filled urban setting, has been called RENT’s spiritual descendent. But whatever RENT’s flaws – and I’m not blind enough to claim it has none – its cast features characters across the spectrums of gender, sexuality, race, and socio-economic background, and they all possess agency and express themselves through their own point of view. American Idiot has none of that, and the abundant privilege of its protagonists makes it extraordinarily difficult to relate to them, or believe their protests. The American government and culture they’re lambasting is harming them least of all the people that populate the country, and they’re completely unaware of the irony. They sing, “maybe I’m the faggot America,” symbolic of their inability to fit in, but it only highlights the fact that they do fit in – unlike the gay (or non-white, lower class, etc. etc.) Americans who are completely absent from the play. What works in Green Day’s album – which is, understandably, from the perspective of only one singer – comes off as blind and borderline offensive on the stage.

I hesitate to completely lambast the show, since, as I noted, the staging and technical elements, performances, and music are all spectacular. But without a strong story or characters to hang those elements on, American Idiot is little more than a sparkling, charismatic failure.

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Original Fiction: Underneath (inspired by Mighty Kate)

July 8, 2010 at 2:29 pm (Uncategorized)

Mighty Kate is a NY/NJ-based singer-songwriter of phenomenal talent. I’ve seen her perform live on countless occasions, and I never leave the venue without a smile on my face. And today happens to be her birthday. So, in honor of that happy occasion, I’m going to do something I’ve never done before on this blog — post a piece of original fiction.

This story (beyond the obvious fairy tale source material) was inspired by Mighty Kate’s song Underneath, and was written for a scrapbook project a group of fans put together in honor of the release of her latest album. If you like the song, or my story, I highly encourage you to check out that album — you can buy it on her site, on iTunes, or on Amazon.

In the meantime, here’s my story, which only Mighty Kate and the other scrapbook fans have seen before. Happy Birthday, Katy!

Underneath
By Jennifer Margret Smith

Underfed

For weeks I have been underfed. No food is left in our cupboards – no bread in the breadbox, no meat in the larder. My brother crumbles the last stale roll to mark our path, but the birds are the only creatures who find supper that day. Can we be blamed for taking our share, when a bounty comes upon us? Can we be blamed for devouring marzipan and peppermint without a moment’s thought to anything but the growling in our bellies?

The witch of the gingerbread house is a harsh jailer, a cruel mistress, and my brother thinks he is clever to trick her old eyes into believing a bone is his flesh, saving our lives one day at a time. But he sits in a cage suspended on high while I roam freely with my spoon and my apron, and it is he who gapes between his bars as I push the old witch with all of my strength into her own oven.

I will never go hungry again.

Under the Covers

I am under the covers, but there is something under me. I lie still, poised in limbo between twenty feather comforters and twenty feather mattresses. Somewhere, far below the downy fringes and sharp spines of the feathers, lies a tiny object so round and so hard that I toss and turn above it, exhausted by the effort to find my way past the distraction to the sandman’s realm.

The next morning, I don’t wish to complain. I came to this castle bedraggled, my ringlets sodden, desperate for shelter with no proof of my identity. The keepers’ kindness is a blessing I can only hope to repay. But my eyes rest above dark sunken pools, my lack of slumber evident, and when the lady of the house raises the obvious query, I confess the truth, hoping for her forgiveness for my criticism of her hospitality.

The delight in her eyes is a surprise, but one I welcome gladly.

Unappreciated

I wake at dawn each day with a broom already in my hand. The quiet night has allowed the sediment of life to settle, and it’s my duty to sweep it away, to crumble the cobwebs to dust and clear out the corners with a fine brush. Then there’s the tea to set out, the china to rinse, the candlesticks to polish, the floor to scrub, the petticoats to beat with a rock on the banks of the stream. And of course, above all, there are the cinders, the fine dust that clings to my dress and hair and skin as I scoop them from the fireplace. All this for little more than a curt nod at best, a sneering criticism and raised hand at worst. I am unappreciated.

But I do not complain. To complain would be to invite the wrath of those who enslave me, to increase their abuses a thousandfold. I have no desire to anger my stepmother, with her cruel eyes and thin lips; I have no desire to irritate the stepsisters who compete for my dutiful attentions. I merely acquiesce, content in the knowledge that someday my patience and resilience must be rewarded. Someday I will rise above this prison of drudgery. Someday I will encounter those who will appreciate me every bit as much as my family does not.

When the fairy arrives, I know my faith was sound.

Undetected

I am undetected, here in the woods. I have run far beyond the safe paths, the well-known trees and brambles of my childhood, past bears and deer and rabbits and all manner of creatures, in search of a single cabin. I have created a new life – a life of service, true, but a life perhaps more real than my life back at court. Here my work holds meaning, as I prepare seven tiny men each day for their trips down to the mines. If they scrape at underground walls each day for the hopes of a single gemstone’s discovery, what hardship is it for me to make their beds and prepare their dinner? I am useful, and in my simple clothes and tangled hair, I am unrecognizable.

When she finds me, years later, I know that only magic could have led her to this hidden place. Her magics are powerful, her mirror most of all, and perhaps I can never truly hide. But the apple is red, and plump, and I am prepared for its poison. I fall to the floor, the world narrowing to one black point, and then I am placed in glass.

In that moment between life and half-life, I am more undetected than I have ever been, and I know I have beaten her game.

Undaunted

I am undaunted. The wolf holds no power over me. His voice howls in the night, but I know my mission. Grandmother’s needs will wait for no man, no woman, no wolf, and the paths are circuitous. I know what I must do. I step from the path, trampling through the brush to my destination, and when the wolf arrives I am prepared, wrapping my red cloak around me in feigned innocence as he points to the beauty of the flowers.

At Grandmother’s house I see him again, wearing her bonnet and dress. His eyes are cruel, his teeth long and sharp, but my undaunted voice carries through the woods to a huntsman nearby, his axe the perfect weapon for the deed. Grandmother is saved, the wolf’s belly filled with rocks, and I lay out the bounty of my basket, sure in the ultimate goodness my actions have wrought.

When I return home, days later, through the same winding woods, the howls of the wolf’s brethren bring a cruel smile to my lips.

Uncommon

They say he is uncommon, but I am uncommon as well. I am the daughter who begged for a rose as a gift, rather than finery; I am the daughter who left the comfort of my home and family to join this beast in his woodland castle. I am the odd one, the strange one; that’s what my sisters always said.

Here, though, even the uncommon is common – enchanted rooms, invisible servants, and my beast, a terror of fur and fangs whose voice is sweet as honey and manners impeccable. He has become my friend, and while I will not acquiesce to his proposals, he is a comfort at my side. I do not wish to leave him; only my love for my family propels me to visit my home again.

When I return, to a beast half-dead with sorrow, I can only hope my uncommon tears will produce uncommon magics.

Unreleased

I will remain forever unreleased. High in this tower I sit, day by day, braiding the hair which has grown long enough to snake around the room five times. I have read my witch-mother’s books a dozen times each, have eaten each of my meals with mechanical steadiness. Even as the pain sears my brain from the tugging at my long braid, I appreciate the times my witch-mother visits, breaking up the monotony of my days.

He is nothing special. A prince, he claims, but I have no way to prove that truth or lie; I know little of princes beyond the few words my witch-mother has shared. But he is the first to see me as something other than inaccessible, a faraway untouchable beauty to serenade for just as long as it takes my witch-mother to destroy him. His determination flatters me, plants the first small seeds of hope in my chest, and when he climbs I don’t even feel pain.

When my witch-mother comes, with her long scissors and her promises of destruction, it is too late. I have already begun to imagine a future of freedom.

Underwater

I am underwater, but I do not wish to be. Far above the crest of the waves lies another world, a world of sands and grasses that do not shift with the tides, a land of solid tables and marble floors and dancing. A land of legs and feet and tiny little toes. A land of sweet princes whose arms are too weak for swimming.

I have been warned of the Sea Witch, but I am heedless. The others do not know what it means to feel trapped in one’s own form, to look at one’s scales and fins as foreign impositions. They do not know what it means to crave running, to crave dancing, to crave the affection of one who could never love a creature of the waves. I would cut out my own tongue to make it so.

I may die, may evaporate to seafoam at the end of all this, but I cannot be underwater a moment longer.

Unaffected

For sixteen years of my life, I believe I am unaffected. I have heard rumors of a curse, placed upon me at birth, a curse that would lead me to sleep for one hundred years. But no one has told me how this curse might come about. “I have taken care of it,” my father says, when I ask him. The kingdom has been cleansed; I am in no danger.

Yet I remain curious. I have led a charmed life, protected from any scrape or bruise. Nothing can touch me in my father’s kingdom. Even my floors are pillowed, my food pre-cut so I will never see a knife. I yearn for adventure, for risk, for danger, if only to feel, for once, that the outside world has any effect upon me at all.

When I find the spinning wheel, glorious in its rhythm, its spindle sparkling sharp, my fingers reach out unbidden, prepared at last to feel.

Undefeated

I despair, but I am undefeated. I will find a way out of this mess into which my father’s boasting has let me. In this room full of straw, I will find a way to produce gold. My resilience is my greatest strength, and it has carried me this far. So when the little man comes, I know he is the reward for my resilience. I shower him with gifts and promises, and he showers me with gold.

Years later, I sit with my newborn son in my lap, remembering that promise made long ago. My resilience has led me to this place as queen of a kingdom, and it will not fail me now. I am thankful for the man’s assistance, but he has had his payments. He will not take this from me as well. And so I send out my spies in the dark of night, searching for a hole in the clause.

He flees when he hears his name, his face a mask of rage above his flying ladle, and I hold my son tightly to my chest, secure in the certainty that I will never know defeat.

I am an undisputed ace in the hole.
I am an undeniable story untold.
I am underneath.

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