The Son of Rage and Love

I have to admit, I never ever thought I’d be working on a punk rock musical. I probably never thought such a thing could exist.

But American Idiot really is a punk rock musical, though you’d be making a mistake if you think that means the whole score sounds the same, that it’s all loud and aggressive. Some of it is, but there’s a great variety within punk, and much of it is not the screaming, racing, distorted, unpolished punk rock stereotype. (Besides, if our singers were screaming all night, they’d blow out their voices.) On the contrary, there are some power ballads in this show that are genuinely beautiful and emotionally potent, “Wake Me Up When September Ends,” “21 Guns, ” “Boulevard of Broken Dreams, ”“Last Night on Earth”…

Just as there was a great variety among the punk artists of the 70s (almost none of whom embraced the label “punk”), so too is there great variety in the score for American Idiot. If you don’t know any punk rock, or its more recent cousin, “emo rock,” you’ll be amazed at how versatile and how expressive it can be.

Maybe a better label for American Idiot is “pop punk” or maybe even “art punk”? Or does that just conjure New Wave? No, Green Day is much more raw, more visceral than that. Maybe it’s just another evolution of punk, which has always included elements of pop. The songs of Green Day are far more musical, more melodic, more poetic, more insightful than anything the New York Dolls ever sang. On the other hand, Green Day’s more aggressive songs (“American Idiot,” “Holiday”) share a great deal with their punk ancestors.

It’s important to remember that all punk rock isn’t about the visceral, primal rage of the Sex Pistols. Some of the punkers are/were real street poets, some very consciously picking up the mantle of the Beat writers, the cultural revolutionaries of the 1950s. America has had “punks” throughout the 20th century, in rebellion against the homogenization of emotional expression and individual experience, the swallowing up of man by the mainstream culture. Backlash was inevitable then as it was in the 70s, in the early 2000s, and again today. When rock and roll was born in the early 1950s, the sound was every bit as raw, as untrained, as rebellious as punk in the 70s.

Rock forms always evolve to challenge the status quo.

I did some research on punk rock artists when we were working on Hedwig, which is really more glam than punk, but it does include a few punk songs (“Tear Me Down,” “Exquisite Corpse”), and “Midnight Radio” namechecks several icons of punk. I wanted to understand who those people were that Hedwig saw as her heroes, artists like Nico and Patti Smith.

What I found in my research is that it’s not primarily the music itself that defines punk – there’s not much in common musically between The Ramones and Talking Heads. Instead it’s the attitude, the aggressiveness, the rejection of mainstream values, the rejection of commercialization, and usually real political rage, sometimes overt (as in the Sex Pistols’ “God Save the Queen”) and sometimes more subtextual (like Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” a companion piece to the title song of American Idiot). As Henry Rollins says, “It only takes one guy to stand up and say Fuck this!” And that’s at the heart of punk rock.

And American Idiot.

Bono says, “You don’t start a band to save the world, you know. You really don’t. You start a band for all the wrong reasons. Just to make a big fucking noise and roar at the world.” And isn’t that what American Idiot is, a “roar at the world”? Maybe that’s not the “wrong reasons.” Maybe raging at the world is how we change it.

American Idiot is a punk musical, or at the very least, a punk-inspired rock musical, though it probably wouldn’t do much for ticket sales to sell it that way. Although, I would also argue that much of this score is also emo rock, as is our next show, the rock musical Atomic.

When I saw the original production of American Idiot on Broadway, I loved it. I thought Michael Mayer did a superb job, both in fashioning this triple Hero Myth, but also in staging the show. But I do think Mayer (or maybe it was the producers) made one mistake. The show just had too much Dance in it for me. It was cool, modern dance, not exactly what we’re used to seeing on Broadway, and sometimes it was really beautiful, but what does beautiful dance have to do with the rage of punk rock? In my opinion, unison modern dance violates the spirit of what Billie Joe Armstrong and Green Day wrote.

The one decision I made early on about this show was that I would not be asking our resident choreographer Robin Berger to stage any of theses songs. I’m doing them all myself (with the help of my co-director Mike Dowdy). I don’t want anything on that stage to look like dance or theatre choreography. I want to use stomping, running, lots of “freestyle” headbanging, etc. I want all the movement to look like spontaneous expressions of whatever emotions are in the scene, not “steps,” not “moves,” just expression.

Now that may be easier said than done. But I think it’s the right goal. We should be trying to evoke the punk aesthetic and the punk point of view – the rage and despair that fuels much of this story – not point of view of the New York commercial theatre, with tens of millions of dollars at stake.

Our actors aren’t going to throw themselves into the drum set like some of the punk singers did (don’t worry Clancy!), but I want to find movement for this show that both communicates what it needs to, in terms of storytelling, but that also comes from the abandon and aggression of punk rock. There’s a reason this story is being told with this music. It’s the only music that could express these particular feelings. So we want to be as true as we can to Green Day and Armstrong.

The trap that many directors and choreographers get into is the search for a cool move, a cool stage picture, a “showstopper.” Once you’re thinking about that shit, you will not stage the song well. Instead, I try to figure out what’s happening in this song in terms of narrative and character, in terms of over-arching themes, also what might be harder for the audience to understand and how can we make that clearer with movement? Should the movement correspond in a concrete way to the lyric (in some cases, yes), or should the movement be an emotionally expressionistic counterpoint to the lyric? Or maybe the movement should work in opposition to the lyric, to reveal subtext… Or maybe the movement should be background, giving the the singer and lyric context or emotion that might not otherwise be obvious…

It’s different for every song, because every song has its own purpose in the story. Still, there should be an overall visual unity to the show just as there is musical and thematic unity. So as I stage these songs, I’ll find a vocabulary for this particular production, and then I can give the actors lots of “freestyle” moments because they’ll have a vocabulary to work within and build on. If it sounds like I’ve thought about this a lot, that’s because I had a very similar task ahead of me when I staged Andrew Lippa’s The Wild Party.

It’s not always easy to accomplish all this, but we have a fairly leisurely rehearsal schedule, so if we go down a wrong path, we always have time to switch roads. When we did Evita, I staged “And the Money Kept Rolling In” four times before I liked it. Whenever I get stuck in staging a song, I stop myself, step back, and ask, “What is this about?” That usually puts me back on track. For this show, I will also continually ask myself, Would Billie Joe Armstrong and Mike Dirnt think my staging feels right?

This is a pretty different kind of show from what we usually produce, though it’s not radically different from some shows I’ve staged for New Line, like Hair, Rent, The Wild Party, and bare. I feel like I understand what makes American Idiot tick, what it’s creators intended, and also how directly it speaks to us right now in this election year.

We’ll be put to the test in November as a country. Are we American Idiots? Will we let anger and fear guide us, or will we choose a different path? Maybe American Idiot will help us see those paths a little more clearly.

This show could not be more relevant right now. The adventure continues…

Long Live the Musical!
from The Bad Boy of Musical Theatre


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