"Pop on Broadway, sure. But punk? Yes, indeed, and served straight up, with each sneering lyric and snarling riff in place."
This was the assessment of New York Times theater critic Charles Isherwood in his rave review of American Idiot The Musical when it opened on Broadway in April 2010. No disrespect to the esteemed Isherwood, but he trips up here. American Idiot The Musical is not pure punk rock. Nor, for that matter, is the multi-platinum 2004 Green Day album that it's based on. It's an hour-long ganglion of multi-part suites, grandiose pop songs and Who-inspired ridiculousness. Sure, there are moments of primal punk fury, but to call it punk rock understates its diverse sonic palate.
Even if Green Day's record were a by-the-numbers punk affair, a play can't be expected to replicate that on a Broadway stage. Straight-up punk rock doesn't have strings, chorus-style vocals or choreography. Punk can certainly tinge a Broadway play, but there is no way that the medium can produce something that is purely punk rock. Spontaneity versus choreography, off-key screaming versus conservatory-trained virtuosity: There's an essential incompatibility between "punk rock" and "Broadway musical" that prevents a perfect union.
That's what makes the idea of an American Idiot musical exciting: the struggle to hold together polar opposites even as they forcefully repel each other. Like the grenade on Green Day's cover, it's a combination that could easily blow up in your face.
Isherwood's comment becomes more forgivable when you consider the way rock opera albums are received. American Idiot is simply a recent entry in the long history of rock opera in popular music. A British prog band from the late '60s and early '70s called Nirvana is often credited with creating the first rock album to ride a narrative song cycle with their 1967 LP The Story of Simon Simopath. The form has since become a mainstay of the rock canon, with The Who's Tommy and Quadrophenia, David Bowie's Ziggy Stardust and Hüsker Dü's Zen Arcade standing as landmark examples.
In the eight years since American Idiot, the rock opera has seen a resurgence. Mainstream hit makers (My Chemical Romance's 2006 LP The Black Parade) and indie acts (Fucked Up's brilliant 2011 album David Comes to Life) alike have gotten into the act. But whether the artist responsible is an MTV emo mainstay or a rudely named Toronto punk band, a successful rock opera is often greeted with the same question: Will it be produced on stage?
It's a natural reaction, but it carries risks to our understanding of these albums. The stage is not always the best way to tell these stories, nor are rock operas simply cleverly marketed gimmicks by musicians hoping to make a splash on Broadway. To assume that a staged show would be the ultimate realization of the material underestimates the rock opera's capabilities as a storytelling medium.
Plays are concrete things, with characters, played by actors, right in front of you. But stories told on music albums are abstract and subjective, their narratives depending on the words of their singers, the scant information included in the liner notes and the interpretations that the listeners bring to the experience. Thus with rock opera albums, the listener gets the words of loosely defined characters and a narrator, who more often than not gives you ample reason to doubt what he says.
Rock opera albums demand more from their audience than a musical. On David Comes to Life, the narrator viciously attacks the protagonist at every opportunity, forcing you to question his motives. Quadrophenia ambitiously explores the psyche of a kid with a four-way split personality, tasking you to sort through the brambles of his overlapping personas. But such riddles also allow you to place a part of yourself into the story as you fill in the gaps and interpret the action.
As an album, American Idiot's narrative is even more fractured than most rock operas. It features two protagonists who may or may not be the same person. After Johnny (aka Jesus of Suburbia) takes a nine-minute Queen-aping journey to the big city, a new character, St. Jimmy, is introduced with a dirty garage jam in which he installs himself as the prophetic leader of the city's underground culture. The two are perfect foils, but they aren't fleshed out beyond their own words, making it impossible to tell if St. Jimmy is another person, a new persona that Johnny takes on or merely a figment of his imagination. In fact, since the liner notes are pages from Johnny's diary, it's entirely possible that the whole story is happening in his head. (Spoiler alert! Readers may want to skip the next paragraph.)
The play is bereft of such delicious doubts. Johnny and St. Jimmy are played by different actors, and the latter character is revealed to be a creation of the former's drug-addled brain. St. Jimmy's suicide, a wonderfully confused moment on the album, is simplified with Jimmy shooting himself in the head and Johnny looking on as he's carried off the stage. The play leaves no question as to whether the main character has actually offed himself. Perhaps it's a necessary change given the physicality of the stage, but it certainly alters the impact of the scene.
None of this is meant to suggest that on its own terms, American Idiot The Musical is inferior to the album that inspired it. Certainly the reputation that precedes this show's arrival in Raleigh promises a satisfying evening. It simply bears reminding that rock opera albums can be just as rewarding as their stage-bound counterparts. Yes, go see American Idiot, but also take a listen through the album that birthed it. Nitpicking the differences is likely to be half the fun.