The arrival of American Idiot, the musical, at the Ahmanson Theatre coincides with the first small-theater production in LA of Spring Awakening, which was clearly the previous musical that played the biggest role in the creation of American Idiot.
Michael Mayer, director of the original productions of both shows, hit the jackpot with Spring Awakening, a musical adaptation of the Frank Wedekind play. It inspired him to think about other source material that might be transformed into other rock musicals about troubled youth. When he settled on the idea to transform the Green Day album American Idiot into such a musical, his clout from Spring Awakening surely sealed the deal.
Too bad it was a lousy idea.
It’s abundantly clear from seeing both shows, only four days apart, that Spring Awakening is mostly terrific and that American Idiot is mostly terrible.
As mentioned above, American Idiot is based on a concept album, while Spring Awakening is based on a classic play — a play that is still being produced at the age of 120. Not surprisingly, the characters of Spring Awakening are much more individuated and the narrative is much better developed.
Spring Awakening’s score was written expressly for the musical version. American Idiot’s score was written before its musical version was even conceived — in other words, the musical was inherently secondary to the album.
Both musicals are about troubled young people. Those in Spring Awakening are 19th-century Germans who are severely repressed and in many ways, suppressed to the point of being literally beaten. We meet several members of the older generation who are doing the repressing and the suppressing, as well as one mother who is quite sympathetic to the younger generation. All of this creates enormous dramatic tension, and it leaves the musical numbers as the one sanctuary where the young characters can express their unfettered feelings — which they do, with the voices and physicality of 21st century Americans. This device is an ingenious leap across time and space.
In American Idiot, the characters are already 21st century Americans who aren’t repressing much of anything. And, because we never meet any of the older adults in their background, we never see much direct suppression taking place either — other than the media bulletins about general Bush-era craziness. The characters come off as inarticulate, predictable whiners. Only when one of them is injured in Iraq can you say that any of the three main characters are literally beaten.
They too express themselves primarily through their music — Green Day’s punk-inflected sounds. But there is nothing ingenious or even new about using punk music to express the feelings of young American slackers. Many of the lyrics are either difficult to hear or, even if you can hear them, so inchoate as to be difficult to decipher.
In Spring Awakening, the depictions of the female characters are just as complete and as lively as those of the males. By contrast, in American Idiot, one of the two leading female characters is called Whatsername in lieu of a real name. Idiot’s women sing one group number that expresses the show’s usual fallback emotion — rage — but after a look at the lyrics, I found their rage somewhat difficult to distinguish from the men’s rage.
Part of the problem is that punk, which tends to be loud and frantic but lacking in subtlety, is a challenging genre for anyone who wants to develop characters beyond sketchy, generic outlines. Another part of the problem is that the “book” for American Idiot was written by Green Day’s Billie Joe Armstrong and director Mayer, not by the professional writers who crafted the Spring Awakening book and lyrics (Steven Sater) and music (Duncan Sheik).
True, Mayer developed the American Idiot characters beyond the confines of the album, which was mostly about the chief protagonist Johnny, Whatsername and Johnny’s evil pusher St. Jimmy. For the musical, Mayer (with Armstrong’s approval) added story lines about Johnny’s fellow suburban malcontents Will, whose girlfriend’s pregnancy prevents him from going to the big city with Johnny, and Tunny, who goes to the big city, retreats into bed-potato status, and then is (somewhat implausibly) lured into volunteering for the military, which promptly lands him in Iraq.
But these would-be stories are utterly threadbare, and the lyrics don’t express any of these people with much specificity. The most eye-catching moment in the show takes place in Tunny’s story line — when two actors fly around the stage in a Peter Pan-style dream sequence. But even this draws attention to the director and the staging more than it does to anything personal about Tunny.
If I were a big Green Day fan, I’d be much more interested in seeing a Green Day concert than in seeing American Idiot. Despite the exertions of Stephen Hoggett’s choreography as well as the efforts of Mayer, the musical isn’t sufficiently differentiated from a concert to make up for the fact that these people on stage are not the actual members of Green Day. Even if you’re looking for special effects, there isn’t anything at the Ahmanson quite as striking as the green slime that gradually takes over the stage in the Green Day-approved video of the title song, “American Idiot.”
Of course I’m a musicals fan more than a Green Day fan, and for me, American Idiot isn’t much of a musical. By the way, if you look at the summary of LA reviews of American Idiot on www.bitter-lemons.com, (“100% SWEET”) you might get the impression that everyone liked everything about it. That isn’t true, if you follow the links to read the actual reviews by Charles McNulty in the Times and Paul Hodgins in the Register — I’d call both of these mixed/positive reviews. A much more more precise reading of another city’s critical reactions (to the Broadway production) is at the New York aggregating website StageGrade, which sums up the critical consensus with a B-.
Meanwhile, I’m happy to report that Spring Awakening retains all of its narrative and musical power in a scaled-down Hollywood production, directed by Kate Sullivan instead of Mayer.
The venue, the Theatre of Arts Egyptian Arena Stage (surely a rebranding is in order for this space) at the south, off-street end of the Egyptian Arena complex, is reminiscent of a Hollywood club, as you enter through back alleys into a dramatically dark and misty playing space. As in the original production, a few audience members are ushered to seats on the sides of the stages, and subsidiary chorus members also occupy seats in these areas, occasionally rising from them to join the action.
The big question here isn’t whether the talent will be strong enough in this smaller, less well-funded version — after all, we’re in Hollywood, which is always overflowing with unrecognized or little-recognized talent, and where many actors and musicians are always willing for work for little money in exchange for exposure and/or the joy of doing something wonderful. This cast has Mat Vairo as the advanced Melchior, Chase Williamson as the hapless Moritz, Lindsay Pearce as the curious Wendla, and David Carey Foster and Kelly Lester in all the adult roles. All of them are excellent.
No, the big question is whether the noise levels of a rock musical will be treated with enough balance to keep the buzz going without blowing out the systems inside this small space and the eardrums of the audience members. Just as in the earlier productions, this staging has the characters frequently lifting microphones out of their clothes at opportune moments — it’s a visual cue to signal the transition to a 21st-century musical sensibility — but the noise level doesn’t overwhelm.
Praise be to Sullivan, sound designer Drew Dalzell and musical director Rachael Lawrence for getting the sound levels right. I heard lyrics that had escaped me in the bigger halls where I’ve seen Spring Awakening, yet the volume was loud enough for the place to really rock, in alt-rock fashion. By the way, the back-of-the-stage band is propelled not only by Lawrence but by LA small theater’s favorite drummer, Ameenah Kaplan.
I wonder why Spring Awakening hasn’t been seen on the mid-size level before it appears in a 99-seat venue. I hope it isn’t because of the brief flashes of Wendla’s breasts and Melchior’s bum in their lovemaking scene. I wish everyone in this Spring Awakening could be property remunerated. But with tickets for $25, compared to Broadway prices, the audience certainly shouldn’t feel cheated.
American Idiot, Ahmanson Theatre, 135 N. Grand Ave., LA. Tues-Fri 8 pm, Sat 2 and 8 pm, Sun 1 and 6:30 pm. Closes with the matinee on April 22. www.CenterTheatreGroup.org. 213-972-4400.
***All American Idiot production photos by Doug Hamilton
Spring Awakening, Theatre of Arts Egyptian Arena Stage, 1625 N. Las Palmas, Hollywood. Thur-Sun 8 pm. Dark April 5. Closes April 22. www.brownpapertickets.com. 310-903-6150.
***All Spring Awakening production photos by Kat Hess