Thursday, 10 June 2010

American Idiot/Chemistry Genius? I Think I'm In Between The Two

Apologies for the incredibly long absence, you see I have this thing called a degree which I had completely forgotten about. Suddenly there were these things called exams and a dissertation and three vivas. I'd like the next line to be "and then I woke up and realised it was all a bad dream" but alas it is real life and I'm scarily about two weeks away from closing the doors on four years of hard work (if anyone wants to give me a job from October, that'd be great thanks!). So am I going to have to come up with a new name for this blog? As I'm not planning on staying in the science world once I'm finished. Suggestions on a postcard or, more conveniently, in the comments box below.

Of course, weeks of revision have allowed for weeks of procrastination and whilst I haven't had the chance to write anything or see much theatre, I've had plenty of opportunities to ponder the theatre world and watch a lot of YouTube.

The amazing set of American Idiot
My favourite new show of the Broadway season, despite having not seen any of the shows in any media but videoclip, is American Idiot, the Greenday based rock musical. Not only does this choice probably surprise you dear reader but also myself. When I first heard about the idea, I though "how on earth is that going to work?" and I was then taken back to my teenage years at my rural community college where Greenday were the band to like- we even had a school tribute band. I guess you could say I wasn't the most popular girl at school (tubby, glasses, short, brainy, you get the picture) so I never really got into the group then.

Fast forward five years, I've changed completely, lost the weight, started drinking, grown my hair long. I feel like I'm reliving those teenage years I never had- drinking Bacardi Breezers and dodgy perry, chilling in the park. I guess rediscovering Greenday was the next logical step.

By now I've hope you've all realised I'm not the greatest supporter of the jukebox musical-  it cheapens the art form and stifles the growth of any new talent or original shows. But there are a few jukebox shows that I really enjoy on an artistic level as well as a purely entertaining level; American Idiot is one of them and I've been trying to work out why.

Firstly, lets look at American Idiot the CD- a hugely popular, millions-selling almost concept  album. And there is the key phrase: concept album. Billie Joe Armstrong himself has explained that in writing the album, it was intended to tell a story and take music to another emotional and creative level, just as a musical does.

Each song is encapsulated in its own style and self contained story. We have an opening number in "American Idiot" - a rock anthem in a similar but better vein to the title song from Rent but without feeling so dated. Wake Me Up When September Ends has long had a connection with theatricality; its video is a mini epic telling of a teenage love ripped apart by war. Letterbomb was apparently always written for a girl to sing, again revealing the intention to take the album to the world of theatre.

Ooo, its snowing! And they're all angsty
In the show, American Idiot is still the opening number but ramps up the anger and tension with increasing intricacies of harmony, flashing lights, blaring TV screens and short, sharp shocks of choreography. Wake Me Up When September Ends becomes a heartfelt ballad sung by the three leads on acoustic guitars. excitingly Letterbomb is a female cry of hatred for the opposite sex with some brilliant dancing on top of a hydraulic lift (see Wicked, you aren't the only ones with a lift).

From what I've seen American Idiot does the complete opposite to what I'd expect from a jukebox musical- it takes the music to a completely new level. What could just be a song you happen to dance to really reaches into your emotions and makes you feel that angst the characters feel. And that's what a good musical should do. The fact that an album by a rock band can do the same is a credit Greenday and their creative vision.

Gotta say, I'm a sucker for an air guitar

So why do I find myself liking this show but not most jukebox musicals? And an even greater mystery: why do I like Rock of Ages? Rock of Ages should be the my most hated show- taking some 80s power ballads, adding a ridiculous story and camping it up. The key is creativity. Rock of Ages knows it is being silly but it takes some songs I never knew and presents them in a completely unexpected way with some real musicality. Whilst many musical theatre purists find it puerile and something for tourists and beer louts, I think its actually been very clever by lovingly mocking the musical theatre art form in a way that only theatre fans would understand, to a tourist or beer lout this is just a fun show. American Idiot, I find, also has something to offer musical theatre fans on a separate level. Greenday fans will go for the music whilst theatre fans will go for the entire thoughtful but showy spectacle. We can all appreciate good choreography and a decent (if flawed at times) story which I think both shows have.

Whats the moral of this story? Well, if you're going to write a jukebox musical, make sure you understand the art of musical theatre even if you don't like the music. Whilst a straightforward jukebox musical will put bums on seats (and be made into a box office smash film...), it will always be known as the so and so music show rather than a musical in its own right. And can a jukebox musical ever be accepted in the theatre world? Yes, as long as it accepts the theatre world.

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