American Idiot and Jukebox Musicals

Marisa chimes in on the Broadway adaptation of Green Day’s American Idiot: Is it successful, or just... idiotic?



american idiotAmerican Idiot photographs by Alessandra Mello

Last week, we took a look at Sugar at the Westchester Broadway Theater to show how some musicals based on movies don’t always turn out so well. But what about that other kind of popular Broadway adaptation — the now infamous “jukebox musical” — based around the songs of a single artist?

Last week, I had the opportunity to see American Idiot, based on the music of Green Day. Tom Kitt, an Armonk native, re-arranged the songs for the show. It’s actually been a heck of a year for Kitt. In addition to opening American Idiot, which was just nominated for the Tony Award for Best Musical, he also won the Pulitzer Prize for his other Broadway hit, Next to Normal. And the musical won without even being nominated!

Anyway, adapting a movie into a musical, as dodgy as the prospect is, seems easier. The characters, story, and resolution are all in place. You just need to add some songs and dance numbers, and — presto! Broadway musical.

These “jukebox musicals” are harder to construct. It’s pretty much the opposite prospect: The creators have to start with is the body of songs from a single artist. From there, they have to stitch together a coherent story and, hopefully, some well-realized characters out of what they can tease from the song lyrics.

american idiot

American Idiot was actually in a better position to face these obstacles from the start. The musical is pulled together not from the band’s entire discography, but mostly from its last two albums: American Idiot and 21st Century Breakdown. The band wrote American Idiot: The Album with a loose plot in mind, and sketched out a few recurring characters through the songs. At least there was some sort of framework for them to work with. Then they added in a tricked-out set, some super-modern choreography, and a frenetic rock-concert feel, and the show was pretty much fantastic. (At least, according to me, the Tony nominating committee, and The New York Times.)

Still, though, since they don’t add in much dialogue between Green Day songs, the plot of the musical is very thin. Not in a detrimental way, but you often get an impression of what’s going on rather than the nuts and bolts of what the characters’ relationships are (if that’s what you’re looking for in a show).

By contrast, something like Mamma Mia, also a successful show, uses lots of between-songs dialogue to put together a plot that you never could have imagined solely from listening to ABBA Gold. Then there’s the other extreme — something like Movin’ Out or Come Fly with Me — which uses no between-song dialogue and tries to express to the story only through Twila Tharp’s choreography.

In the end, these musicals boil down to isn’t really the plot, characters, or the emotional journeys they take you on. If you like the artists and the songs, you’re probably going to like the show. In this way, it’s a lot easier for a jukebox musical to be more successful than a movie adaptation. An audience may love a character form a movie, but that loyalty does not extend to loving a musical based on that movie solely because a character is in it. In contrast, I had a blast at American Idiot, but I would’ve loved it no matter what happened on stage just because I got to hear “Good Riddance” at the end of it. (Sixteen-year-old me was so jealous.)

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Marisa LaScala

Marisa LaScala
Elmsford, NY


Associate Editor Marisa LaScala joined Westchester magazine in 2003, and ever since she's blown every paycheck at the Greenburgh Multiplex. She also staunchly defends Richard Kelly, doesn't mind spoiling the endings of trashy movies you're curious about but don't want to pay to see, wishes the Hold Steady would come back and rock out Westchester, misses Arrested Development more than anyone can imagine, and still watches cartoons and Saturday Night Live. You can find more of her cultural criticism at www.popmatters.com, where she is a staff writer.

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