Green Day's American Idiot Underscores Broadway's Current Non-Star Practices

06/21/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Green Day driving force Billie Joe Armstrong grew up listening to--and gleefully singing--show tunes. So it's little surprise that the 2004 American Idiot opus, which he and group members Mike Dirnt and Tré Cool composed as a rock opera, has transferred to the Broadway stage under the same waaaay-commercial title. It's also not surprising that director Michael Mayer, whose last Gotham blockbuster was Spring Awakening, has guided the 90-minute adaptation to the St. James after a couple of preliminary try-outs at Berkeley Repertory Theatre and at Vassar.

So what if the result--supplemented by cuts from more recent Green Day product--is a mixed blessing? That'll hardly deter the Green Day fans. They'll flock to the event and undoubtedly bring along as-yet-unconverted ticket-buyers. That eager and surely vocal crowd won't mind the story Mayer and Armstrong cooked up as an elaboration of Armstrong's initial thread about the travails of a misguided "Jesus of Suburbia" in contemporary maladjusted America. It's now the tale of three pals going haywire on their own bent paths and as such is a blatant retread of Hair, Twyla Tharp's Movin' Out and, yes, Spring Awakening.

Predictable from the moment Johnny (John Gallagher Jr.), Tunny (Stark Sands) and Will (Michael Esper) declare their discontent via harsh ditties "Jesus of Suburbia," "City of the Damned" and "I Don't Care," the production is redeemed from its familiar depiction of drug abuse, unwise young marriage and Iraq-war violence by Armstrong's melodically emo songs, which include the occasional lyric contribution by Dirnt and Cool.

It's also favorably marked by a ginormous cast of young troupers who muscularly carry out Steven Hoggett's choreography, which owes much of its unrelieved foot-stomping to Bill T. Jones's Spring Awakening movements. Kudos as well to the arrangements by Pulitzer Prize-winning Tom (Next to Normal) Kitt. Moreover, enough can't be said of Mayer's copious theatrical flourishes, constantly present in Christine Jones's towering set on which a vintage auto hangs and from which 30-plus monitors blare. Not to mention Darrel Maloney's mind-blowing projections eventually featuring the symbolic grenade-as-heart image prominent in the tuner's logo.

Talk about sensory overload--this is a rousing example. Likely to be a box-office bonanza that'll put Cheshire-cat smiles on the myriad producers responsible for its arrival and listed in various print sizes on the Playbill title page, American Idiot represents an additional telling example. In today's nervous Broadway mood, where the prevalent received wisdom is that offerings can only be hits if a star's name graces the marquee, American Idiot joins the list of offerings behind the axiom's corollary: If you can't flash a famous name above the title, put on a rock musical--jukebox, where the music is the star (though that didn't help the Elvis Presley-oriented All Shook Up or Lennon).

Although Gallagher won a Tony for his delightfully manic Spring Awakening performance, Sands shone in Journey's End on Broadway and Twelfth Night and The Tempest off-Broadway and Esper was a big plus for off-Broadway's The Four of Us, not one of them is likely to cause a ticket stampede--though it's possible Tony Vincent, playing serpentine drug dealer St. Jimmy, has a wallet-opening following.

The same can be said for the players in the several other rock musicals currently dotting the Great White Way map. There's Million Dollar Quartet, in which Eddie Clendening, Lance Guest, Levi Kreis and Rob Lyons play, respectively, Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis and Carl Perkins--and work their instruments as if hurling great balls of fire. Yes, they originated their roles in the Chicago development period, but they haven't become b.-o. fodder. What about Chad Kimball and Montego Glover, who aren't recognized stars but unquestionably deserve the designation for their turns in unexpected click Memphis? Perhaps Alice Ripley is selling Next to Normal ducats for having won last year's Tony, but neither she nor her colleagues in the award-winning musical are genuine bold-face names as of now.

And quick! Name the current or previous draws at Rock of Ages, Jersey Boys, Hair, Billy Elliot or In the Heights--all of which are enjoying long runs and feature rock or hip-hop music. What about Fela! with its world music or Come Fly Away, which boasts Frank Sinatra non-rock voice-overs? Granted, Constantine Maroulis, whose American Idol fame precedes him, continues to adorn the Rock of Ages roster. (The fact that Maroulis and several other AI contestants have found their way to the theater when unmercifully caustic judge Simon Cowell has continuously expressed contempt for the outlet is a story for another time.)

In summary: Box-office magnets like American Idiot will keep coming alongside someone like Nathan Lane and whatever gobsmacking star salary he gets. For the foreseeable future, play-it-safe producers will count on rock and off-shoots to be the gold carrot at the end of the Broadway lower-budget stick.