The genre is casting about for ideas, whether they are from films like Shrek and Billy Elliott (to cite a Tony success from last year), or as with Spring Awakening, which spotlit music by Duncan Sheik from rock songwriters more comfortable with the life of gritty clubs, merch tables, and tour buses than the mountain-moving, time-devouring, and costly group mechanics of putting on a full-tilt musical. Unlike singularly conceived rock operas like the Who's Tommy, the first notable union of an established rock band and theater on Broadway, so-called juke box musicals collections of songs by one group like Mamma Mia! and Jersey Boys have met with mixed results.
"There's a whole variety, like Ring of Fire, the Johnny Cash one, that just haven't made it," opines Michael Kantor, writer of the Emmy-winning 2005 PBS documentary Broadway: The American Musical. "It's very much dependent on the conception of the director and the book writer who is putting together the story that's going to encapsulate the music. I do think Broadway right now is keenly scavenging from movies or recordings anything they feel like they can get quality material from as a launching point."
With the closing of a host of musicals earlier this year, producers are looking for the new and innovative. "Many of the most important musicals," Kantor theorizes, "have come from the most unexpected sources or most unusual approaches." And there's the scramble for the youth entertainment dollar, as the High School Musical TV-music franchise taps into the passion so many kids have for song, dance, and drama. "Kids are always attracted to musicals," Kantor muses, "but once they get into their midteens, a lot of them lose their interest in musicals as an art form and gravitate to other stuff. High School Musical catches them at their natural inclination for that kind of entertainment. The question is, will a show like [American Idiot] capture that much-sought-after 18- to 30-year-old demographic, which is when musicals tend to lose people. Kids go off to college, it's not too cool to like musicals, and a lot of adaptations are mainstream or traditional and it doesn't appeal to rebellious youth."
Young people also might have a hard time springing for costly theater tickets yet the kids were out in force, filling the HP Pavilion last week when Green Day played to a hometown crowd with a show punctuated by pyrotechnic pillars of flames and fireworks-style explosions, gleeful costume changes, and squirt-gun shenanigans with Armstrong's mom. It was a big-room amplification of the string of Bay club dates Green Day played earlier this spring at intimate venues like the Independent, DNA Lounge, and the Uptown.
Below a cleverly conceived 3-D urban skyscape backdrop, Armstrong fully embraced his onstage ham and flexed his crowd-control abilities à la Bugs Bunny in a Looney Tunes cartoon, taking running leaps from the monitors, stage-diving, soloing in the bleachers, donning a faux police cap and mooning each side of the audience, and entreating all assembled to raise their fists or sing along, before launching into more serious numbers like "Murder City," written about the Oakland riots that followed the Oscar Grant killing. Live, the band couples the playfully goofy, childlike comedy that tickles the 14-year-olds up front with the palpable sense of morality driven by a beaten yet still beating anarchist heart found on its increasingly serious-minded, idealistic recordings.
Armstrong won't be onstage for the American Idiot musical though the production includes a live band and it's not the Billie Joe Armstrong or Green Day Story.