Last night I attended a lovely conversation at NYU between Professor Bob Vorlicky and Michael Mayer, director of Broadway’s most recent transfer, American Idiot, which is opening tonight. For a man with one Broadway show beginning previews that night, and another opening the next, he was delightfully composed and charming, and I thoroughly enjoyed hearing the ins and outs of how a concept album by a pop-punk band made it to B’way.
Of course, I do feel a bit bad that I’ve been somewhat dismissive of the show, but I’ll readily admit that Dookie was a defining album of my adolescence (whereas Mayer admitted it wasn’t), and so to stage them on the Great White Way is an affront to the rebellious teenager in me, not to mention the hard-shelled academic I’ve become, dubious of the commercialism that reigns supreme in contemporary performance.
That being said, Mayer made an incredibly valuable point about the role musicals play in the wider culture and its evolution: he compared American Idiot to musicals of the 20s and 30s, when the music existed outside the realm of the performance. In fact, the music was pervasive in popular culture, many times preceding the theatre pieces they would become part of. He specifically alluded to Ethel Merman singing Gershwin, and how the music wasn’t relegated to the insulated culture of Broadway; indeed, they were the same songs one would hear at the dance halls or bars after the show. In other words, there was a cultural permeation between pop music and theatre back in the day, that went the way of the dodo once more “integrated” musicals came on the scene. One could even say that for the exact reason Oklahoma! is renowned for its shift in form is the very same reason musical theatre became less pertinent to culture in general.
Mayer said that he hoped recent trends, including American Idiot (and I would add phenomena like Glee or High School Musical, as much as we may love to hate them), are bringing musical theatre full circle back to its Broadway and even vaudeville roots.
And, for the record, I will be seeing American Idiot soon. And from what I hear, it’s a phenomenal show. And even though I may not be able to feel it, I’ll certainly be able to appreciate it.