Too old for this

Good songs. Well sung. In a Broadway theatre. You’d think I’d be happy.

American Idiot is a show with a tall, TV-filled set, and the occasional stunning visual. Most impressively, everyone in the cast appears to play the guitar. But most of the lyrics are incomprehensible. As far as I can tell, there’s no story. The characters are alarmingly similar to one another: complaining slackers who recline on ugly couches, downing beers. There’s no reason to like them, or to follow what happens to them.

Perhaps I came to the St. James Theatre with an unreasonable expectation: that there’d be a plot, that I’d feel something, that it would be something more than a live procession of music videos. It’s not that I dislike music videos – some are a lot of fun – but it would never occur to me to watch them for 90 minutes without getting up.

I must sound really old, locked in my outmoded 20th Century way of thinking. Back when dates began with 19, a musical was something that entertained with songs connected to a story and characters. Now, Broadway hosts a number of shows that bear a much closer resemblance to rock concerts than the musicals I write, or the musicals we all grew up with.

Much of the audience around me was pretty thrilled to see Green Day‘s Billie Joe Armstrong performing some of his compositions. At the end, he came back out to do an encore, and couldn’t stop from laughing – apparently he thinks there’s something risible about turning a phenomenally successful rock album into a Broadway entertainment.

As recent rock albums go, Green Day‘s American Idiot earns its huge sales: it’s excellent – likable melodies with energy, power, and tons of attitude. When they come up on your iPod shuffle, you go “Now this is a good song.” But, for the first third of the stage show, every number had the same tempo and volume. Despite all the strobe lights flashed in my face, I found myself falling asleep.

This will sound incredibly nit-picky: The second line of the title song is sung with two slightly different lyrics. The first time, a soloist wails “under the new media” with a false accent. Later, a group sings “controlled by the media” and the words fit on the tune perfectly. I mention this because I’m thinking about why so many of the lyrics were incomprehensible. In life, if someone says to you “Don’t want a nation under the new media” you’re not confused; your mind focuses on an interesting point. But native speakers don’t mis-stress words. “Under the new media” didn’t register with me, because “under” is a word that is never accented on its second syllable. So, this seemingly minor instance of bad craft stopped my brain from turning to the concept I should have been thinking about. Much of the show sounded like gobbledy-gook.

Sometimes you don’t understand lyrics because they’re too dense, like a lot of modern poetry. Sometimes, the performer has muddy articulation. Sometimes, the sound system’s getting in the way, or the band is too loud. As I songwriter, I’m most troubled by times in which errors of craft get in the way of communication.

Which brings me to a particularly ridiculous bit of staging. Picture, if you will, in the distant future, a class of fourth graders singing a concert of popular songs from the early 21st Century. Rather then just standing there, they’re given hand movements as their standing-in-place choreography. Every time they sing the words “21 guns” they do three hand gestures: a peace sign to indicate the number 2, the forefinger pointing to indicate 1, and then the hand making the shape of a pistol for “guns.” Clever? Cute? Now imagine a massed chorus of adults standing in a line at the rear of a stage doing that hand-ography.

Idiot, indeed.

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