John Gallagher Jr., left, and Tony Vincent are shown in "American… (Kevin Berne, Associated…)
Theater critic Charles McNulty and pop music critic Ann Powers began their conversation about the changing sound of the Broadway musical in the lobby of the Sam S. Shubert Theatre in New York, where they ran into each other at a Sunday matinee of "Memphis," one of the four Tony nominees for best musical. The discussion that ensued, provoked by the new indie spirit struggling for a place in an increasingly commercialized landscape, unfolded by e-mail.
CM: So Ann, it seems as though Broadway has become a rocker's haven. Two of the best musical nominees, "Memphis" and "Million Dollar Quartet," are about the birth of rock 'n' roll. Nowadays, aging boomers are the main ticket-buyers, so these shows make total sense. But who could have anticipated the Green Day hit "American Idiot" or the Afrobeat sensation "Fela!" — a show that thrillingly demands that audience members get up out of their seats and experience the rhythm physically?
AP: I've been a rock musicals aficionado since my Catholic high school days, when I Gleeked out to "Godspell" in show choir. I just spent a week checking out the Broadway beat, and I couldn't be more excited about what's happening. But to me, the amped-up mood on Broadway feels quite natural, the culmination of several decades' worth of pumping up the volume. A similar shift has been happening, in the other direction, in rock. Green Day's evolution from a theatrical punk band to theatricalizers of punk (for that's what "American Idiot" is, a glorious exposition of the musical movement's rough style and rebellious spirit) has plenty of parallels, from the rock opera antics of the Decemberists, to Janelle Monae's silent film-inspired sci-fi funk, to Adam Lambert's "American Idol" journey from chorus boy in "Wicked" to Freddie Mercury's' heir apparent. And don't forget "Glee."
On Broadway, the shift is definitely generational. The bubbe tapping her foot next to me at "Memphis" was probably a sock-hopper in her youth. The 1950s-oriented shows aim for this crowd by simplifying and sentimentalizing rock 'n' roll's origin myth. "American Idiot" and "Fela!," pitched toward younger crowds, do something different and, I think, far more important. What excites me is the emergence of a new form, something that finds its mojo somewhere at the crossroads of theater and live popular music.
There are other questions: How are these shows as shows? Could you sit through "Memphis"? (I had trouble.) Does the soul-deep booty shaking "Fela!" inspires overcome the fact that it leaves some big holes in the true story it tells? Can "American Idiot" really be called a musical, or is it more a very loud dance concert — à la Twyla Tharp's recent work — or even a live music video?
CM: I've been mulling over these same issues, and I probably have more questions than answers. I was able to sit through "Memphis," but only because of the radiant prowess of Montego Glover, one of those musical theater naturals who does her best to redeem the artificiality around her.
I'm thrilled that new sources of musical inspiration are being tapped on Broadway. (May piano bar bathos die a peaceful death.) And I think Michael Mayer, the director of "American Idiot," and Bill T. Jones, the director and choreographer of "Fela!," took their works probably as far as they could as auteurs. Both have book credits on their productions, but neither is first and foremost a writer.
As a choreographer who has spent his career blurring the boundaries between dance and theater, Jones was the more successful, I think, in distinguishing between vision and attitude. True, the book by Jones and Jim Lewis is almost as negligible as the one Mayer and Billie Joe Armstrong "wrote" for "American Idiot." How Fela Kuti's death from AIDS-related causes could be skirted in a work otherwise so politically charged is a mystery.
But "Fela!" has a depth of experience that resonated for me beyond the borders of its story. (My imagination was flitting between Nigeria and our last presidential election.) The environmental staging, with cast members exhorting the audience to join them in their swaying and grinding, didn't just free Broadway from its proscenium paralysis. It invited everyone to bodily experience the power and possibility of grassroots activism.
The trouble I have with most jukebox offerings, even really artfully pulled off ones such as "American Idiot," is that there's rarely a true marriage between storytelling and music. That's why it's so exciting when songwriters such as Stew and Duncan Sheik are willing to start from scratch on new theatrical works. "Passing Strange," the indie-rocker-coming-of-age musical that Stew created with his longtime partner Heidi Rodewald and director Annie Dorsen, may have been aggressively loud and unharmonious for the Rodgers & Hammerstein set, but it had a poise and an integrity all its own. "American Idiot" flies but feels somewhat jury-rigged to me.