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American Idiot and Jukebox Musicals

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Last week, we took a look at Sugar at the Westchester Broadway Theatre, and used that as a way to see how musicals based on movies don’t always turn out so well. But what about that other kind of popular Broadway adaptation—the new infamous “jukebox musical,” based around the songs of a single artist?

Last week, I had the opportunity to see American Idiot, based on the music of Green Day. Tom Kitt, an Armonk native, re-arranged the songs for the show. It’s actually been a heck of a year for Kitt. In addition to opening American Idiot, which was just nominated for the Tony Award for Best Musical, he also won the Pulitzer Prize for his other Broadway hit, Next to Normal. And the musical won without even being nominated!

Anyway, adapting a movie into a musical, as dodgy as the prospect is, seems easier. The characters, story, and resolution are all in place. You just need to add some songs and dance numbers, and—presto! Broadway musical.

These “jukebox musicals” are harder to construct. It’s pretty much the opposite prospect: All the creators have to start with is the body of songs from a single artist. From there, they have to stitch together a coherent story and, hopefully, some well-realized characters out of what they can tease from the song lyrics.

American Idiot actually was in a better position to face these obstacles from the start. The musical is pulled together not from the band’s entire discography, but mostly from its last two albums: American Idiot and 21st Century Breakdown. The band wrote American Idiot: The Album with a loose plot in mind, and sketched out a few recurring characters through the songs. At least there was some sort of framework for them to work with. Then they added in a tricked-out set, some super-modern choreography, and a frenetic rock-concert feel, and the show was pretty much fantastic. (At least, according to me, the Tony-nominating committee, and the New York Times.)

American Idiot

American Idiot

Still, though, since they don’t add in much dialogue between Green Day songs, the plot of the musical is very thin. Not in a detrimental way, but you often get an impression of what’s going on rather than the nuts and bolts of what the characters’ relationships are (if that’s what you’re looking for in a show).

By contrast, something like Mamma Mia, also a successful show, uses lots of between-songs dialogue to put together a plot that you never could have imagined solely from listening to ABBA Gold. Then there’s the other extreme—something like Movin’ Out or Come Fly with Me—which uses no between-song dialogue and tries to express to the story only through Twyla Tharp’s choreography.

In the end, what these musicals boil down to isn’t really the plot, characters, or the emotional journeys they take you on. If you like the artists and the songs, you’re probably going to like the show. In this way, it’s a lot easier for a jukebox musical to be more successful than a movie adaptation. An audience may love a character form a movie, but that loyalty does not extend to loving a musical based on that movie solely because a character is in it. In contrast, I had a blast at American Idiot, but I would’ve loved it no matter what happened on stage just because I got to hear “Good Riddance” at the end of it. (Sixteen-year-old me was so jealous.)

Photo credit: Alessandra Mello

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