AMERICAN IDIOT [Reprise 523724]
How much does it matter whether you can understand the lyrics at one of these rock musicals? The question applies to any musical, of course; but moreso at a rock musical with heavy electronic amplification. And especially in cases where the book, such as it is, is pretty much incorporated within the songs.
The question arises in reference to American Idiot, the new musical at the St. James. I reviewed American Idiot when it opened on April 20, finding a good deal to praise in the staging and physical look of the show. Michael Mayer and his first-rate production team provide great theatrical excitement for just about the entire 90-minute running time, making the show something to see and something not to be missed. (Unless you don't mind missing such things, that is. You know who you are.) At the same time, I did not find much to recommend in the score, by the group Green Day; I did note that theatregoers already familiar with the concept album, through its 14 million-plus in sales, were likely to enjoy the show more than us Broadway folks who stumbled in thinking that Green Day had something to do with planting trees with Kermit, and that the American Idiot of the title was likely as not about a recently departed White House resident or one of several high-profile current-day aspirants.
Within days, the CD of American Idiot arrived. Not that 14 million-seller, which won itself a Best Rock Album Grammy in 2004, but the original Broadway cast album. (Most Broadway cast albums take weeks or months to arrive; this is not the case when they have a big commercial label behind them, in this case Reprise.) I was not exactly anxious to hear American Idiot again so soon, but have dutifully done so. My immediate response to which is: how much does it matter whether you can understand the lyrics at one of these rock musicals? Because just about everything that I missed while sitting at the St. James — a sense of story, a concentrated interest in any of the characters, an appreciation of the value of the score that Green Day brought from the recording studio — is very much present on the cast album. Yes, you can hear and understand the words, which (a.) instantly involves you with the characters and (b.) interests you in the 21st-century morality tale that is the story, while (c.) allowing you to appreciate the performances, which, with a couple of exceptions, didn't much register with me in the theatre.
Granted, if I had arrived at the St. James familiar with the original album — as I suppose a large segment of the audience does — this might not have been an issue. And the purveyors of rock musicals might somewhat logically believe that they are wiser to cater to the so-called rock audience — who presumably demand the ultra-loud music and overall ambiance of a rock concert — than us theatrefolk who are comfortable with our Sondheim, Lloyd Webber or Jerry Herman. (Rock of Ages seems to have ushered in a new B'way philosophy in which the proprietors encourage you to take beers to your seats, and hopefully climb over the laps of others to buy refills while the cast is singing during the performance.) But let me say this: if I could have heard the score in the theatre half so well as I do on the CD, I would surely have enthusiastically enjoyed American Idiot instead of simply appreciating the artistry on display.
Thus, if you intend to see American Idiot and are presently unfamiliar with it, you might do well to listen to the CD first; the $20 purchase will certainly enhance the value of your considerably heftier ticket purchase. No, this is not the way it should be. Yes, you should be able to sit in the theatre and understand it all. But this was, anyway, my experience. Listening to the CD, I can now report that there is some wonderful music in American Idiot. Big boisterous numbers, yes, plus some beautiful and tender songs that are really very good. (And that are lusciously dressed by orchestrator Tom Kitt, who has ever so effectively added a trio of strings — violin, viola and cello — to the studio orchestration.) Sitting at the St. James, I simply was unable to appreciate the quality of the music. Which really should be the first thing that reaches us when we go to see a Broadway musical.
LOVE NEVER DIES [Decca Broadway B0014035]
On the other hand, we have Andrew Lloyd Webber's new Love Never Dies. This, you might have heard, is the sequel to Phantom of the Opera, which has been running at the Majestic since 1988 (and even longer in London). Love Never Dies opened on the West End at the Adelphi on March 9, meeting a mixed reception (and receiving an especially scathing report in our local New York Times). The November opening at the Neil Simon has been delayed at present — due to the composer's health, we are told — and I suppose we will just have to wait and see whether that masked man will actually make the leap across the pond. Not the masked man who is already ensconced at the Majestic, and who of late shows no signs of imminent departure.
Love Never Dies, being a major musical from a major composer and a major record label, has already released its original cast album. (Original cast albums of British super-musicals don't actually call themselves original cast albums; they leave off any such label, so that when you attend a performance in your home country you will presumably buy the CD without wondering just which cast you're getting.) If the above-discussed American Idiot doesn't have all that much plot, Love Never Dies has more than enough for both shows combined. All of which is detailed, at length, in the course of the two discs. (The liner notes, though, contain neither synopsis nor lyrics.)
Lloyd Webber has written an impressive score, running the gamut — he certainly runs the gamut — from Pucciniesque grandeur to tacky American Tin Pan Alley. (The show takes place in Coney Island, don't ya know, where that Phantom apparently fled after the events at the Majestic.) And the whole thing is lushly orchestrated by David Cullen and ALW, although it's hard to say just how many musicians might have been added to augment the score on the CD. Ramin Karimloo plays the Phantom, Sierra Boggess (formerly employed at the Lunt as that forlorn Little Mermaid) is Christine, and Joseph Millson is Raoul. The lyrics are by Glenn Slater, and are pretty much up to the level of those he wrote for the additional songs in the stage adaptation of The Little Mermaid.
It all sounds quite grand on the CD, or at least quite well-upholstered. As to how all of this works on stage, with actors and scenery (plenty!) and lights and an audience, we shall have to wait until next spring to find out. Those of us who don't first go to London, that is.
(Steven Suskin is author of the recently released updated and expanded Fourth Edition of "Show Tunes" as well as "The Sound of Broadway Music: A Book of Orchestrators and Orchestrations," "Second Act Trouble" and the "Opening Night on Broadway" books. He can be reached at Ssuskin@aol.com.)