American Idiot, Sondheim on Sondheim, Promises, Promises Lack Luster

My muse, Marian Seldes, who in June will receive a Lifetime Achievement Tony Award to match the Lifetime Achievement Obie Award she already possesses, is a critic's daughter. So as I traveled last week's lengthy odyssey of theatergoing, which included three media-heavy musicals, the news of her honor made me think of something her father, Gilbert Seldes, had said in one of his later works, an early-1950s volume called The Great Audience, which focuses on film and the then-new medium, television.

In effect, Seldes asserted, Hollywood's success has been based on the population explosion: Instead of catering to a mixture of tastes to satisfy varying degrees of maturity, the industry fixed its marketing eye, in every decade, on the younger generation's prevailing taste, cutting the old and the nonconforming adrift. Hence, for him, American film never got the chance to grow up; he was openly fearful of the same thing happening in a new medium of television's unprecedented power.

Undoubtedly, Seldes oversimplified. Where he saw a procession of identical films, we've learned to distinguish a multiplicity of approaches, with a few masterpieces tucked among them. Television has achieved some remarkably good effects, along with some that are deeply detrimental. And Seldes could hardly have predicted the disorienting complications of our latest revolution, in which not only movies and television, but every aspect of public and private life, have all become grist for the perpetually grinding mill of the Internet.

The Punk White Way: Sands, Gallagher Jr., and Esper in American Idiot
Paul Kolnik
The Punk White Way: Sands, Gallagher Jr., and Esper in American Idiot

Details

American Idiot
By Billie Joe Armstrong, Michael Mayer, and Green Day
St. James Theatre
246 West 44th Street, 212-239-6200

Sondheim on Sondheim
Music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim
Roundabout Studio 54
254 West 54th Street, 212-719-1300

Promises, Promises
By Neil Simon, Hal David, and Burt Bacharach
Broadway Theatre
1681 Broadway, 212-239-6200

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Seldes, among the first writers to treat American popular entertainment seriously, was no snob. He simply believed that popular art should be enriched to unite the generations, not niche-marketed to divide them. He would not have expected his great love, the theater, to stay immune from media incursions; he knew that the theater, like a magnet, picks up whatever is in the air around it. I went to my media-centric experiences bearing that in mind.

American Idiot (St. James Theatre) is the stage animation of the rock group Green Day's popular album. (Read music editor Rob Harvilla's piece on the show, "On Green Day's Vivid, Lurid, Somewhat Vapid American Idiot Musical.") I am not—I doubt that any theater critic is—this show's target audience. I claim no expertise in its music: For me, unplugged always equals better, which sets me apart, not from the younger generation, but from my own: Amplification came into the theater in my childhood; it's not going away. I can live with it, and I lived peaceably enough through Michael Mayer's production of American Idiot, a lot of which held my attention.

What I can't live without, in the theater, is drama, of which American Idiot, like many previous album-based shows, provides only the slightest wisp. Three trapped suburban kids dream of escaping to find fame and fortune in the big city. One (Michael James Esper) never even goes; another (Stark Sands), numbed out by urban-culture shock, escapes into the military and gets wounded in Afghanistan. The third (John Gallagher Jr.) louses up a potentially good relationship by sliding into a drug scene. All three end up, ego-bruised, back where they wish they didn't belong.

So what? We never learn enough about this trio to care for them as individuals. And Green Day's songs, though sometimes effective in striking general attitudes, don't do much to make these guys seem contemporary quintessences, either. Only one song, the mournful "When September Ends," lingers in the mind. Mayer's design team blankets this thin slice of life in cascades of projections, always apt but predictable. His astute casting pays off: His three leads, who've all proven their skill in nonmusicals, give these straw figures solid presences. An elaborately choreographed flying effect, when Sands hallucinates in his hospital bed, ranks with the most inventive such stunts I've ever seen. I didn't come away cursing, or bored, or feeling that I'd wasted my time. But I also didn't feel satisfied. And I couldn't help savoring the irony of artists who critique the system by, literally, plugging into it. It's the influence of mass media, rock included, that keeps such non-hero types from becoming themselves. If only they'd joined a community theater group instead.

Sondheim on Sondheim (Roundabout Studio 54) is a kind of Broadway-level community-theater event, half lecture-demonstration and half end-of-season party, with our era's presiding writer of theater songs, now 80, discussing his life and work in a barrage of video clips. A generational pyramid of performers, with golden-age (and still golden-voiced) Barbara Cook at its peak, renders examples of what Sondheim-on-screen says. This makes the video tail seem to be wagging the live theatrical dog. And the two occasionally go out of synch, as when Sondheim explains that "Ah, But Underneath" was written because Diana Rigg, unlike previous Phyllises in Follies, wasn't a dancer—at which point Vanessa Williams, all lithe-limbed gorgeousness, does an ultra-dancy version of it.

Some numbers, too, are just oddly matched to their singers, or flat-out oddly conceived. The evening is full of high points that evoke, as such a show must, the broad panoply of Sondheim's gifts. Leslie Kritzer, Norm Lewis, Euan Morton, and Tom Wopat all make significant contributions. For a climax, Cook sings "Send in the Clowns." By rights, there should be nothing to complain of. Yet the show feels puzzlingly lackluster, like a last-minute birthday gift originally purchased for somebody else. I guess you might say it's the thought that counts.

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