I’m in the St. James Theatre watching the new Broadway production American Idiot, and I’m imaginig Sid Vicious watching with me. The production really begins in the lobby, which is full of messy graffiti and black paint. An air of menace is further created by signs that warn of graphic language and strobe lights. This isn’t Mary Poppins. This is Punk. On Broadway. American Idiot the musical (based on American Idiot the Green Day concept album) opens with a high-energy rendition of the eponymous song. Young men and women wearing old T-shirts and jeans run around the stage performing stylized headbanging and mosh pit machinations. The walls are plastered with flashing television sets and concert posters of West Coast punk bands — Dead Kennedys, Social Distortion. The orchestra is a rock band that plays right on stage. People in the audience are cheering and bouncing up and down. Now this is entertainment, I am thinking. Then Sid turns to me. A little dried vomit lurks in the corner of his trademark sneer. He leans over and says with disgust, “Go’berg, this… is… bollocks.”
It’s easy to feel for Sid. The bright lights and big hope of Broadway seem anathema to the tough and dirty spirit of punk. Even though American Idiot is an attempt to bring a youthful element to musical theater by using contemporary music written by a popular rock band, in the St. James the musical feels like a period piece. Punk is, after all, more than 40 years old. The half-shaved, dyed-black hairdo; mesh tank top; and leather wristbands of the heroin-chic character St. Jimmy is already a historical costume. Everything “punk” in American Idiot is more “punk-like.” Where is the piss and shit? Where is the revolution? Is American Idiot punk’s last gasp?
The function of theater is to exaggerate life. In doing so, theater dissolves any claims on authenticity. Nothing is real in the theater; there is only commentary. And fabulous outfits. Funnily, this is also the function of punk. Including the outfits. To understand punk as authentic, as untheatrical, is a gross misconception. Flamboyantly adorned protopunk musicians in the 1970s such as David Bowie and Marc Bolan — musicians who overtly referenced theater — had their roots in Weimar cabaret and opera. Punk bands had their roots in Dada and agitprop. The Clash (for example) has much more in common with Awake and Sing! — Clifford Odets’ subversive 1930s play about defiance and youth — than (say) the lazy, grungy cock rock of the ’90s that declared itself punk’s true heir. “Kick over the wall ’cause government’s to fall/How can you refuse it?/Let fury have the hour, anger can be power/D’you know that you can use it?” sang the Clash in “Clampdown.” “If this life leads to a revolution,” Jacob says in Awake and Sing!, “it’s a good life. Otherwise it’s for nothing.”
Without Dada’s anti-war, anti-fascist, anti-sense aesthetic — from the violent hilarity of Alfred Jarry plays to the Cabaret Voltaire — punk as we know it would never have come to pass. For the Sex Pistols, Dada was openly evoked — that safety pin through Queen Elizabeth’s lip on the famous God Save the Queen poster was taken from Duchamp’s 1918 “Tu m’,” which features a painted “tear” in the canvas repaired by safety pins. The title of the painting is generally thought to be shorthand for the very punk sentiment “tu m’ennuies” (“you bore me”). The aggressive and stripped-down power chords of a Ramones song could be an Artaud play in the Theatre of Cruelty crying, “No more masterpieces!” Like Artaud, the oversimplified idealisms of punk were as radical as they were infantile in their simplicity. Punk is theater as even Aristophanes understood it — larger-than-life histrionics that were meant to disrupt. The no-bullshit theater of the outrageous, of the exuberant — theater as social satire.
Then there are the outfits. Punks dressed as if they were homeless criminals, but I can tell you firsthand that it takes a lot of practice to get that safety pin in exactly the right rip. It takes a whole lot of Aqua Net to keep that stinky Mohawk upright for a week. The leather pants, the eyeliner, the Doc Martens — the punk costume was an essential part of being punk. It went hand in hand with what may be punk’s most essential prop: the stage. The punk stage was basically anywhere and everywhere. Who needs instruments? You could perform a whole anti-establishment play just by walking down your hometown street with your dolled-up friends. All the world was a stage and everyone was putting on an act. Every real punk knew this. Green Day’s Billie Joe Armstrong said it himself: “Punk is not just the sound…punk is a lifestyle.” “It was more like a state of mind,” said Mike Watt. “Punk was defined by an attitude,” said David Byrne. To be called a poser in punk circles was once the ultimate put-down. The truth is, punk is a pose.
The question should not be, then, how could we have let punk end up on Broadway, but rather, what took it so long? I would add that Green Day — the enormously poppy punk-light band, which a lot of “true punks” have deemed a sign of the Punk Apocalypse — is the perfect band to make punk showtunes. Billie Joe said that, when writing their award-winning concept album, Green Day knew “it would be staged or we’d create a film or something,” and that they had Tommy in mind but also West Side Story and The Rocky Horror Show. The band had roots in Berkeley’s underground scene, sharing the stage with Fugazi and Pansy Division, but Green Day was born to churn out hits. For 20 years now they have been writing songs for the masses — songs that are accessible, songs that tell stories. What’s more punk than that?
The strobe lights, the sequins, the stomping around, the eyeliner, the angst — American Idiot is just as suitable a venue for punk as your grandma’s garage. You know that Sid Vicious would have loved to zip through the air on a fly wire, too, flipping everyone off. Punk may have been anti-establishment, nihilistic even. But in its heart, punk always just wanted to put on a show. • 10 June 2010