I just spent a week in New York, thanks to my generous mother, who paid for everything. We saw six Broadway shows in five days, which I thought would be exhausting, but it wasn't. In fact, being in a Broadway theater in New York is so much better than being in New York and not being in a Broadway theater. I still have a love-hate relationship with the city, but at least I confirmed for myself that I wouldn't want to live there again.
Here's what I saw:
"For this performance of American Idiot, the role of St. Jimmy will be played by Billie Joe Armstrong." We all knew beforehand, of course, but still, the excitement this announcement generated in the audience was palpable and thrilling. Probably the only time in my life that I'll be able to hear those words (unless he decides to play it when it comes to L.A. next year), so I'm glad I got the chance.
The show had flaws, sure: the lead actor kind of sucked at acting and singing (and he made the character really unlikeable... I'm not sure if that's just him or if the original actor played it the same way), as did the girl who played Heather; the dialogue (what little there is) is too on-the-nose and lame; the dancing is weak and some of the choreography is just plain odd; the plot is minimal and familiar (essentially a mishmash of Rent, Fight Club, and Across the Universe)... but it's also achingly wonderful and quite possibly my favorite show ever. The music, the lyrics, the set design, the staging, Billie Joe fucking Armstrong, Rebecca Naomi Jones as Whatsername (the sole remaining original cast member), even an almost unrecognizable Justin Guarini, were all incredible. "21 Guns" is agonizingly magnificent. It's the kind of decade-defining musical that Hair and Rent were (but then, so is Avenue Q). It's closing this month, which is a shame (and yet Rock of Ages is still going strong... yeah, it's a fun show, but it's not that great).
I want to have sex with Billie Joe Armstrong. He's bisexual, so it could happen. But he's also married, so probably not.
Speaking of Avenue Q, I saw it last month, and believe it to be one of the most important works of art of the 21st Century. I think the rest of the audience felt the same; you could just feel it, this energy in the crowd that bespoke of a shared understanding that we were experiencing something that just Gets It.
It occurs to me that Billy Elliot and American Idiot have a lot in common. They're both flagrantly anti-conservative diatribes (George Bush, Margaret Thatcher, what's the difference?), and the CD covers for their respective soundtrack albums are nearly identical (both have black and red lettering on a white background). And they're both wonderful. Yeah, this one also has its share of flaws, most notably Lee Hall's lyrics, which are poorly written for the most part (I didn't realize until later that he's the guy who wrote the screenplay for the movie... why would they get a screenwriter to write a musical?). And there's a lot of that "Oh, these children are so adorable and precocious, what will they say next?!" brand of comedy, which frequently nauseated me (of course the audience ate it up). But it's also just damn incredible musical theater. Somewhere in the middle of "Solidarity," I just burst into tears, and didn't fully recover until the intermission. The second act, unfortunately, is a bit weak -- it just seems content to follow the movie and have someone sing a song now and then -- and there's no ending (for some reason they cut out the ending of the movie), but the first act is an artistic and technical triumph.
The Phantom of the Opera
Well, that was 150 ass-numbing minutes I'll never get back. I don't get the point of this show. At all. I certainly don't get why it's the most financially successful work of entertainment in the history of the world. It's a musical about a neurotic egomaniac who is also a stalker, a murderer, and a kidnapper. How appropriate that it features an opera called "Hannibal." Set it in the present and it would be The Silence of the Lambs: The Musical. But what is it actually about? Yeah, yeah, the Music of the Night, blah, blah, blah. Fuck you.
How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying
Now this is more like it: a thoroughly unpretentious musical that just wants to show you a good time. The movie is one of the most thoroughly entertaining musicals I've ever seen, and this stage version is even better. Daniel Radcliffe and John Larroquette, sadly, just seemed out of place in the midst of their colossally talented supporting cast (including Mary Faber, the original Heather from American Idiot... damn, I wish she hadn't left that show). The matching set and costume designs were excellent, as well, giving the show an extra bit of subtle satire.
On a technical level, this is probably the "best" show I saw. The acting, the singing, the costumes, the extremely complex and intricate set design... all amazing. In fact, there really were no flaws. So why didn't I love it quite as much as American Idiot or Billy Elliot, which are assuredly more imperfect? Maybe it's because, although the musical numbers were invariably spectacular, the actual songs aren't to my taste (it's all '50s R&B music), and the story didn't resonate with me as much as the other two. It also seemed a bit long and repetitive. Once again, the first act made me cry, but the second act didn't seem to be going anywhere much of the time. Still, it's a phenomenal show that everyone should see.
The Book of Mormon
Ugh, that's the last time I listen to the critics. The Book of Mormon is exactly what I thought it would be before I read the reviews and was duped into thinking it was something else. I disliked it for the same reasons I dislike everything by Trey Parker and Matt Stone: the jokes are all really obvious and peppered with geeky pop culture references and unimaginative obscenities under the mistaken belief that geeky pop culture references and unimaginative obscenities are the same as actual jokes, with automatic laughs that come with it; it mistakes schoolyard teasing for social satire; and it's all tidily wrapped up in a preachy speech that summarizes the Message for us. Oh, and there's a scene with Satan thrown in, of course. Bleh. There were a couple of good musical numbers in the beginning, but mostly it's just dumb and not very funny. I was hoping the Avenue Q guy would inject some intelligence and humor into it, but his hand is almost invisible in the final work.
The best meal I ate in New York was a $4.50 hamburger from the Shake Shack (which is opening a branch in Kuwait City, but the western U.S. is not so lucky). The worst meal I had was a piece of fish, some crab, and a tablespoon-sized dessert from Le Bernardin (New York's "finest restaurant," and one of only five to get the coveted three stars from Michelin), which cost $70, plus tax and tip, and which actually made me physically ill. Fuck you, New York.