Since Woody Guthrie’s Dust Bowl Ballads (1940), the concept album has enjoyed a starring role in studio recordings spanning musical genres; from folk and jazz in the 40s and 50s, to the pop and rock scene in the 60s and 70s, and on to today.
Early concept albums were often a compilation of songs held together with a theme. However, in 1969, Pete Townsend and The Who took the idea to the next level when they released one of the most famous concept albums of our time, the rock opera Tommy. Tommy was eventually turned into a film and then a full Broadway stage production, developed by former Stratford Festival Artistic Director Des McAnuff and Pete Townsend. Stratford mounted a revival of the show in their 2013 season to rave reviews.
In the years following the release of Tommy, the concept album remained a staple of the pop and rock scene. Consider David Bowie’s The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars (1972) just three years later. Bowie famously took the concept outside the recording studio by creating a stage character for himself (Ziggy Stardust) which then influenced an entire fashion movement (glam rock).
Jump ahead a couple of generations to 2003 and we see American punk-rock band Green Day coming to a crossroads. The master tracks for what was to be their seventh studio album were stolen. It’s hard to imagine how any good could have come of such a blow, but in this case it seems the theft was a blessing in disguise. After much deliberation, the band came to the realization that the lost tracks didn’t represent their best work so they took a completely new direction. Inspired by the work of The Who and musicals like West Side Story, Green Day began creating a modern day rock opera. The album American Idiot was released in 2004 to major acclaim. It thrilled fans and also connected the band with a younger generation who were drawn to the coming-of-age themes and the main character, the anti-hero Jesus of Suburbia. The album peaked at No. 1 in 19 countries and has sold over 14 million copies worldwide.
It was always Green Day’s intention, and that of its lead singer Billie Joe Armstrong, that American Idiot could, and hopefully would, become a stage production. It’s not surprising then, that the band sought out the collaboration with director Michael Mayer (Spring Awakening). Green Day’s American Idiot premiered at the Berkeley Repertory Theatre in September 2009 and played through November of that year. In April 2010, the musical opened on Broadway to overwhelmingly positive reviews at the St. James Theatre, where it ran until April 2011. The first leg of the tour premiered in December 2011 at Toronto’s Elgin Theatre and was similarly well received by critics across Canada and the United States.
Truly an iconic piece of work, Green Day’s American Idiot boasts an amazing creative team (director Michael Mayer, choreographer Steven Hoggett and orchestrator/arranger Tom Kitt), which coupled with Green Day’s punk background guarantees an authentic voice befitting of the rock anthems in the album. American Idiot proves to the world that the concept album is alive and well, and boldly exemplifies what the marriage of modern rock music and theatre can be.
Don’t miss seeing Green Day’s smash-hit musical American Idiot at The Centre on Saturday, March 8, 2014 @ 8PM.