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NEW YORK, Sept. 11, 2010 – Nine years ago today, I awoke to Howard Stern talking on my clock radio, working some tastelessly ridiculous bit about an airplane allegedly striking the Twin Towers. Annoyed, I turned on CNN and learned that the joke was on all of America, and it wasn’t very funny.
Much has changed in the near-decade since the attacks – Stern no longer appears on my analog alarm – but the memory of that morning has barely dulled. So I wanted to see what the city would feel like on this anniversary. That’s right, Pastor Terry Jones wasn’t the only Floridian freak show to fly north for 9/11; though of the two of us, I’m more likely to get a sit-down with the imam of the Park51 project – or, as Palinist propagandists put it, the “Ground Zero mosque.”
News radio station WINS-AM (1010) – “You give us 22 minutes, we give you the world” – reports that security is so thick at the World Trade Center site that some victims’ families were unable to enter for the Joe Biden-led memorial service. In Midtown, it’s remarkable how ordinary everything seems. There’s no strip search at the Port Authority bus terminal – just a slightly stronger presence of uniformed cops around Times Square. Crowds appear to be somewhat subdued, especially for what should be a busy Jewish holiday weekend. It’s nothing like the eerie emptiness I experienced here two weeks after the original event.
Indeed, the only obvious signs of today’s importance are a roller skater toting an American flag and the NASDAQ billboard flashing between a memorial message and a Sprint cell phone ad. The closest I come to witnessing any anti-Muslim anger is a knockoff T-shirt vendor on 43rd Street who jokingly refers to his buddy at the neighboring halal hot-dog cart as “Osama Bin Laden’s Uncle Fester.”
I decide to follow our former president’s advice and pay tribute to the fallen by spending money. The Theatre Development Fund, purveyors of the TKTS Discount Booths for Broadway tickets, is the beneficiary of my patriotic purchase. I can think of no more ironically appropriate performance to see today than American Idiot, the 2010 Tony Award-winning musical based on Green Day’s 2004 concept album of the same name, and an indictment of the G.W. Bush era. I confess that I quit listening to popular music around the time MTV stopped showing videos, but mega-hits like “Holiday,” “Boulevard of Broken Dreams,” “Know Your Enemy” and the title track did penetrate my National Public Radio bubble.
No one needs prior knowledge of Billie Joe Armstrong’s incendiary lyrics to understand the simple story: Johnny (John Gallagher Jr., Spring Awakening’s original “Moritz”) lives in Jingletown, U.S.A., drowning in media oversaturation and suburban mediocrity. He and his palls Will and Tunny (Michael Esper, Stark Sands) are wasting their 20s in a haze of beer and weed at the local 7-Eleven. Johnny and Tunny take off for the big city, while Will stays behind out of apathetic obligation to his pregnant girlfriend, Heather (Mary Faber). Johnny plunges into lust for “Whatsername” (Rebecca Naomi Jones), and into heroin supplied by the Manson-esque St. Jimmy (a terrifying Tony Vincent). Tunny drifts into the military, where he looses his innocence and a leg, but finds his “Extraordinary Girl” (Christina Sajous). There’s no triumphant happy ending, only a bittersweet homecoming and a glimmer of hope for the future – if we can all turn off the damn TV.
In one sense, director Michael Mayer (Side Man, Spring Awakening) has crafted a modern big-budget Broadway production. A quarter-million dollars’ worth of high-def screens cover the upstage wall, along with enough strobe lights to induce epilepsy. Other Broadway successes have flying nannies and witches, American Idiot has a soaring shopping cart. In a larger sense, though, the musical is so unapologetically raw and in-your-face that it would feel more at home in a grungy warehouse in the meatpacking district. Unlike neutered rock musicals like The Who’s Tommy and Rent, American Idiot arrives with punk-rock balls proudly (and loudly) intact. Choreographer Steven Hoggett’s pained pedestrian movement (clearly inspired by Spring Awakening collaborator Bill T. Jones) is expressively organic, especially in a disturbing, smack-fueled pas de deux.
What makes the production especially resonant on this day is the repetition of attack-inspired imagery. One of the first elements in the opening sound montage is Bush’s famous rubble-top rhetoric (“I can hear you!”); later the song “Wake Me Up When September Ends” is backed by a projected flurry of flying papers. The 90-minute, no-intermission show blazes to its enigmatic ending, and as the cast emerges for an encore of “Time of Your Life,” I’m on the verge of weeping – not just for the 3,000 souls lost nine years ago but also for the soul our nation has squandered in the years since. Maybe if these artists keep singing loud enough, we can get some of it back.