At first glance you might not think that the Broadway shows RENT, In The Heights, and American Idiot have a lot in common. However, I saw American Idiot last night and even during the show I couldn’t help thinking about both RENT and In The Heights (which I have just learned actually share a producer: Kevin McCollum).
1. Each of these stories is set in a city—New York City (though it is not said outright in American Idiot all of the postcards the narrator sends to his friends are of NYC). The urban landscape is essential to each of the narratives and comes across in the set and lighting design. Fire escapes and scaffolding are a part of each of the set designs.
2. Each of the shows represents events and issues that continue to resonate today. While each of the shows was timely when they premiered, none of the shows feels dated and in fact the oldest show, RENT will return to NYC this summer.
While the issues may differ, each play addresses some of the most prescient concerns of young people coming of age in America. Further, the stories and characters are critical of aspects of America. RENT shines the spotlight on AIDS, gentrification on the Lower East Side, and the lives of struggling artists in the early 1990s. In The Heights tackles immigration, gentrification of Washington Heights, chasing the American Dream in the late 1990s. American Idiot focuses on war, drug abuse, the alienation of suburbia, and young parenthood in a Post 9-11 America.
3. Each of these shows is the passion project of one charismatic individual (interestingly enough they are all men). Jonathan Larson wrote the rock opera RENT in the early 90s and it officially premiered off-Broadway at the New York Theatre Workshop in 1996. In a truly operatic footnote to this story the show’s creator Jonathan Larson died suddenly the evening before the off-Broadway premiere.
Lin-Manuel Miranda wrote In The Heights as a sophomore at Wesleyan University. It was work-shopped at Wesleyan’s student theatre company, Second Stage, and it opened off-Broadway in 2007 with an official Broadway opening in 2008.
Billie Joe Armstrong, the frontman for the band Green Day, collaborated with the creative team behind Spring Awakening to create American Idiot based on the band’s concept album of the same name. The show premiered at the Berkeley Repertory Theatre in 2009 and then moved to Broadway in 2010.
4. All of these shows is told from the perspective of one young man. We see the world through his eyes – Mark, Usnavi, and Johnny. Each young man is grappling with his specific context and confronts issues of manhood, poverty, purpose, and leaving home.
5. The story is communicated through popular music. While they are all considered musical theatre, each of these productions has been recognized for how it breaks the “musical” mold. RENT was one of the first commercially successful rock operas, In The Heights showcased the music of Latin America and Hip Hop, and American Idiot represents the blend of punk and pop music that has made Green Day such a success.
I saw the Boston production of RENT in 1996 for my 16th birthday with my sister **Sarah**. That evening was a special fundraiser for AIDS Action, an organization I had supported throughout high school as a participant in the Annual AIDS Walk. How do you describe the magic of live theatre? Goose bumps? Butterflies? Tears in my eyes? I had all three that night. I was deeply moved by the story and I grew to love the music (I can still recite most of the lyrics by heart), idolizing the struggling artists on stage. Some of my fondest memories of being a camp counselor were dancing and singing to “La Vie Boheme” with my bunk of 13 year-old girls. I related to the Bohemian aspirations of the show’s characters—their self-expression, self-consciousness, and self-discovery—all spoke to me as a teenager.
In The Heights
I saw this in 2009 with the Teen Ink Summer Writing Program when I was the co-Director and Chaperone. I had heard some of the buzz but had no idea what to expect from the performance. I was too busy worrying about getting all 30 teenage girls through Times Square safely to build up my expectations too high.
Wow! Was I amazed. I don’t think I stopped dancing in my chair for the entire performance. I bought the soundtrack immediately and felt like one of my teenage students when we had the opportunity to talk with the cast after the show and to get my Playbill signed. I related to the in-betweenness of the show’s young Latino characters. The mix of Spanish and English—the conflicting feelings of what home means and living up to the expectations of a legacy.
It seems that I’ve experienced each of these shows at a particularly formative time of my life. This was no exception. This was the perfect show to see as I prepare to leave New York City at the end of the week. I guess it was lucky I didn’t win the lottery for tickets to The Book of Mormon! I knew I was going to like this show from the moment the curtain went up. The set looked like a version of my teenage bedroom—posters covering every square inch of wall punctuated by 50 television screens of varying sizes. I’ve always been a fan of Green Day so I already loved the music and could sing and dance along.
However, what stuck out to me was how current this show feels. While the other shows do deal with problems our society continues to face, American Idiot includes the words and images of ex-president Bush and his cronies as well as television clips from current news and reality programs. In addition, American Idiot features a character who serves in the US Army and must deal with the aftermath of his service. I may be wrong but I believe this is the only show ever to be on Broadway with a character who sports a burka. This is truly a post 9-11 product.
All of these works of art speak to me as a young person growing up in the United States, as an artist responding to my environment, and as a New Yorker. Above all else, though, musical theatre, and these productions in particular, makes me feel like a teenager again basking in a communal experience that I think we often strive for growing up. There’s something about the emotions of adolescence that are so clearly represented on stage and in music. These works force me to suspend disbelief and remind me to keep striving towards my dreams.