John Gallagher Jr., left, and Tony Vincent are shown in...

John Gallagher Jr., left, and Tony Vincent are shown in Green Day's, "American Idiot."


(April 20, St. James)

This is the bold curveball of the spring season, a new musical based on the hit album by punk-pop rockers Green Day. The show, like the record, follows alienated suburban kids in their search for meaning and redemption. Michael Mayer, who staged another youth-driven Broadway adventure called "Spring Awakening," directs, with the same producers as that show (which just won the Olivier for best musical in London).

Credit: AP Photo

Here is a statistic Richard Rodgers would never have believed. Until a few years ago - specifically, "Spring Awakening" in 2006 - I'm not even sure I could have imagined it.

Of the 24 musicals that will be on Broadway by the end of the month, 10 can safely be described as rock musicals. Four - "Memphis," "Fela!," "Million Dollar Quartet" and "American Idiot" - are new this season, which officially ends April 29.

To nontheatrical civilians, this ratio must seem like no big deal. After all, pop culture is the hard currency in all but the most isolated caves of the world. Why wouldn't Broadway be driven by the same sensibility as every other marketplace?

Why, indeed. For much of musical history, show tunes were pop music. Broadway produced the top-10 countdown songs for TV, dance clubs and all the jukebox favorites. But an entire generation of top musical talent - Paul Simon, Billy Joel, Stevie Wonder, Bruce Springsteen - grew up wanting to be Carl Perkins and Bo Diddley, not Larry Hart and Jule Styne. For many reasons, social as well as musical, Broadway became identified with something parents did - even really smart parents who loved Stephen Sondheim (on Broadway now with "A Little Night Music" and "Sondheim on Sondheim") or hummed to Jerry Herman (see new revival of "La Cage Aux Folles").

But pop music was rebellious, hip and belonged to the kids.

In fact, shortly before Rodgers died in 1979, he told me his doubts about turning pop songwriters into Broadway composers. "Somebody like Paul Simon may be able to write songs," he said, "but how would he know the craft? Could he write a valid musical score, to know where this number goes, or how one replaced song can affect another scene 15 minutes later? I'm afraid we may have lost a generation."

So what changed? There was "Hair," of course, in 1967. But until the current revival, which got us to appreciate the discipline and richness of those three-minute songs, the tribal love-rock musical was considered less a musical milestone than a sociopolitical moment.

After "Hair," there was nothing for almost two decades except pretend pop ("Starlight Express," anyone?) and "The Who's Tommy," the 1993 spectacle based on the rock album.

The next big step, finally, came in 1996 with "Rent." Jonathan Larson, the 35-year-old writer-composer who died of an aortic aneurysm after the final Off-Broadway dress rehearsal, was less of a rock originator than something Broadway needed even more. Much as "Hair" humanized the anti-materalist youth rebellion and Vietnam, "Rent" connected audiences to struggling young artists and AIDS. More, Larson, in his first major work, was on his way to becoming precisely what the American musical theater needed so desperately - a cultural synthesizer and popularizer, a missing link to connect new sensibilities and the old commercial forms for the next generation.

And then what? In 1998, Paul Simon proved Rodgers' point by being unable to shape a musical from his "Capeman" songs. Producers, desperate to attract kids raised on music videos, proved Rodgers' point again by scavenging through old pop catalogs and tossing pre-existing hits into plotless jukebox musicals. The best of those, ABBA's "Mamma, Mia!" (2001) and "Jersey Boys" (2005), weave nostalgia with something like a story line.

Musically, however, the form didn't budge forward until it took a big leap with "Spring Awakening." Was it really just four years ago that singer- songwriter Duncan Sheik and writer-lyricist Steven Sater came up with the primal scream of turbulent puberty, based, no less, on a scandalous German drama from 1891. The show, which just won London's Olivier for best musical, didn't look or sound like anything that had yet been invited into Broadway's world of "American Idol" screamers and ironic-comedy spoofs.

It may be oversimplifying a sea change, but "Spring Awakening" opened the floodgates for authentic rock artists with theatrical ideas. In 2008, Broadway had two rock hits that reflected some of the diversity in pop music. "Passing Strange," Stew's indie-rock concert, boho-art project, coming-of-age middle-class black identity journey, was less in the pop-mainstream than "Rent" or even "Spring Awakening." With its experimental structure, it struck me as genetically closer to "Hair."

"In the Heights" - still running on Broadway and on tour - is not just the commercial theater's first Latino musical written by Latinos. Lin-Manuel Miranda's blazingly humane and ingenious poetic raps introduce new sounds to the theater, while his affection for classic Broadway honors its narrative tradition.

So, suddenly, anything can happen. Opening April 20 is the edgy wild card of the season, "American Idiot," directed by Michael Mayer of "Spring Awakening" and based on the Grammy-winning concept album by indie-punk rockers Green Day. "Fela!," still running after an autumn opening, is bio/concert collage about Fela Anikulapo-Kuti, the late Nigerian politico and source of much fusion ethno-pop music known as Afrobeat.

"Memphis," also running since last fall, has original music by David Bryan (Bon Jovi) to explore the exhilaration and struggle behind so-called race music in the '50s. Probably the most conventional offering will be "Million Dollar Quartet" (opening next Sunday), a jukebox re-creation of a Memphis recording session by Elvis, Carl Perkins, Johnny Cash and Jerry Lee Lewis.

I can't guess the sound of Andrew Lippa's score for "The Addams Family," which opens Thursday, but I do fondly remember how his "Wild Party" in 2000 seemed to grow from the deep-debauching expressionism of "Cabaret" and "Chicago," the Kander-and-Ebb classics inspired by Brecht and Weill.

Meanwhile, at the Public Theater that created "Hair," a musical called "Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson" opens Tuesday with Michael Friedman music known as emo - that is, the "emotional hard-core" style that grew as a reaction against the violence of punk. If the stars ever align for the much-delayed and overbudgeted "Spider-Man, Turn Off the Dark," Broadway will have music by Bono and The Edge.

And the beat, at last, goes on.

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