Written by: Andrea Janov, CC2K Music Editor
I have been going back and forth and back and forth about writing about this soundtrack at all (or “concept album as it is being called”). As a punk rock kid who also fucking loves Broadway, I have always longed for the two styles to merge, but I have been less than impressed with every endeavor that I’ve seen/heard. I counted the days until American Idiot came to Broadway, I saw it once in previews and once with Billy Joe Armstrong, giving it all the chances that I could. Though the music is good, I felt cheated, it fell short of meaning anything, at all. (If you are interested in that review, you can find it here.) There are several rock musicals that have succeed in modern theater, Rent was ground breaking, Next to Normal edgy yet poignant, Hedwig full of glam shellacked attitude. Yet, punk, has never been able to bridge the gap. I’ll admit it freely, I wanted Home Street Home to be awesome. I wanted a punk rock musical, I wanted to see two genres that I love connect in an honest, organic, kick ass way. I want punk rock kids to be represented on stage as hippies were in Hair and how 90s East Village artists were in Rent.
Now we have Home Street Home to add to the list of rock musical, thanks to Fat Mike. Any musical is an ambitious project, let alone from someone not coming from a musical theater background. Fat Mike assembled a great team to surround and support this project Goddess Soma, Jeff Marx the Tony Award winning creator of Avenue Q and Richard Israel, and Los Angeles theater vet. These collaborators bring such diverse taste and experience that something fairly unique was going to be created as a rust of their collaboration.
Home Street Home states its intents and purpose with the title. The content addresses teenage runaways, life on the street, and some of the issues that would make someone run away. We are introduced to characters that were sexually abused, characters that were born into a chemical dependent situation, and characters that were victims of severe bullying. Though, you cannot introduce a million characters with a million different back stories, I would have liked a few more to round out the varied experiences that lead to this street community being created, even if it is just a line or to in an ensemble song.
Each track walks the fine line in between pop punk and Broadway. There are tracks that are stripped down, acoustic, and poignant, there are tracks that are angry and aggressive, and there are tracks that are catchy as hell. Each sound, used to emphasize the emotional point of that particular song. Musically, it is a solid blending of musical theater and NOFX brand of pop punk. It is catchy, it is poppy, it is angry. It sounds as a musical should, but with a bit of an edge.
So now, let’s get into the nitty-gritty. I will preface this with the disclaimer that I have not seen the stage production, over here on the east coast I have to rely on the cast recording as my source. Also, I have not been able to see the lyric sheets or script so I am sure that there are several plot/ character elements that I cannot comment on due to the constraints of a cast recording. One of those constraints is that I am not sure which characters are speaking/singing some of the time, which in turn makes it hard to see a storyline or character development (I am not even sure how many main characters there are). I also noticed that there are whole songs missing from the soundtrack, there is a Sleeping Beauty reprise that we never hear Sleepy Beauty, so that is an interesting choice, that confuses me.
Home Street Home starts off with Monsters which is one of the strongest songs in the musical. It is Broadway enough to set the stage for the whole show, it introduces us to and defines a character (though I don’t know her name) and presents a strong message to the audience, a message that will carry on as the underlying backstory to the show – sometimes the very real monsters at home are worse than living on the street. The song starts slow, quiet, with an acoustic guitar but it builds to anger in the music, in the vocals, in the lyrics. This song made me super excited to hear the rest of the album. The next song, Three String Guitar, carried me along, though it did strike me as a bit heavy handed to have to songs with similar narrative intent to follow one another, but I could imagine it making sense with staging. Though Three String Guitar has a similar character establishing intent, it connects the audience to this character because of it’s is slow and quirky delivery.
After that I started to get lost, Urban Campers, which really should be introducing the audience to the homeless aspect, instead, pushes us away. Why, as an audience member should I invest time in characters that are telling me that they do not want my (or anyone’s) respect. The song, though, is a catchy as fuck ensemble number.
Three Against Me, kind of brings me back. It is a beautifully haunting and personal, It quiets the audience down and draws them into the performance. The delicate piano paired with the strong vocals is one of the most powerful performances on this album.
The next song, High Achievers, seems like an odd choice to follow such a personal ballad, but I will also chalk that up to not being able to see the staging. My reaction to this song, is the first time I ever questioned myself as a progressive thinker. It states some fantastically brilliant people who are publicly known to have used drugs and uses that to create an argument that everyone is more interesting on drugs. Now, I am not here to play the role of anyone’s mother, but all drugs are not created equal. It is known that Fat Mike is pro-drugs, but I think that I draw a line at heroin and crack. “It’s a simple case of better living through modern chemistry / When everybody is doing drugs / it makes the word is a better place to be”. Sorry, don’t lie to me, don’t try to fool me, I am not stupid. I have seen too much up close to even have the slightest romantic notion about heroin.
It seems that Gutter Tarts is there purely for shock value since prostitution was already mentioned in other tracks. Bad Decisions is a weird interlude and moral voice, but maybe it is cool in the context of the stage production? Missing Child presents the parents of these run away kids in a very traditional Broadway sound (it sounds like it could be from Spring Awakening). Let’s Get Hurt is a quaint, almost endearing, carnival-esq pro-BDSM track and Safe Words is super juvenile. Though it is totally a conversation that teenagers would have, it is super heavy handed, kitschy, and totally undermines the play.
I Am Suicide is another stand out number. There is more in this song that in most of the musical. We listen to this song and are pulled along by its excellent construction but we are also carried emotionally. The lead vocals are gruff, angry, and raw is a beautiful way and the lyrics cut right though you. There is a power and self-awareness I her voice as she spits out the lyrics that lay out her disgusted for her situation that she recently escaped, “I was a teenage blow up fuck doll / without an option / without freewill / I was eleven when I got put on the pill/ … Always a good girl, always obeyed / I was a prostitute who wasn’t getting paid” and her new found command, “I am suicide / I’ve just been resurrected”. The voices of her parents are also presented in this track, from denial to anger, they complete the story, as gross and disturbing as it is. The track wraps up with a collection of voices from the street kids not only accepting her, but rejoicing at her joining them. This track alone makes the audience sympathize with this girl and become disgusted with her parents, it makes us want her to run away, it makes us agree that the streets are a better place for her. This sort of story control is what I want from the rest of the musical.
Because I Want To is a great song of teen angst and striking out on your own. It has rage, excitement, and introspection. It balanced the ups and downs of those years. Though I would have liked it earlier in the storyline. Life, Oh What a Drag is an ensemble number that ranges characters yet I am not sure how many. It is a haunting ending, mourning, and goodbye to the community that they built on the streets, though I am unclear why it is ending. I wanted more emotional connection to it because it was such a fantastic track. The last track on the album, The Agony of Victory seems to be oddly placed as well. It seem like it would make more sense at the beginning of the play, and maybe a reprise near the end? It is high energy, it is about the street living, it would offer a great and grabbing introduction to the world that is presented in this play. It would really draw the audience in if it was the opening number. Get us excited about the street characters, then tell us their stories that brought them there, then bring us back to celebrate their lives at the conclusion of the musical via reprise. It is not until this song, the very last song, where our characters really state the heart of their philosophy, “Let’s just fucking drink and be alive / not just survive”. Right/wrong, better/worse, this insight shows so much about these characters.
I struggled at how to approach this review, everyone brings their own experience and baggage to a piece of art. I bought a good home life, a love of punk rock, a love of musical theater, and firsthand experience watching a family be torn apart my heroin addiction. Maybe I have grown up and sold out, maybe I just don’t get it, but I think that even at my most rebellious, blue hair, drinking too much, wearing shirts that said fuck off, I wouldn’t have bought into all this, because it doesn’t seem to go deep into anything that it addresses.
Home Street Home is a pro street life, pro prostitution, pro drug play. It takes street kids punks that we as a society feel bad for, you know because they sleep on the street and beg for change, and gives them a voice and back stories. It not only gives them a voice, but it lets them say that this is the way of life they prefer, that they chose, and they are proud of that choice. Yet we never really get to the place of celebrating with them or mourn the dissemination of their community. We get close at points, yet we are always turned off right before we get there. I never fully connect with any of these characters, yet there are glimpses into the underlying potential of the material. Monsters, I Am Suicide, Life…Oh, What a Drag, and The Agony of Victory all have what the musical needs, yet they are not enough to carry it all. And there are some beautiful moments of comradely that does come out in certain places in this musical like when they are welcoming Sue at the end of I Am Suicide or when they are mourning in Life…Oh, What a Drag. The story life would benefit so much from more of those moments. Show us the love between this group of misfits, and I will start to feel that love and root for them, instead of relying on the “yes, child molestation is a terrible thing” situation.
Or is that too surface of an interpretation of this piece of art? Home Street Home is told in the voice of these kids, of course they are going to put on a façade of wanting to be where they are, what other choice to they have? They can’t go home, and getting a job at 16 is not easy task. Running away from home and living on the street is the first choice they have made.
Society has failed these kids and they believe that choosing to live on the streets, to not only say they don’t need anything that society has to offer, not only saying that they don’t value anything that society values, but to also choose a way of life that repulses society is the biggest fuck you they can muster at that age. These kids think that this decision gives them power, they chose this and they don’t need anyone else.
Yet, should we be looking through that façade deeper into the underlying problem has been presented with all along, are these characters so damaged that they think living on the street is better than seeking help? Has this story been presented in such a way, that we should take pity on these kids, that we should see their vulgar disregard for respect as the ultimate cry for help? Without passing judgment, should we see that this play is a tragedy? Choose whatever way of life you want, but self-respect is key.
Fat Mike, have you laid this all out to get us deeper in the problem of homeless youth? Or are you just romanticizing? Have you ever been homeless, you know, before you were a millionaire?
The last thing I will say on all of this is, that as I have noted throughout the review, this is based on the soundtrack alone, maybe on stage this creation has a clearer story line and progression. I believe that only having the album, should be enough – how can you listen to, enjoy, (review) an album with a story, without understanding the story? Regardless of how catchy or well-constructed the songs themselves are, you still are left a bit confused and unsettled. All this being said, if I had the opportunity to see it staged, I would jump at the chance to let it change my mind.
Does this mean that the great hope for a punk musical is in Ben Weasel’s hands? God help us all.