Back in 2004 I was going through some rough times. I coped by grasping onto the loud lament of Green Day’s American Idiot CD. Not necessarily music of my generation, but the defiant lyrics became my secret anthem. I’d play “Boulevard of Broken Dreams” and “Wake Me Up When September Ends” over and over, letting the aloneness wash over me. It helped to know someone else had felt such solitary sadness other than me.
Director Michael Mayer and Billie Joe Armstrong, Green Day’s lead guitarist and vocalist, fashioned a 90-minute rock opera entitled American Idiot for the generation that came of age after Sept. 11. American Idiot’s 13 tracks come alive more as a raw and energetic live music video than traditional musical theater. Featuring the hits “Boulevard of Broken Dreams,” “21 Guns,” “Wake Me Up When September Ends,” “Holiday” and the blockbuster title track, American Idiot is a hot ticket for anyone who loves Green Day.
Having received both raves and rants from critics over the years, American Idiot is best enjoyed by letting go of any expectations. AI refuses to be traditional, so audience members need to stop being “theater goers” and just let the music and performances wash over them as a sensory high and bask in the sheer ferocity of the music video genre brought to life.
The story centers on three young friends who journey from suburban slackerism to adult misery. Johnny (Van Huges) heads to the city and descends into a life of drug addiction delivered by his devilish drug dealer/alter ego St. Jimmy (Joshua Kobak). Will (Jake Epstein) stays behind and deals with the pressures of his girlfriend becoming pregnant, and Tunny (Scott J. Campbell) joins the Army and is shipped off to fight in Iraq. Spoken dialogue is minimal, with Johnny occasionally delivering brief journal entries, giving very basic information.
The young cast laments “Don’t want to be an American idiot/One nation controlled by the media” as they rock out in frenzy surrounded by a great wall of media monitors. The irony is palpable as the teen sitting next to me can’t seem to put her smart phone away and stop tweeting pictures of the opening number. Today’s young generation has become addicted to media, even more so, now that the social media frenzy is upon us. Bet Green Day didn’t expect that back in 2004.
While the Broadway cast album is crisp and clear and every bit of studio recorded social irreverence is heard, the live performance has some serious sound issues with lost lyrics and uneven sound levels. Some performers are muffled and others are over amplified. The band rocks onstage and at times overpowers the singers. I like the band being onstage, but the execution could be improved upon for a better balance. Musically, the most memorable moments come when a single singer, usually Johnny, simply accompanies himself on an acoustic guitar.
Green Day’s sound is all about the beat and kick ass guitar power chords, which pushes the cast into an all out frenzy of singing and synchronized mosh pit choreography. Steven Hoggett’s grunge choreography was amazing to watch, but it did pull me out of the moment, wondering how the actors didn’t get migraines with all that head banging. Maybe that’s just the generation gap talking.
Particularly impressive is the staging of “Holiday,” in which a rolling scaffolding platform and grocery cart are rolled in ingenious ways to create eye popping visuals as various cast members dance joyously around and on it with agile grace.
Like its forefather rock opera, Hair, American Idiot is a portrait of a generation, although the disaffected youth in American Idiot are a far cry from the Tribe members of Hair. But while Armstrong’s lyrics are laced with pessimism, the music is often buoyantly exuberant, which is one of the main reasons it succeeds as an amazing theatrical experience.
Did I love it? Yes, for the music, staging and being able to look back at my past pain and know that it’s truly in the past. Thanks, Green Day for creating a ground breaking CD that helped me through the roughest period of my life and a musical theater experience that helped confirm my September has finally ended.