Don’t wanna be an American Idiot Don’t want a nation under the new media And can you hear the sound of hysteria? The subliminal mind f*ck America
I think I’m getting old.
Now don’t get me wrong; I am a fan of Green Day. Seeing them live a few years ago was a whole lot of fun. That concert almost cracked my top five concert experiences as I had a great time rocking out during the show. I once listened to their album 21st Century Breakdown on repeat the entire drive from Buffalo to Albany, mostly because I was so in love with it and only partially because I was driving someone else’s truck and couldn’t figure out how to change the discs in the multi-cd player (I’d been up since 2 and it was an unfamiliar vehicle, so cut me some slack on that one). I was very excited to see the American Idiot musical, based on their rock opera album of the same name; though the show has since closed in New York City, it was one of the musicals I considered in my many attempts to see my first Broadway show. When the traveling production rolled into town, I had no doubt that I was going.
So it was more than a little disappointing when I walked out of the performance last night somewhat underwhelmed.
The best thing about the musical is obviously the songs; Billy Joe Armstrong and company really wrote some great tunes and since the album American Idiot was conceptualized as an interconnected work rather than just a bunch of random songs, there is a consistent tonal thread that runs through much of the material. While the musical draws its name from one particular album, the songs are not limited to that work and are borrowed from the Green Day catalog as a whole. Several songs from 21st Century Breakdown are used (an album that was also conceived as a rock opera), as well as some Green Day B-sides and singles. If you are a Green Day fan, you’ll enjoy hearing “Boulevard of Broken Dreams,” “Holiday,” “21 Guns,” and “Wake Me Up When September Ends.” I had to fight the urge to sing along with some of my favorite songs, because no one paid to hear that. The dancing is high energy as well; no one could accuse this of being boring. The set design and lighting contribute to the mayhem; the stage is covered with television monitors that will flash all sorts of images during the duration of the musical.The band for the performance we saw was great; they’ve really embraced the punk rock sprit of the musical. The amps were clearly turned up to 11, though this often overpowered the vocals. There were large portions of some songs where all you could hear was the music. I don’t know if that was a technical issue or that’s just how they envisioned it, but it was a bit frustrating. American Idiot is sung-through musical; there is very little actual dialogue in the play. The songs and the dancing tell the story, so when you can’t hear the lyrics you lose some element of the plot.
The story is definitely the weakest part of the musical as it is pretty skant. Three disaffected young men (Johnny, Tunny and Will) live of the suburbs and dream of making their way out to the bright lights of the big city. They are full of angst about everything – the government, their parents, the media and their mundane lives. They get some money together to leave, but right before they depart Will’s girlfriend announces she is pregnant and he decides to stay behind. Johnny and Tunny discover that the city is not all that they thought it would be. Both become disillusioned and while Tunny joins the military to combat his apathy, Johnny turns to drugs. Will finds that being a parent is overwhelming. All three of them struggle with their new lives. Pain ensues. Lessons are learned.
Because there isn’t much character development, it’s hard to care too much about any of these characters. In fact, if you aren’t paying attention in the first moments of the play, you won’t know the main characters names, as they are never used again (you never learn the names of the minor characters). There were also several points throughout the show where it was hard to know what was going on; because the show quickly transitions from song to song without supporting dialogue or explanation, you find yourself watching Tunny in bed one minute and then inexplicably joining the military the next. Several plot points are revealed at once; they make full use of the stage and often tell parts of the story for all three characters at the same time, so you have to be paying attention to the big picture rather than focusing on the person who is singing. With a 95 minute run-time, there isn’t any amount of time devoted to filling in some of the blanks or making the story complete; it all moves so quickly that you don’t have time to immediately figure things out. They are already on to the next Green Day song while you are still trying to make sense of what you just saw. It’s all very abstract; it feels more like the outline than an actual story.
I actually liked the musical more when it slowed down a bit; my favorite numbers were more likely to be the quieter solo numbers rather than the raucous songs involving the company. I don’t know if it was because this was opening night, but some of the actors were definitely a bit off in some of the early numbers. In the words of American Idol judge Randy Jackson, “It’s a little pitchy, dawg.” The few first songs reminded more of a high school production rather than a traveling professional performance. They eventually settled down, but I was initially not that impressed with the cast.
Some other quick thoughts:
- There were an awful lot of people in the cast in their underwear during the show. They must have a pretty extensive Fruit of the Loom budget.
- I know that Green Day is punk rock and obviously they curse, but I didn’t realize how many times they use the f-word in their songs until they were more clearly articulated on the stage.
- Between the language, the sexual situations and the drug use, this isn’t a show for children (or probably your grandmother). The strobe light used may also bother some audience members.
- According to Wikipedia, which I turned to when I got home to fill in some of the plot points I wasn’t sure I had right, the name of the pregnant girlfriend character is Heather. And yes, I am vain enough that discovering that made me like the musical a little more.
- There is an aerial number that didn’t make a whole lot of sense and is wholly unnecessary. I am assuming it was used to indicate this was a dream sequence, but it didn’t really work and seemed a little cheesy.
- “Good Riddance (Time of Your Life)” is featured in the musical and that song never fails to make me a little nostalgic; it was a hit my last semester of college, which made the song especially appropriate and poignant.
- The story in American Idiot is set in the early 2000s – post 9/11 and pre-Obama – and even though that was like yesterday, it felt kind of dated.
- Other than complaining about the loud music, another sign that I’m an oldster is that I found myself wondering what exactly the characters were so angsty about. I don’t know if this was a side effect of the minimal character development or because I’ve passed the time in my life where a slacker guy who is mad at everything doesn’t hold much appeal.
- I think I was in the minority by not being bowled over by the show. My friend really liked it and they got a standing ovation at the end, so this may be the case of something just not hitting me the right way. People overall seemed to dig it; I was eavesdropping on conversations as we were leaving to see if I could find anyone else that wasn’t that impressed, to no avail.
While I didn’t love American Idiot, I did find it generally entertaining. You can’t help but nod your head and tap your feet to the music, especially if you are a Green Day fan. However, since the musical is primarily a bunch of Green Day songs strung together, I’d imagine that a real Green Day fan would get a lot more out of seeing the band live. There were times during American Idiot when I felt like I was at Green Day karaoke. I just think I’d rather hear the songs performed by the band. I can’t speak what a post-rehab Billie Joe is like, but back in the old days he and the gang put on one hell of a show. I think this may be a case where I like the concept of a Green Day inspired musical more than the actual execution. Or maybe I’m just not as punk rock as I used to be.
Scheduling note – the pop culture roundup will appear tomorrow.