As soon as the house lights go down at the St. James Theatre on Broadway for the theatrical production of punk band, Green Day’s rock opera opus, American Idiot, the audience is (quite intentionally) assaulted with a seemingly endless barrage of sound bytes from news and pop culture of the first decade of the twenty-first century. Then the curtain rises on an enormous stage filled with disaffected youth and on-stage band members, the set covered to the rafters in a collage of newspapers and magazines, half of a car, scaffolding, and numerous hi-def television screens, blaring clips from entertainment news, talk shows, sitcoms–all of the synthetic noise constantly in our heads, cluttering our minds and distracting us from the disturbing truth of our era.
If Hair is a rock opera about a young generation protesting a war that they feared had threatened to swallow their country’s soul, American Idiot is a rock opera about a young generation whose country’s soul has already been devoured, not by war but by the constant onslaught of media that has mostly succeeded in eliminating peoples’ outrage through the pop cultural equivalent of novocaine, turning them into a nation of mindless zombies, plugged into the tube while all but completely ignoring the countless deaths carried out in the name of the USA. It is a call to arms to young people whose voice has otherwise been silenced, not through direct suppression but through the no-less-insidious means of over-stimulation and intellectual neglect. It is also a brilliant and confronting piece of theatre that is as hard-rocking, invigorating, and soulful as it is challenging.
Usually, when a Broadway show is based on the musical output of a band, theatregoers’ immediate reaction is to derisively label and then dismiss it as a jukebox musical. American Idiot, however, is in a different situation. The album on which it was based was originally written as a rock opera (which puts it in the longstanding tradition of classic past rock operas such as Jesus Christ Superstar, Evita, and, of course, Tommy, which also began their lives as albums), telling the story of a symbolic triptych of characters, Jesus of Suburbia, St. Jimmy, and Whatsername. For the American Idiot musical, Green Day frontman, Billie Joe Armstrong and director Michael Mayer (who also directed Spring Awakening, which has a great deal in common with this show) have collaborated on a simple yet deeply effective book that further clarifies the plot and characters, as well as expanded the score by flawlessly weaving in a number of songs from Green Day B-sides, as well as from their second rock opera, 21st Century Breakdown. The latter shares a great deal of overlapping themes with American Idiot, and the chosen songs perfectly fill in the former’s previous narrative gaps, finally allowing American Idiot to be the complete opera it was always destined to be.
In reworking the material for the stage, Armstrong and Mayer have also added new characters and side plots, while impressively leaving all of the original lyrics intact. What was once the story of one young man’s emotional journey through the dark underbelly of Bush-era American culture is now the tale of three young men–Johnny, who rages against the machine and is almost eaten alive by his own instruments of rebellion, Tunny, who falls hook, line, and sinker for American propaganda and enlists in the war, and Will, who wants to rebel but instead finds himself trapped in Jingletown, USA, the sad consequence of his (presumably) not wearing a condom. I have heard the original American Idiot album literally hundreds of times, but this production made me truly appreciate the lyrics for the first time. Unlike those of the majority of punk and pop bands, these lyrics are gorgeously penned; they are often searingly poetic and resonate on countless levels. Furthermore, listening to them with the added context of the characters and situations occurring before our eyes provides them with whole new, often surprising layers of meaning.
The book also cleverly parallels the Johnny/Tunny/Will triad with that which existed in the original album–Jesus of Suburbia (aka Johnny)/St. Jimmy/Whatsername. In other words, Johnny, Tunny, and Will can be interpreted as different variations on the same core character. They all begin the play as practically indistinguishable slackers, all of whom come to a crossroads and make a different life decision. In terms of the Trinity, they can be symbolically seen as the Father (Will, who fathers a child), the Son (Johnny, much of whose anger is said to resolve around father issues), and the Holy Ghost (Tunny, who has an ethereal journey while at war).
Johnny is also at the heart of another Trinity, formed with St. Jimmy and Whatsername. Although it is heavily implied that St. Jimmy, a queer-punk, almost-trickster spirit of rebellion and mania, is a hallucinogenic manifestation of Johnny’s subconscious–his id, if you will, not unlike Tyler Durden of Fight Club–and that Whatsername is, for all intents and purposes, real, she can also be interpreted as another facet of Johnny. She can’t be quite so easily defined as superego, though, being a rebel herself, but in the battle for Johnny against what she sees as the corrupting influence of St. Jimmy/drugs, she certainly comes to represent a conscience of sorts. She is all that is beautiful and right in the world for Johnny, though St. Jimmy–who Whatsername calls “a figment of your father’s rage and your mother’s love”–threatens to woo him away from her on a cloud of intoxication and violence. Johnny originally left home to rail against the stultifying effects of American media but instead of staging a revolution ends up losing himself in a different sort of numbing agent, rendering him just as impotent as before. Whatsername represents healthy rebellion, St. Jimmy self-destruction.
As Johnny, John Gallagher, Jr. gives a revelatory performance, full of passion and hope and rage and joy and anger and lust and defeat and triumph and humanity, guiding his character through a complex emotional arc and incredibly murky waters. His character is reminiscent of what Moritz from Spring Awakening–a role that won him the Tony–could have grown up to become. Meanwhile, Stark Sands’ Tunny is both heartbreaking and inspiring–his rendition of “Extraordinary Girl” and the rapturous dream sequence that occurs around it are one of the show’s many highlights–and whenever Rebecca Naomi-Jones takes the stage as Whatsername, she owns it. The show also boasts one of the most sophisticated overall designs I have seen for any Broadway show. Throughout, the marriage of music, choreography, lighting, and multimedia projections is nothing short of dazzling. It is rare for a show to so stunningly capture and immerse its audience in its theme to such an extent. Never has a collection of television screens seemed so ominous or unavoidable.
One might question whether a rock opera written during the height (or, for a huge number of us, the low-th) of the Bush era would still be relevant today, and the answer is yes, because our anger remains palpable, and the leftover wreckage of his policies continue to leave their mark. I can imagine the show staying relevant on some level as long as we have a media to manipulate us. And even if that should ever change, the story of a young person’s struggle to forge his or her identity in a world that seems to have fallen to chaos and ruin is one that will most likely never fade. American Idiot is loud and rocking and angry and messy and painful and riotous and wonderful and funny and sad and gorgeous and true and one of the few Broadway shows today that is both an enormously entertaining tour de force and a captivating work of art. Never has the Boulevard of Broken Dreams shined so brightly.
American Idiot is still in previews and opens on Broadway this Friday, April 20th.