"Green Day Rock Opera, available on Very Small Records."
–Tré Cool, 1993
After six months of indifference, I decided I would finally go. My brother's college was offering tickets for the ridiculously discounted price of 15 dollars, so we thought it would be as good a time as any to see it. The sole reason I bought the Original Cast Recording when it was released was to have a physical copy of "When It's Time," a previously unrecorded song that Billie Joe wrote for his wife when they first met (it's used in the musical as a sort of love letter to Whatsername), and I didn't bother listening to anything else on it. I guess in the back of my mind I knew it would be unfair to make a judgment on it without seeing it live first. But I read the "Note from Director Michael Mayer" and the synopsis that came with the insert and it just seemed like a bastardized version of the album I loved so much; characters and songs were added, the storyline was broadened and the ensemble dancers probably didn't help either. So my brother and I didn't have much in the way of expectations when we boarded the Suffolk County Community College bus with his other schoolmates to the St. James Theater on West 44th street in Manhattan.
When Green Day was doing press for the original album, I read that they listened to the soundtracks to Jesus Christ Superstar and The Rocky Horror Picture Show as they were writing it, but anyone who has listened to the Who's Quadrophenia or Hüsker Dü's Zen Arcade is familiar with American Idiot's plotline: a young man leaves his small town to find himself in the Big City; he parties, takes drugs and meets a woman in the process, loses her and then spends the remainder of the year working odd jobs and cleaning himself up before returning home. Director Michael Mayer (Spring Awakening, Side Man) expands it by adding two characters--Johnny's (The Jesus of Suburbia [John Gallagher, Jr.]) best friends, Will (Michael Esper) and Tunny (Stark Sands), and giving them each his own diverging narrative.
The show is performed with one basic set (three walls lined with newspaper clippings and television screens, a steel staircase on wheels, a mattress and a couch) and without an intermission. It opens with the televisions at full volume playing clips of various news segments, reality television shows and South Park episodes, and like the album, Johnny briefly narrates the story in-between songs to the fourth wall as if writing a diary. At the end of "Jesus of Suburbia," Will learns that his girlfriend, Heather (Mary Faber), is pregnant with his child while Johnny and Tunny decide to leave Jingletown. They board a bus and live out the album's narrative until it's interrupted by the Rock Against Bush Vol. 2 track, "Favorite Son," during which Tunny is convinced to join the army after seeing a commercial on television.
Now alone, Johnny "meets" a drug dealer named St. Jimmy (Tony Vincent) and seduces Whatsername (Rebecca Naomi Jones) with the allure heroin. Meanwhile, Heather leaves Will and takes their child with her ("Too Much Too Soon") and Tunny is injured in combat. While heavily medicated at the military hospital he is sent to, he has a vision of a Middle Eastern woman--The Extraordinary Girl (Christina Sajous) in the sky who engages him in a mid-air dance, though she turns out to be a nurse that he falls in love with. Back in the City, Johnny continues to live out his nihilistic dream and get his twenty-on-the-hype while Whatsername begins to sober up and plead with him to do the same ("21 Guns"), but he doesn't and she leaves to never see him again ("Letterbomb").
In their own ways, Johnny, Will and Tunny each mourn their losses during "Wake Me Up When September Ends" and go through the motions in "Homecoming" where Johnny gets a desk job, Will meets Heather's new rock star boyfriend and Tunny returns home with an artificial leg and his nurse. Johnny eventually returns home too without St. Jimmy, and the friends, though withdrawn, rejoice in their reunion and the entire cast reflects on the year they had during the bittersweet "Whatsername." As a bonus, though, there was an encore that featured the entire cast playing "Good Riddance," which I believe is something Billie Joe recently added during the week that he played the part of St. Jimmy.
Ironically, while I was initially skeptical that the plotline was expanded, the parts I enjoyed the most were Michael Mayer's additions. Though I hold the album in very high regard, the relationship between Jimmy and Whatsername is vague and left up to your imagination, whereas the musical gives it more depth with the additions of "Last Night on Earth," "When It's Time" and "Know Your Enemy" It was amusing watching the backdrop change from the city skyline of "Boulevard of Broken Dreams" to the flag and fireworks while the women dressed up with the military actor from his underwear to his suit and tie during "Favorite Son," and the juxtapositions of sex, drugs and war during "Give Me Novacaine" were especially well-written and performed.
The band that plays the songs is on-stage with the cast throughout the entire show, and musically, they remain true to the album's sound, though the supplemented strings in "Boulevard" and Middle Eastern tinge to "Extraordinary Girl" sounded great, and the three other actors that harmonized the opening and closing verses of "Before the Lobotomy" with Sands were the vocal highpoint of the show. I'd never seen a Broadway musical before, so the dancing was a little alienating at first, but it grew on me; there was never a moment where nothing was happening, so it kept the energy up if nothing else.
As far as the acting went, Van Hughes substituted for John Gallagher, Jr. the night I saw it, but there was an earnestness about him that made Johnny a little more sympathetic than he might have otherwise been. Rebecca Naomi Jones was an erotic mess (in a good way) that was really showcased best during "Letterbomb" with Mary Faber and the rest of the female ensemble. And for somebody who spends most of the show sitting on the couch drinking, Michael Esper was a unique talent for keeping your attention by standing still.
Overall, I wouldn't say it's as gripping as the album was for me, but it's a faithful adaptation and a cool companion piece. If your main problem with it being made into a musical is that you think it's pretentious or it'll probably lack the urgency you feel when you see a good show in a club, I would recommend trying to separate Green Day's name from it. I didn't and probably won't see either of them perform in it, but it still has a lot of energy and it was a lot of fun to watch. Nevertheless, the show was also not without its punk aesthetics: St. Jimmy is an obvious homage to Glenn Danzig and other characters sport Black Flag tattoos and Replacements T-shirts. I found no glaring fault with anything except that Johnny's narration was a little simplistic, but one would be hard-pressed to criticize a musical for its spoken-word sections.
Since it's been on Broadway, "American Idiot" has won a pair of Tony awards for Best Lighting Design and Best Scenic Design, which as far I can could tell, the nominations were deserved. Bottom line, if you like the album, I would give the musical a shot. Just don't expect to hear "Tight Wad Hill" or for it to be something it's not.