I’ve been struggling with this post. My home computer also went bust. It’s not been the easiest to critique Green Day’s American Idiot, and it’s gotten to be quite long, so I’m going to break it up into several posts. This first one focuses on The Book (Spoilers Here Lurk). The second post will focus on The Arrangement and The Cast; The Choreography; and The Direction.
I traveled to the East Bay on September 25th and 26th to see two performances of Green Day’s American Idiot, the musical. Prior to heading out from New York City, a theater friend of mine told me point blank that since I loved the band and the album so much that I could not be an impartial critic of the musical that I was traveling to see. In a way, my friend presented me with a challenge but in reality, I had already asked myself: would my critical and cutting-edge eye of theater allow me to react with my head or my heart to seeing a somewhat traditional but critically-acclaimed theater director take what I considered to be a powerful album and turn it into a piece of cutting-edge, yet accessible, musical theater. The battle between the Fan and the Critic was on long before my friend challenged me.
Let me preface the following with this. I have two great loves: Green Day and performance. I have other interests as well, politics, history, traveling, sitting around and doing nothing, among them, but for the most part these days, Green Day and performance is it. My love of Green Day stems from what I perceive as an inner honesty flowing from their music, whether the music is stripped raw or layered under multiple levels of sonic resonance. My love of performance comes from a grounding in the experimental (“punk,” if you will) world… taking chances by making far out choices and presenting them onstage, television, and film. Sometimes far-reaching expressions don’t translate well for the typical audience, but elements of experimental-based performance, particularly in theater, can be used to further a story so that it doesn’t come off quite like ‘normal’ theater. When I see Green Day live or on video, their energy and honesty, their rawness and willingness to take chances, always comes through, and it’s not quite like ‘normal’ rock and roll.
American Idiot, the album, rips through me when I hear it sometimes, and brings up emotions and pain that are difficult to express from the beginning moment when that “American Idiot” yells in resistance to “Whatsername” who brings the quiet surrender of memories too painful to remember but too precious to forget, to its conclusion. What lies between those songs is a musical sense of danger, rage, loss and anguish that hasn’t quite yet been transferred to the stage in Green Day’s American Idiot at the Berkeley Repertory Theater. It’s close, but missing elements of choreography and emotional direction that don’t quite pull off the feat of the musical score or match the soaring and fantastic graphics, lights, and stage set.
With that preface out of the way, here goes:
(Warning: Spoilers Here Lurk)
The Book : The only dialogue for the show is based on some of the liner notes of the American Idiot album as well as the album’s lyrics by Billie Joe Armstrong and constructed into a storyline by director Michael Mayer with Armstrong. It’s a slim story told through the music and backdrop art with only a few spoken words: three friends, Johnny (John Gallagher, Jr.), Tunny (Matt Caplan) and Will (Michael Esper), beset by television, boredom and few opportunities at home (“American Idiot”) make big plans as they set off to see the world with a “fuck you” to Jingletown, U.S.A. (though I was never quite clear on whether they were escaping from or to Jingletown) and begin their journey to the ‘big city’ (L.A.? New York? San Francisco? Jingletown?) and even bigger dreams. At the last moment of departure while saying their goodbyes to friends, Will is confronted by his girlfriend, Heather (Mary Faber) with a positive pregnancy test and his plans for escape are transferred to the inertia of couch fatherhood (as told through the five movements of “Jesus of Suburbia,” including the title movement and “City of the Damned,” “I Don’t Care,” “Dearly Beloved,” and “Tales of Another Broken Home”).
Without Will, Tunny and Johnny (with his guitar) still head to the undefined and amorphous city (though the lightscape backdrop, reminiscent of the 21st Century Breakdown tour, looks a lot like New York City). Johnny delights in the city and finds the girl of his dreams, Whatsername, played by Rebecca Naomi Jones but soon Johnny and Tunny find that their dreams are no where near to coming true (“Holiday”/”Boulevard of Broken Dreams”). Depressed and trying to find themselves, both fall into the traps of the big city: glamor and drugs in the case of Johnny who joins the local club scene; the lure of something shiny and heroic, by Tunny, who is recruited by America’s “Favorite Son” (the shiny suited and fabulous Joshua Henry), and joins the Army (“Are We The Waiting”). Meanwhile, Johnny encounters the monkey on his back, “St. Jimmy” (Tony Vincent), Will is still sulking on the couch despite a new baby, Johnny and Whatsername make love for the first time and Tunny comes under fire on the field and is seriously injured (a stunning theatrical sequence told through my favorite AI song, “Give Me Novacaine”).
Whatsername and Johnny are soul mates, making love and partying it up while Johnny still encounters St. Jimmy. Johnny eventually persuades a reluctant Whatsername to shoot drugs with him (“She’s a Rebel”/”Last Night On Earth”). It’s never quite clear whether St. Jimmy is real or imaginary. What is clear is that St. Jimmy is Johnny’s downfall, and he’s going to have to make the choice to get the monkey off of his back or risk losing Whatsername, who may be wild but is not so much into the drugs that Johnny is doing.
Back in Jingletown, Will is still struggling with his adult responsibilities and Heather, encouraged by two friends, gets fed up and leaves him (“Too Much Too Soon”). Tunny, in a war zone hospital bed, meets his “Extraordinary Girl” (Christina Sajous), an exotic nurse, who, during the course of his injuries and morphined dreams, literally flies through the theatrical space with him, set to the strains of the Northern African and Arabic-influenced song between bridges of “Before the Lobotomy.”
Johnny tries for a time to stay clean and write songs, and sings of his feelings to Whatsername while she’s sleeping (“When It’s Time”), but St. Jimmy lurks in the background and the power of Johnny’s emotions toward Whatsername battle his desire to shoot up and St. Jimmy overcomes him. Whatsername awakens to Johnny in the middle of his drug stupor and startles him, prompting a violent reaction with a knife toward her (“Know Your Enemy”) and she leaves. When Whatsername returns, she finds a cruel goodbye letter tacked on the door by St. Jimmy with the knife that Johnny threatened her with the night before.
Everything comes to a head for both Johnny and Will. Whatsername sings her lament of what could have been while Heather flaunts the fact that her life has gotten better since she left Will (“21 Guns”/”Nobody Likes You”). Whatsername encounters Johnny on the street and tells him off while he’s continuing his drug-fueled lifestyle (“Letterbomb”) and he eventually comes to a turning point with no money, a drug habit, no girl, and no prospects (“Wake Me Up When September Ends”).
Johnny kicks his drug habit (all too easily) by metaphorically killing off St. Jimmy (“Death of St. Jimmy”/”Homecoming”). Johnny gets a dead-end job where life becomes pointless and clock-punching (“East 12th Street”/”Homecoming”). Will ends up alone on his couch, again (“Nobody Likes You”/”Homecoming”), when Heather shows up — now triumphantly a “Rock and Roll Girlfriend”/”Homecoming” with a kickass boyfriend. Johnny decides to move back home, where he meets up with Will and a returning Tunny, still partially recovering from his war injuries with his Extraordinary Girl. With the singing of “We’re Coming Home” (the last movement of “Homecoming”) they all make the decision to be home and make the best of it.
At the end, Johnny makes some peace about what he has found and lost, particularly of his time and love for “Whatsername.”
Spoilers Here End
The Book is well constructed for a show pushed solely through the music and stage action. The basic premise only nominally follows the loose story of the album, which focuses for the most part on Jesus of Suburbia (Johnny), St. Jimmy, and Whatsername. In the musical, Armstrong and Mayer, split the angst of the young adult males into three separate characters (Johnny, Will, and Tunny) which allows the story to branch off to portray the general flavors of the different pressures of growing up and facing responsibility. It also allows for a bigger cast and chorus and to connect to our own personality types, either Will, who dismisses his responsibilities, Tunny, who embraces them, or Johnny, who for a time blows caution to the wind until he can’t do so anymore.
One would think that since the storyline is pushed so fast through the music and stage action, that it would be difficult to keep up with the storyline, particularly since the connecting dialogue (which could be at any time Johnny’s brief letters from home, diary entries or inner monologue) is few and far between and only minimally explains Johnny’s backstory. Each tidbit of dialogue offers a rushed start to the next song, and since the storyline is pushed so hard by the music, it sometimes overwhelms the actions and lyrics and offers little time for emotional nuance or respite for the cast and chorus in order to propel the emotional arch of the story. Words and images are flashed across the massive stage wall background, and while looking amazing, don’t drive the storyline, but enhance it. This is a show where you have to pay attention to a lot of things at once, projecting the idea of being overwhelmed by the mass media, as it’s a musical and visual jumble of subliminal messages and manic action. The few quiet moments within the script (primarily the first part of “Give Me Novacaine,” “When It’s Time,” “Last Night on Earth,” “We Are The Waiting,” “Wake Me Up When September Ends,” Esper’s turn at “Nobody Likes You,” and portions of “Before the Lobotomy”/”Extraordinary Girl”) are some of the few moments when the book shows emotional depth. The remainder of the book stays on one level…high speed…with few signs of emotional nuance. It’s a great ride, but leaves little time or reason to fully connect emotionally with the characters.
Overall, though, it’s a dynamic, if generic, coming of age story, with all the ups and downs that surround kids trying to make their way for the first time and mostly failing. Its purpose is to highlight the music, the real star of the show. (But you’ll have to see what I think of The Arrangement when I post it.)