Review: American Idiot

Jordan and I saw American Idiot on Sunday, so I thought I’d share my thoughts on both the musical and the album. Warning: This post contains strong language that may be unsuitable for people who don’t appreciate punk music.  Spoilers ahoy too, insofar as it’s possible to spoil something so experiential.

So the term for the American Idiot musical is, in Green Day parlance, “awesome as fuck.”  I recommend it to all rock-opera fans; you non-angelenos will just have to wait (it gets to Seattle June 5).  I was prepared, as you can see from the photo.  It’s everything you’d expect from a rock opera: Short, loud, and earnest.  It’s striking just how many great songs Green Day has written.  The show contains no fewer than eight hit singles (nine if you count “Jesus of Suburbia,” a classic this-was-more-popular-than-we-expected extra single and not really a “hit”) and that covers a fraction of Green Day’s discography.

Like many shows based on preexisting music, the plot seems to have been extracted with great difficulty, but it really doesn’t matter.  Nobody goes to musicals for the plot.  Which is not to say that the plot is unsuccessful.  The splitting of Jesus of Suburbia into Johnny, Will, and Tunny is effective, though Will in particular gets shortchanged; Whatsername’s split into Whatsername and The Extraordinary Girl, less so, but more on that later.  Heather’s pregnancy is neatly incorporated with a single word change: “Am I pathetic or am I just paranoid” to “Am I pathetic or am I just overjoyed.”  The line “We are the kids of war and peace/from Anaheim to the middle east” gains extra significance when sung by Tunny, who later joins the Army.  And the encore may be the least bullshit use of “Good Riddance” ever: Despite the song’s overplay, it’s appropriate in this coming-of-age story, and the full-cast performance is a better ending note than the deeply personal “Whatsername.”

The new-old love song “When It’s Time,” composed around 1992 but not released until this musical, serves the same role as “Your Eyes” from Rent: a love song performed by a protagonist who, in-story, is sincere but not that good of a songwriter.  How appropriate to use a song written by a 20-year-old beginning musician for his future wife.  Opening it with the same chord progression as “Wake Me Up when September Ends” is extra poignant.

While some of the vocalists, especially Tunny, can’t match Armstrong, the new arrangements lend the songs even more depth and energy.  21 Guns will floor you.

I found “Boulevard of Broken Dreams” to be the weakest arrangement; it could have stood for more of a pure acoustic sound, but perhaps between “Wake Me Up when September Ends,” “When It’s Time,” and “Good Riddance,” they’d hit their acoustic limit.  Nevertheless, “Boulevard of Broken Dreams” is an excellent song.  Armstrong deserves recognition as an excellent lyricist.  The title itself is chosen carefully, both for its meaning and for its spoken sound.  The lyrics are deceptively simple:

I walk a lonely road
The only one that I have ever known
Don’t know where it goes
But it’s home to me and I walk alone

Mostly single-syllable words, with precise rhymes and cadence, describe the situation in a detached, factual air.  The words evoke an image of loneliness and isolation without ever directly saying that he’s lonely, and give the song a strong emotional content without being angsty.

The show won Tonys for set design and lighting design, so it looks as good as it sounds, bright and frenetic during songs like “American Idiot,” but broken up by more restrained bits frequently enough to avoid being overwhelming.  The big, sparse stage, populated with dozens of video screens, gives a sense of impersonality and the smallness of the characters within a big, confusing world.

My one criticism of the show is the handling of Whatsername.  Her main song is a medley of “She’s a Rebel” and “Last of the American Girls.”  This is already a dubious choice: Why add an extra song if you’re just going to mash it into a medley?  But the larger problem is how the song is used.  Let’s consider the original version from 21st Century Breakdown.

Armstrong wrote “Last of the American Girls” about his wife Adrienne (though in the album it’s about the character Gloria).  It’s really just a superlative love song where Armstrong lists all the traits that make her unique and admirable, and in that respect it’s a very traditional song type, but punk sensibilities cast it in a whole different light.  Because what sorts of traits are these?

She’s a runaway of the establishment incorporated
She won’t cooperate, well, she’s the last of the American girls

From his perspective an admirable woman is one who stands up to the system, just as Whatsername is “a rebel/she’s a saint/she’s the salt of the earth and she’s dangerous.”  There is no objectification here (though there is idolization): These are dynamic heroines with ideas and goals of their own, for which they are willing to fight.  Nowhere in either album is their appearance mentioned.

So why is this medley sung while Johnny is falling “in sex” with her?  It’s the largest lyrical disconnect in the show.  How does he know so much about the personality of someone he just met, and why is he singing about it when he’s clearly just interested in her physically?  The Johnny/St. Jimmy/Whatsername love triangle is creepy-effective, but we lose something by not putting a stronger focus on Whatsername as her own person.  It isn’t until “Letterbomb,” near the end, that we finally get a sense of what a powerhouse her character could have been.

St. Jimmy’s introduction is perfect: The spotlight on him, a crowd of worshipful drug addicts below.  The moment must have been even cooler on Broadway, when it was Armstrong himself stepping onto the stage (pictured).  Whatsername deserves a similar treatment, one that would illustrate why “she’s a symbol of resistance” and not just a random girl that Johnny happens to like.  The Extraordinary Girl is more successful, her midair dance above Tunny’s hospital bed showing her as “an extraordinary girl in an ordinary world.”

I went to this show expecting Rent for the 2000s with Iraq and yelling instead of AIDs and Puccini, but American Idiot is very much its own beast.  Despite being set in “the recent past” and opening with a chaotic video montage of Bush speeches and 2000’s celebrity gossip, its themes are largely universal and the context often downplays the political and social meanings of the songs–for instance, “Know Your Enemy” is no longer about revolt against authority, but simple jealousy.  Consequently, its protagonists’ suburban malaise feels less period-bound than the Bohemian dreaming of Rent or the hippie activism of Hair.  Its plot is even sparser than most rock operas and, I think, its characters less well-developed; indeed, they’re really archetypes rather than individuals.  But the music is good, the staging excellent, and the emotional content powerful.  A true descendent of the rock-opera genre?  Certainly.  Despite its flaws, it deserves a place alongside its ancestors and, no doubt, will in turn influence the next generation of rock operas.

Long live rock and roll!

—-

Images found here, taken by me, here, here, here, here, and here.  No, none of them are from the LA show; no cameras allowed and all that.

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