American Idiot on Broadway
This weekend I got a chance to catch the Greenday rock musical American Idiot, based on their 2004 concept album of the same name. I’ve wanted to see this show since it opened. I’m actually a huge fan of the album, and my friend jumped on some tickets when she heard that Davey Havok, lead signer of her favorite band AFI was going to be taking over the role of St. Jimmy (played for the past few weeks by Greenday frontman himself, Billie Joe Armstrong).
While the songs were obviously rockin’ and the actors all fantastic (including American Idol season one goober Justin Guarini) my favorite thing about the show was the Tony Award winning set designed by Christine Jones (who also designed the sets for another great show Spring Awakening). The back walls, covered with punk rock posters and newspaper clippings spewed information at the audience before stretching high into the rafters beyond sight. Working TVs imbedded into the wall played a combo of hopeless Bush SOTUs and rock imagery. Stacks of movable fire escapes and scaffolding not only mobilized the cast, but the on stage band as well (I love it when the musicians are on stage). Jones in a Live Design Magazine interview, said that she was, “inspired by spaces such as a warehouse or a punk rock club like CBGB… pointing out that the walls are covered with posters, decals, and stickers as one would find in a punk rock club environment.” Throw in a POS car hanging from it’s bumper, a few sofas and a scary shopping cart of death, and you’ve got yourself the basis for these unsettled characters.
The script follows a trio of young and anxious suburbanites, Johnny, Will and Tunny, on their attempted quest to flee their self-imposed prison of ennui and pointlessness. Many reviewers have described them as teenagers, yet I can’t help but think these boys could be older. There’s been a growing anxiety among those aged 22-27 (The Quarterlife Crisis) over the past few years that definitely reflects the unfocused struggles of our so called heroes throughout the play. With the album written in the middle of the Bush years and the play officially set in “The Recent Past”, the characters of American Idiot are not only unclear of the path towards their future, they’re not even sure which direction to face to take the first step. With the hovering threats of terrorism, war, and recession, the three boys head out on a half assed rebellion of sorts. Will, finding out his girlfriend is pregnant, is forced to stay behind, though his version of fatherhood doesn’t extend far beyond the sofa. Johnny moves to the city only to discover that he doesn’t really have anything more to do there than he did in the suburbs (except for drugs that is!). Tunny, in a kind of tragic saving grace, enlists in the military and is shipped off to war. While Tunny is the only one who actually does anything with his life, he still comes off as the villain when the three are eventually reunited. While Will and Johnny embody the current cynicism and distaste for the war effort, their hateful reaction exposes an unfortunate attitude that most have these days when one joins the military voluntarily. While the two friends shun the idea of selling out like Tunny, they don’t seem to be doing much better themselves. Will’s girlfriend leaves him, baby in arms, for a successful musician. Johnny meanwhile comes to believe that the only alternative to being a street walking heroin addict is becoming a corporate stooge in a cubicle (poor kid needs an alterna-career fair).
It’s a strange conundrum we find ourselves in. Will and Johnny, much like the show as a whole, emphatically admonishes the current state of affairs, the administration, and the unpaved future, yet at the same time it’s hard not to notice that Tunny, the “military sell out”, is the best off in the end (minus one leg, plus one fellow soldier wife). All in all, the message seems to be that while enlisting these days is an honorable choice, it can turn dishonorable when it becomes a person’s only hope for a future. Kids and young people during these aughts have gotten so disheartened, anxious and angry at their country, their leaders and their own hopelessness that lashing out can seem like the only answer. Add that frustration to an equal level of numbness from 24 hour TV/video game/internet stimulation, and the body’s own rebellion against laziness; we seem to find ourselves in a directionless daze at almost 1984 Big Brother proportions. Time to break free. Like Rent in the 1990s and Hair in the 1970s, American Idiot is a voice of this generation’s anger, lust, love and frustration. Setting that voice to Greenday’s epic and surprisingly singable music makes it all the more affecting.
Rock on Millennials.