Let me admit this right from the start.
I’m 60 years old. I don’t go to concerts much. I had heard of Green Day (I’ve worked with teenagers for decades), but had not listened intentionally to their music.
So I attended American Idiot, Green Day’s “rock opera,” now playing at the fabulously improved Keegan Theatre, as an outsider.
Now, that I’m writing about American Idiot, I’m feeling more the outsider than ever.
American Idiot is Green Day. It is their concept album given the veneer of a Broadway musical.
In this production at least, the show’s lead, the suburban kid Johnny, looks like Green Day’s lead singer and American Idiot’s lyricist Billie Joe Armstrong, an all circled-eyed and heroin(ed)-out poser.
If you like their music, you’ll probably love the show. If you don’t like their music, why would you go to the show?
If you’re like me and don’t know their music, the show is a chance to experience the group’s raw, defiant, and sometimes longing style.
American Idiot is suburban punk goes to Broadway in much the same way the show’s three young men dream of leaving their suburban nowhere land to make their fame and fortune rocker-style in the big city.
Yes, that’s a pretty stereotypical plot, but this show is all about the music; the story is pure window dressing.
And the music is as powerful as it is raw, and conductor Jake Null (keyboard and accordian) should be congratulated, as should Mike Kazemchak (guitar swing), Jaime Ibacache (guitar), Jonathan Tuzman (guitar), Jason Wilson (bass), Jonathan Feuer (drums), Daniel Rivas-Isakowitz (violin), Helen Cunningham (viola), and Katie Chambers (cello).
The band kept the Keegan rocking from beginning to end.
And the ensemble, led by the aforementioned Johnny, played by the talented Harrison Smith, keeps the “rage and love” cooking from the show’s opening number to its final encore.
And, as the forever outsider, I could appreciate it all.
Several of the songs I could really enjoy as well.
The American Idiot begins with the “American Idiot”:
Don’t wanna be an American idiot.
Don’t want a nation under the new mania
And can you hear the sound of hysteria?
The subliminal mind fuck America.
Having just seen Headlong Theatre’s mind fuck 1984 at Shakespeare Theatre I couldn’t avoid a tremor of association.
And who is this “American Idiot” that the singer doesn’t want to be?
The idiot lives under and succumbs to the “alienation,” to “the age of paranoia,” where “one nation [is] controlled by the media,” in the “information age of hysteria.”
By anyone’s definition, we have a lot of “Idiots” in America today.
By anyone’s definition, the show’s lead Johnny becomes, during the course of the evening, an American Idiot, succumbing to all of society’s myopia.
In another memorable song, “Boulevard of Broken Dreams”, and one of the truly soulful songs in the show, the “American Idiot” gives voice to his alienation:
My shadow’s the only one that walks beside me
My shallow heart’s the only thing that’s beating
Sometimes I wish someone out there will find me
‘Til then I walk alone
To be sure, this despair and isolation is not unique to the post-9/11 generation. Neither is the heroin that the idiot surrenders to.
Allen Ginsberg’s famous 1950s “Howl” (not a musical, but maybe it should be) starts:
“I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked,
dragging themselves through the Negro streets at dawn looking for an angry fix.”
Ironically, suburbia as the modern utopia was coming into being during Ginsberg’s “Howl” in a society governed by the Biblical Moloch’s greed and lust for human sacrifice: in this case, the souls of America’s young generation.
And then there is “Wake Me Up When September Ends.” The song speaks directly to the death of Armstrong’s father, who died of cancer in 1982; hence:
Like my father’s come to pass
Twenty years has gone so fast.
The sense of loss is palpable in it and, general enough, to apply “generally” to other situations.
Because I couldn’t understand many of the lyrics during the show, I read a number of them afterward.
In particular, I read “Jesus of Suburbia,” and suddenly the core of the show opened up.
“Jesus of Suburbia”, the show and CD’s 2nd song, is fantastic. It’s a 21st century suburban parable, where “the son of rage and love” lives on a “steady diet of Soda Pop and Ritalin” in a “living room” that is his “private womb” where he can “get a television fix” while “doing someone else’s cocaine.”
And I feel certain that Ginsberg would have liked this visually vibrant expression of a generation being eaten alive by an elite corporate media conglomeration.
“Jesus of Suburbia” and its lyrics, which constitutes about 9 minutes of the show, is divided into 5 parts. Those lyrics establish the world of the play far more than the visual spectacle of the show itself.
It is a:
“Land of make believe
And it don’t believe in me
Land of make believe
And I don’t believe
And I don’t care!
Dearly beloved are you listening?
I can’t remember a word that you were saying
Are we demented or am I disturbed?
The song’s lyrics offer us a demented vision of a teenager’s suburbia and it could not be more spot on.
It is from this world that the Idiot and his friends want to flee, with their guitars strapped to their backs.
Ultimately, however, it is from that world they will never flee: the best they might hope for is to realize fully “The space that’s in between insane and insecure. Oh therapy, can you please fill the void?”
American Idiot speaks of a generation stripped of its worth, its value, its hope, its cohesiveness, and its sense of belonging.
It speaks of a generation where the subsequent void is filled with vague “make believe,” reinforced by drugs, prescription and non-prescription, cable and internet.
Because the show’s song were written and performed prior to the construction of the musical, they will remain generalized expressions of feelings: rage or love, loss or alienation, despair or grief.
Perhaps, there is no way for a show like American Idiot to play to an outsider like myself.
Perhaps, those powerful lyrics could be expressed more clearly.
Perhaps, as in opera, those lyrics could be flashed onto electronic screens.
Perhaps, the iconic suburbs could become their own make believe spectacle, only to be replaced by a frightening inner city.
For now, however, the music will have to suffice.
Running Time: 95 minutes, with no intermission.
Recommended for audiences 14 and older.
Terry Byrne reviews American Idiot on DCMetroTheaterArts.