American Idiot feeling excitement, skepticism, and a little bit of dread. My expectations were low. Green Day is a great American rock & roll band, and American Idiot one of the great rock & roll albums of the century's first decade. (While I'm at it, "The Grouch" really was one of the great R&R singles of the 1990s, wasn't it?) When I was making occasional treks from Illinois to Ohio in the early months of 2005, American Idiot in its entirety became the drive's soundtrack, the story of Johnny and his alter ego St. Jimmy, Johnny's dissolute friends Tunny and Will and whatshername, and the aimless urban sprawl played out for me against gray farms and lousy rest stops and hundreds of miles of highway—hooks, melodies, and mammoth, rocking songs that were at once smart, tender, defiant, funny, and moving. Billie Joe Armstrong, Tré Cool, and Mike Dirnt created an album that was, yes, "a concept" but the narrative arc mattered less to me on those long drives than the songs.
I'm not a big lyric guy. I respond to a song's groove, beat, melody, and overall feel before I digest the words (though lyrics, pre-comprehension, contribute to a tune's feel, of course). What's meaning in a three-minute rock & roll song? The body listens, the mind unburdened. I love how in American Idiot the great songs—the galvanic title track, "Holiday," "Jesus Of Suburbia," "The Boulevard Of Broken Dreams," "St. Jimmy," "Homecoming," among them—work as songs, on their own, eighth-note rocking or evocatively melodic or sometimes both; and when I take a step back I can see how the songs blend into the large canvas. There was talk at the time of the album's release that Green Day was doing a reckless thing in releasing an album to be heard front-to-back; nobody was listening to albums anymore. (This reaction as even more pronounced when Green Day released the sprawling 21st Century Breakdown in 2009.) The trick is: the songs work individually, can be plucked (hey, like singles!) from the album, with lives of their own.
The story in American Idiot, the album? I liked it, was moved by much of it, the scrim it hung against the Bush administration's growing follies and arrogance—when Armstrong sang "Welcome to a new kind of tension / all across the alien nation / where everything isn't meant to be OK," he clarified some things for me, anxious and troubled as I was in response to looming warning threats, fear, and the manufacturing of required enemies. And the tune's incredibly exciting, especially the chorus, Cool and Dirnt rocking ferociously behind Armstrong: political bromides go down a lot easier for me if they're launched by a band that sounds like Hüsker Dü covering Cheap Trick. But I didn't need the story, really. Just the songs.
Which was one of the reasons why I was skeptical about seeing American Idiot. But I not-so-secretly wanted to go, and when Amy and I learned that Billie Joe Armstrong was playing the part of St. Jimmy for a month on Broadway, we decided to get tickets and drive up to New York from suburban Washington D.C., where we'd be visiting my extended family for the holidays. Our seats were three rows from the stage. I stupidly didn't see Green Day in the 1990s before they exploded, and am hesitant to see them now in the big arenas. Armstrong's appearance in the musical (allegedly secured to spur lagging ticket sales; he'd appeared in the production earlier) galvanized me, gave me a defensible reason to go see a performance that I might find embarrassing, or corny, or deeply flawed. Yeah but there's gonna be great songs, and Armstrong's in it, and we'll be a couple feet away.
Confession: a couple of Thanksgivings ago, Amy and I spent the afternoon watching Legally Blonde: The Musical on MTV. We were hungover, crashed on the coach, flipping through channels. The cute spunkiness of the leads caught us, and before we knew it we watched the whole thing, loving the showbiz fun and shallow diversion of it all. The money notes in the ballads, the soaring major-chord moments really slayed me (my defenses, admittedly, were lowered). Surprisingly, I found myself loving the conservative, formal neatness of the show's arrangements and storyline and dances and conventional, but affecting, songs in the book, and for the most part I suspended my impatience with corn and schmaltz. There's a time and a place, all that.
But I was really afraid what such theatrics might do to the tough and alive rock & roll I loved in American Idiot. I've never seen Tommy or Quadrophenia, or any large-scale dramatic staging of a rock & roll album, but I'd seen clips on YouTube and in my nightmares. (To be fair, American Idiot owes less to the hippy-drippiness of Tommy or the Romanticism of Quadrophenia than to the Who's tightly-arranged domestic tableaux, "A Quick One While He's Away," a fact observed by many.) I wanted to see whether the incarnation of Green Day as a new-century amalgam of the Who and the Ramones was urgent and valuable. Can a Broadway telling of punk alienation feel necessary and vital?
American Idiot was remarkable. An anonymous Fox News announcer intoned over the speakers, the curtain lifted, and the set was revealed, a stage cluttered with urban debris, a filthy slacker couch, and a bed, and, stunningly, a back wall, its immense height supporting dozens of television sets, each flickering, each blandly yet distractingly colorful, each blaring a sound bite from the 2000s, Bush to Trump to Survivor, a hundred inane statements colliding and growing in a din. Scaffolding the TV sets was a network of steel bars; behind the TVs a graffiti- and punk/hardcore-show-flier-covered wall. Moments passed before I noticed a beat-up car hanging from the ceiling. One guy hung upside-down on a chain, headbanging his way through the first several minutes of the song. It was visually very loud and, as contemporary Broadway can be, completely overwhelming. And it was very cool.
And that's the key to my enjoyment of American Idiot: the spectacle. There's a long tradition in rock & roll of spectacle adding to the fun. AC/DC was a nearly perfect rock & roll band in the late 1970s: smoke pouring out of Angus Young's book bag while he shredded onstage in his school boy uniform? Perfection. (Add to a long list Screamin' Jay Hawkins, 70s glam, Flaming Lips, Man Or Astroman, among many others.) But the cast in American Idiot aren't swallowed by the the strobe lighting, the noisy, cluttered stage, the volume of it all, they're moved by it; maybe they even create it. Clips of the show can look silly on YouTube; being in the theater, live, witnessing feet away the bodies colliding and the lights exploding and the sheer size of the stage, transforms the songs into dimensional things.
There's an affecting scene in the show's final third that took me by surprise: Tunny's in a veterans hospital after losing his leg below his knee while fighting in the Middle East. The bank of TV screens on the back wall show LED-green EKG lines changing into Arabic script as a burqa-draped woman descends slowly from the ceiling, twirling delicately in a harness. My Cheese Alarm sounded and I thought, Oh no.... Yet in the middle of the number, Tunny too is suddenly vaulted from his hospital bed into the air via harness, and he and the woman, who removes her burqa midair and is revealed to be his nurse, and with whom he falls in love by the end of the musical, move balletically. It sounds corny, and it is. In the theater it was beautiful, and poignant. Tunny and his nurse move together and apart over our heads, an unexpected pas de deux that softened the tone of the show without losing any of its urgency. It was the kind of moment I was hoping for, and the kind that I thought my native cynicism wouldn't have accepted. I was, happily, proved wrong.
Armstrong as St. Jimmy was a riot, what I'd expected: funny; devilish; sneering. Prowling the stage, leering through black eyeliner, he was clearly enjoying himself, and his appearance a third of the way through gave the show a real jolt. (The crowd—well, mostly the teens and 20-somethings in the crowd—started cheering at the opening notes of "St. Jimmy"). At the end, following a curtain call, the cast appears on stage holding guitars. Armstrong strums the opening notes of "Good Riddance," and the place erupts. Though it's hardly my favorite Green Day song, it fit in well as a closing number, and seeing and hearing Armstrong sing it reminded me that I came for his songs and for the possibility of those songs becoming new to me again.
Photo of Billie Joe Armstrong in American Idiot via The New York Times