American Idiot: Green Day Gets Emo on Broadway and I Like It

Green Day American IdiotIf ten years ago someone were to have told me that the music of Green Day, my favorite band, would one day be turned into a Tony award-winning Broadway musical, my 13 year-old skateboard-ridin’, wallet chain-sportin’ punk self would’ve been offended. My boyfriend Billie Joe would never ‘sell out’ like that.

In the 90s Green Day weren’t Broadway material, you know? They weren’t even off-Broadway material. They’d built their reputation on two-minute three-chord power punk anthems about melancholy, marijuana and masturbation that were best appreciated from a sweaty, trashy mosh pit, or better – the depths of my teen emo cave. Not from under the bright fancy lights of Broadway.

Thankfully as the band evolved & matured, so did I. And so when they announced that their Grammy award-winning rock opera, American Idiot, was being adapted into a Broadway musical, I knew that at first excuse I’d make the trans-Atlantic voyage to see it. I had to. And so that’s how and why some of Team Autostraddle – Riese, Alex, Laneia, Sarah & myself – came to be sitting on the Mezzanine of the St. James Theater in New York, New York, watching American Idiot: the Musical.

It was so spectacular that I have to tell you all about it. But first here’s a little trailer to get you in the mood:


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The Story

Jesus of Suburbia American IdiotAs with the aforementioned members of Autostraddle, I suspect that most of you have never listened to the American Idiot album in its entirety. And that’s okay, I’ve never listened to Fame Monster in its entirety either. So you may not be aware that American Idiot is actually a concept album, an anti-establishment ‘rock opera’ that tells the story of disaffected youth who flee suburbia in a search for self and freedom and meaning.

American Idiot’s protagonist is Johnny, aka Jesus of Suburbia, a young man who’s been raised on a steady diet of soda pop and Ritalin in a place called Jingletown, which he describes as a land of make-believe that don’t believe in me. Concluding that the American Dream no longer exists, Johnny and his two BFFs, Will & Tunny, decide to leave town in search of something that will fulfill them, something they can believe in. They buy one way tickets to the city, but not all of them escape – Will’s girlfriend gets pregnant and Tunny falls for the promises of the US Army and enlists.

Finding himself alone and in the city, Johnny becomes torn between the story’s two core themes – rage and love. The love is represented by Whatsername: a free-spirited bohemian girl, a runaway of the establishment, a hero for the lost cause, the last of the American girls. And the rage is a destructive punk antagonist named St Jimmy: the patron saint of denial, the product of war and the fear that we’ve been victimized. St Jimmy is Johnny’s alter ego – under his influence, Johnny becomes erratic and addicted to drugs, and so Whatsername leaves him.

The Adaptation

St Jimmy American IdiotAs a Broadway musical, American Idiot really is second to none. Its production, staging and talent is hard to fault, which is not a surprise given that Green Day decided to entrust [some of] Spring Awakening‘s creative team – including director Michael Mayer - with the job of bringing their vision to life. The cast is exceptional, with Spring Awakening‘s John Gallagher Jr. [Johnny] and Tony Vincent [St. Jimmy] in particular delivering stand out performances.

As you’d expect from a rock opera, the music was the real hero of this show. The score features every song from the American Idiot album in sequence, plus select B sides and hits from 2009’s 21st Century Breakdown. And of course Green Day don’t actually perform in this musical, and they don’t need to. The 8-piece band – lead by young Australian music director Carmen Dean – does a spectacular job of recreating Green Day’s power, presence and punk spirit on stage.

American Idiot relies almost entirely on Billie Joe Armstrong‘s lyrics to tell its story. There are quite literally only a handful of spoken lines, the bare minimum to provide context and thread the score’s 22 songs together. The lyrics compete with crunching guitar riffs and booming double-kicks, so my advice? If you decide to see this show, spend a bit of time with the album first. You’ll need to piece less together.

The Verdict

American idiot CastWhen the house lights went down and the curtains opened to reveal rebellious Hot Topic youth stomping and snarling and shouting I don’t wanna be an American Idiot! against a backdrop of TV screens showing George W. bites, war zones and inane sitcoms, I sunk down into my seat a little. The cast tore up the stage, and scaffolding, with choreography and enthusiasm that was slightly reminiscent of the last stage adaptation I had the pleasure of attending, High School Musical.

But the moment Jesus of Suburbia stepped up and started telling his story, everything quickly fell into place. For the majority of the evening, it remained there. Overall the show is riotous and thrilling, with all the energy and attitude and emotion you could possibly ask for. I loved it as much as I expected to, possibly even a little more. But that’s not to say it’s without quirks.

The American Idiot plot isn’t exactly air-tight. It is, after all, based on a collection of 15 songs rather than a script or novel, so at times you’ll need to draw your own conclusions and resist getting hung up on things that don’t add up. Why did an anti-establishment rebel like Tunny suddenly become so attracted to military propaganda? Idk! So let’s just appreciate all those jazz hands in the chorus line and move on.

Also? If you like your musicals to have a happy and uplifting ending, go and see Mamma Mia! instead because American Idiot may leave you feeling as jaded and as hopeless as its characters, none of whom necessarily find the better life that they set out looking for.

Johnny Will Tunny American Idiot

At times it feels like the conclusion of this musical is that it’s almost impossible to find yourself, and greater meaning, in 21st Century America. That maybe there’s really nothing out there for our generation. I think it goes a little deeper, to possibly say that a search for something to believe in is fine and all – but essentially fruitless unless you believe in yourself first.

Watch the cast of American Idiot perform their opening act at this year’s Tony Awards:


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Tip: Tickets for American Idiot are available from $55 – $277 via the website. If you’re not adverse to risk, I recommend going to the TKTS ticket booth to see if you can pick up half-price seats on performance day.

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Crystal is Autostraddle's HR Director. She resides in Sydney, Australia, where she wears black clothing almost exclusively and listens to Green Day as enthusiastically as she did at 13.

Crystal has written 297 articles for us.

17 Comments

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    it’s interesting to read your perspective of it knowing what the story was. i think i spent a lot of time thinking ‘what’s the story?’ but then not really caring, because of the music and the energy and stuff. a part of me thinks it could be a tad bit better if they added some dialogue here and there, like how when i saw RENT after just listening to the soundtrack, it was like seeing a whole different puzzle attached to the one i’d thought might just be missing a piece, b/c the words weren’t on the soundtrack. but i also figured that it meant basically what you said. in many ways ,i’m glad that something which allows honestly a lot of room for personal interpretation has made it all the way to broadway in nyc, when it seems like any project that doesn’t beat you over the head with a mermaid can’t get made these days.

    i’ve had 21 guns in my head for what feels like years. now ‘whatsername’ is in my head instead.

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    American Idiot was the last great pop punk album I obsessed over before being wooed and taken in by indie rock, specifically the album Shake the Sheets by Ted Leo and the Pharmacists. Their songs were my anthems before the 2004 election, and my only consolation after it. I was 15, and that album mattered to me. I wasn’t even a huge fan of them before American Idiot, and yet I found myself defending them to my friends.

    If someone was able to make that album translate into a powerful musical, then power to everyone involved.

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    I love the cast recording! I’d love to see the show but I’ll probably have to wait for a touring production (it has to happen!!).
    You get brownie points for reviewing this musical! :D I’ve been listening to it almost everyday since it came out. I wasn’t a huge fan of Green Day beforehand because their songs were very repetitive and sounded alike. The musical is much better on your ears if Green Day isn’t your cup of tea because the songs are sung by different people so you get a better sense of the lyrics.
    People, check out the cast recording!

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    I was SO excited to see this review.
    I’ll admit that I wasn’t super into Green Day before the show. I’d heard all of their bigger songs, but they were never at the top of my list. I saw the American Idiot Broadway cast perform at the Grammys, and I bought tickets with my brother that same night. We saw one of the first previews, and then I returned when I won two tickets from MTV (GREEN DAY SHOWED UP THAT NIGHT! They played two songs after the show. It was epic. But that’s a whole other story.) I’m a huge musical person and while this is very different than a lot of what I’ve seen, and the story is thin, it was amazing amazing amazing. The cast has so much energy and talent. I agree with Riese; I gave up on trying to figure out a deep plot.

    Because that comment is all sorts of unorganized… it’s an amazing show. And I’m so glad to see it on here. :D

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    I love American Idiot and 21st Century Breakdown, and really excited when I heard they were turning American Idiot into a Broadway show. I wish I could see show live but I’ll have to wait till it’s touring and catch it then.

    Great review!

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    I’ve bought the whole musical soundtrack WITHOUT even seeing the musical yet.
    Breaks my heart.

    Alot of people in my drama department, who are fans of Green Day for the most part, seem offended by the play. I love them with all my heart, but it shocks me that they’d be so incredibly judgmental about this production. Hello, people. You like Green Day? You like musicals? WHY is is a problem that they combined? It’s a great idea on whoever thought it up (The band, I’m assuming). I think all of my drama geeks need to stop looking at things through closed eyes, and realize what a brilliant idea this really is.

    This review makes me want to see it more than ever. I just hope my Dad doesn’t decide he needs to tag along, being the overprotective person he is.

    Basically…this makes me want to see the musical.
    Awesome review!!

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      To an extent I understand why some people are skeptical about adaptations (e.g. I am not stoked that “On The Road” is being turned into a film). I’m not saying this close mindedness is a good thing – just that I’m sometimes guilty of it. But if someone was negative about this musical (before seeing it) then I’d be interested in hearing why.

      I hope you get to see it! There seemed to be quite a few middle-aged people in the audience, your dad would probably fit right in.

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    This is going to be terrible, cause I don’t have the time to elaborate but I really didn’t like it. The story is weak and as far as musical theatre goes, the whole production is sub par. A very cool idea but I did not enjoy the execution. Then again, I did see a preview performance so maybe they were still working out the kinks.

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      Yeah the story is kinda weak, but then the American Idiot album didn’t have a super clear / obvious storyline to start with. I think Riese is right, more dialogue would have helped with that.

      I thought the production was really good, so maybe you’re right about them still working it out.

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        I think maybe, yeah. The previews, they always work out the kinks and when I saw it some stuff was just poorly timed. I did enjoy my free American Idiot dog tag though haha. I had another friend from work go see it more recently and he loved it.

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    Saw the show this weekend, and let me say I was absolutely floored. I was a fairly long time hold out on seeing it, not due to the Green Day on Broadway that some of my fellow theater geeks took issue with (which I still don’t understand), but due to a personal issue with the show. While I can agree that the lack of true vocalized storyline (it only features the occasional RENT hommage with a date and brief synopsis) could be an issue for it, in my opinion it works rather well. For me the story is so largely visual and an emotional reaction to the sound and emotion evoked by that sound (and I do mean quite literally the sound, the music itself and the voices to me was just as meaningful as the actual lyrics were) that dialog is almost unnecessary.

    My one complaint would be that after the casting change between the Berkeley production and Broadway, Stark Sands who plays Tunny stepped in and essentially just performs an imitation of Matt Caplan’s version of the character. While this would be understandable if Sands was coming in as a replacement on Broadway, but the character was almost unknown to most people at the start of the run and he still has maintained almost every vocal and physical quirk created by Matt Caplan. And the thing is… he doesn’t do it well. It just comes off to anyone who has been exposed to Caplan’s vocal and acting style as a bad impression. I don’t see why if that was the route they were going to go, they chose to bow to the childish antics of another cast member instead of putting their collective foot down as a creative team and kept Caplan a part of the production. The role was all but created and tailored to his voice, which is obvious to the many, many people who saw Caplan either in Berkeley or as the longest running Mark in RENT.

    The highlight of the show for me, though, was Tony Vincent’s St. Jimmy. All of the cast members did a nice job in their roles, but for me Vincent’s St. Jimmy was the absolute stand out. Every second of his performance was brilliant and you absolutely can’t take your eyes off of him. Which for me, is pretty key if you’re going to be the dangerous antagonist/childish id of the show’s lead.

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