A Look at the Musical AMERICAN IDIOT

On Thursday night, I went to see American Idiot on Broadway.  I definitely wanted to see it before it ended its run on the Great White Way, and especially one of the final performances featuring Billy Joe Armstrong in the role of St. Jimmy.  It has one of my favorite musical scores of any show I've seen lately, and it's sad to see another good production close. 

Some people lump American Idiot with the jukebox musical trend, but I don't think it fits that categorization.  The show was based on a concept album by Green Day, and while it can certainly be called a rock opera based on that album (and a few other Green Day songs), its basic premise flows from the shared theme of all the tunes from that album.  Armstrong, who wrote the lyrics and the musical's book, did not have to stretch far to patch together a plot -- the songs already tell the story.  American Idiot is more like Jesus Christ Superstar or The Who's Tommy, which were also based on concept albums, rather than the jukebox musicals based on a wide collection of unrelated songs from musicans' catalogs like Billy Joel, Elvis Presley, ABBA, etc.

The simplistic plot is probably the greatest flaw in American Idiot.  The music certainly carries the show, but the story is weak.  The tone is fine, starting with a strong punk rock sensibility that questions authority, whether parental or governmental, and rejects mainstream media saturation.  It follows the lives of three suburban friends: Johnny, Tunny, and Will (played respectively by Van Hughes, David Larsen, and Justin Guarini, he of first season American Idol fame -- all fantastic.)  One leaves for the big city with dreams of becoming a songwriter, falls in love, but gets tempted by the vices of excess, personified by the temptations of St. Jimmy. One joins the military and is wounded in battle.  One stays behind after learning that his girlfriend is pregnant. 

Their three stories progress simultaneously, as their lives spiral out of control, sometimes with powerful effect, such as the scene in which Will is getting stoned in his living room while Tunny and his fellow soldiers are fighting for their lives in Iraq, leading to their eventual reunion back home.  The final morals of the play are nothing really new (media are vapid, suburbia is dull and shallow, drugs are dangerous, war is bad, home is where the heart is), but the wonderful music and Armstrong's lyrics are what elevate the production to new levels.

The set, with its multiple video monitors and visual projections, is outstanding.  The lighting is great, and the choreography has moments of brilliance (a stunning aerial dance comes to mind -- maybe the producers of Spider-man: Turn Off the Dark could get an idea or two from American Idiot).  The cast has some truly amazing voices, and Billie Joe Armstrong holds his own with the Broadway cast, showcasing incredible stage presence and theatrical instincts.

From the loud, catchy, moving anthems of "American Idiot," "Holiday," and "21 Guns" to the lyrical magnificence of "Jesus of Suburbia," "St. Jimmy," and "Homecoming," to the emotional ballads of "Boulevard of Broken Dreams," "Give Me Novacaine," and "Good Riddance (Time of Your Life)," the songs are all memorable.  I have always been a fan of Green Day, so maybe I'm biased and enjoyed the familiarity of the show, but nonetheless, I would love to see it again.  I wish more people had a chance to experience it.

If you have a chance, get tickets to see American Idiot before it comes to an end on April 24, 2011.  The music will stay with you for a long time.