Who's the American Idiot?

The Green Day-inspired rock opera, American Idiot, is now open for business. And the reviews are good [via The New York Times]:

A pulsating portrait of wasted youth that invokes all the standard genre conventions — bring on the sex, drugs and rock ’n’ roll, please! — only to transcend them through the power of its music and the artistry of its execution, the show is as invigorating and ultimately as moving as anything I’ve seen on Broadway this season. Or maybe for a few seasons past.

And bad [via The New York Observer]:

But it’s also, amid all the booming rock, a little dull. You’re diverted, but you’re not moved. There are archetypes and themes, but there aren’t really characters or a plot.

The American Idiot musical will most likely be a smashing success. Whether or not it got any critical acclaim, or win any Tony awards, is almost an afterthought. Just as movie-to-stage adaptations became all the rage on Broadway, American Idiot may very well be the start of a wave of rock-themed musicals.

But is that a good thing?

As much as I would love to see Say Anything’s brilliant 2004 debut, …is a Real Boy, get transformed into the musical it was meant to be, I’m skeptical about the idea.


Well, American Idiot sounds neutered. I remember stumbling upon the YouTube “teaser” for the musical and feeling befuddled:

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“Is this for real?” I thought. It sounds more like Kidz Bop than a living, visceral stage interpretation of a pretty solid pop-punk record.

Literally, you can compare the two. Below is a clip of the Kidz Bop take of “Boulevard of Broken Dreams”:

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And then the musical version of the same tune:

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The big difference is that the musical version has more trained singers and actors than kids.

Gone are the very things that made the Green Day song so appealing. Billie Joe Armstrong’s nascent snarl has evaporated, the switch between heartfelt strumming and three-chord bombast replaced with beautifully constructed Broadway tunes.

To say this is not punk could be considered an oxymoron. Those who seek to place punk within a set of rules tend to box it into a specific time, short-sighted frame of mind and make it adhere to a style. Which is exactly what the musical version appears to do. No longer does it appear to be something that anyone can do, but this version of punk rock is brought to you by all the beautiful people with great singing talent. No one in Green Day would have ever made it onto that stage for American Idiot, though they could qualify for the rock-orchestra.

The musical seems to present an image of punk that hasn’t evolved since 1977 [via The Chicago Tribune]:

Stuck in filthy beds and La-Z-Boys and doped up on soda pop, Ritalin and somebody else’s cocaine, the furious, alienated and unshowered youth…

Sounds perfect for Johnny Rotten and co. circa 1977, but even John Lydon himself would dismiss that in 1980. If the purpose of punk is to challenge the status quo, why on earth is it being re-created in a sanitized version of itself.

Of course, the very act of doing a musical, whitewashed version of a pop-punk album is a challenge in and of itself. Punk? Sure. But it doesn’t appear to work. The worlds seem to collide more than than work with each other. It may make for a great musical, sure, but is it a particularly strong reflection of the feelings and emotions behind the original work?

Perhaps. The band appears happy about it [via MTV]:

With opening night of the “American Idiot” musical officially in the books, the guys in Green Day can officially focus on something else that’s important: enjoying their natural high.

“This is the highest moment I think we’ve ever had as a band, in the 21 years we’ve been around,” frontman Billie Joe Armstrong told MTV News at the “Idiot” afterparty, held at New York’s Roseland Ballroom on Tuesday night.

“And we’ve been pretty high,” drummer Tre Cool interjected.

Still, I couldn’t help but cringe when I watched the New York Times “Anatomy of a Number” interactive, where director Michael Mayer discusses how watching mosh pits at Green Day shows helped with mapping out the show’s choreography. It essentially summed up a lot of my discomforts with the basic idea of the musical.

Mosh pits are a chaotic, violent mess. Some people love them, get their aggression out in them, find them to be a place of communal catharsis. They are, in essence, the very antithesis of ritualized dancing, until, of course, it becomes an expectation at a punk show instead of a sign of a real emotional reaction to the music. Transforming that into a neat choreographed dance just seems, and looks, downright silly. Kind of like American Idiot.

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3 Comments Add Yours ↓

  1. azaztheunabridged #

    I stopped paying a whole lot of attention to Green Day in high school, after listening to Dookie a couple of times. It was fine. I was happy they were getting rich and famous. But they’d lost something and I had better things to do. That said, the mosh pit comment was hilarious because Billie Joe was openly making fun of Green Day’s own mosh pits by the early 90s. I think even the liner notes to 39/Smooth were even largely dedicated to jeering at the sorority sister moshers they were already attracting.

  2. 2


    Actually, I took my son to see the show here in Berkeley, where it originated. He’s a big Green Day fan, though I’ve always felt slightly weird about the band given that their attitude and licks seem lifted right out of the playbook of the bands I grew up listening to: Clash, Sex Pistols, Damned, etc.

    But Green Day have grown on me over the course of listening to my son play their covers in his own band. So, anyway, the show. I’m not a fan of musicals, and bought tickets because I thought my son would enjoy the energy of the show.

    He did, and so did I. What I liked best were the arrangements of the tunes. The harmonies in the versions of Green Day’s songs are much more complex and interesting than on the original records.

    True, there’s no real plot to the stage show, and the rebellion portrayed rings utterly hollow, but as spectacle and auditory pleasures go, I’d recommend American Idiot. There are worse ways to part with $70 than attending this punk rock musical, and the cast DID provide plenty of snarling, right on cue.

  3. Leor Galil #

    Hey David, sorry for the delay in response and thanks for the comment.

    While I can certainly understand why the musical seems so exciting, it does appear to have adapted well to the stage. Which is sort of my odd point… that I still believe it’s not exactly a format that can fit well to the stage and reflect the realities of the original product in ways that other Broadway musicals have done well.

    Though I don’t doubt your observations, simply from what I saw it’s more than a bit of a flawed interpretation… stuck somewhere between the nostalgic ’60s era thought of “revolution” and the kind of modern day trope Green Day filtered into their album.

    Perhaps entertaining, though it’s surface-skimming interaction with Green Day’s version of punk doesn’t quite do it for me. But, that’s just me!

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