American Idiot, the punk rock musical written by Michael Mayer and Green Day frontman Billie Joe Armstrong currently playing on Broadway, is the story of three young men. Fleeing their broken suburban homes and raging against a media-saturated, war-waging, and terrorized 21st-century America, they set off to discover themselves down three separate paths that lead each to the brink of ruin. The trio’s stories are told through songs drawn from Green Day’s titular 2004 album, and the band’s follow-up, 21st Century Breakdown.
Johnny, the show’s central character, seeks out a record contract and falls in love in the city, but then loses himself to drugs, his addiction symbolized by the recurring presence of a serpentine-like character named St. Jimmy. Tunney, infused with patriotism after 9/11, enlists and then loses a leg in Iraq. Will remains at home, unresponsive to his new baby conceived with a short-term girlfriend, and paralyzed by deep depression. Their paths eventually lead them back to one another, and they find hope in friendship.
When we began corresponding via e-mail about American Idiot in October 2010, we thought we were writing a sort of requiem. The musical received stellar reviews upon opening in March 2010, but lagging ticket sales left the production’s days looking numbered. (Winter is historically brutal on Broadway.) Thanks to the commitment of Green Day’s undaunted singer, however, American Idiot persists; in January and February, Armstrong will perform the role of St. Jimmy for 50 performances. Musical saved.
That’s important, because American Idiot has a tragic core critics failed to mention last year. Its authentic emotional expression of young adult suffering and desire demonstrates how the American theatre can represent a culture’s deepest anxieties.
Our American Idiot correspondence is collected (in edited form) below.
Jarrett Dapier (JD): I went through so many reactions during American Idiot. At first I winced at what felt like a lot of punk clichés (all the writhing in the group numbers, the costumes), but I defrosted quickly. By the sixth number, “Are We the Waiting,” when Tunney goes off to war, I was tearing up. I thought the choreography throughout worked as its own anguished language, and captured layers of defenses built up by these kids, especially as their physical movements repeated themselves at different points in the story.
I know several young adults experiencing the world of American Idiot right now. They might as well be the three main characters. The lack of anything lasting or positive in their lives is only offset by their relationship with music. They are acting out a kind of desperation as they near the end of high school – drug use, truancy, vandalism, destruction of property – while their angry families are falling apart under extreme financial stress and loss of status. These teens have dreams that they’ll transition easily into a life of record contracts and big tours, but I fear for what reality has in store for them, particularly since they are so unversed in self-sufficiency.
After the show, I was waiting by the bathrooms and an elderly man approached me and asked, “What is the overall point of that show?” I told him, “It’s about the lack of options for young people right now. One finds a purpose in the military, one is deluded by the promise of fame, but falls hard into heroin, while the last kid sits at home, smoking up and detached, without the confidence to move off the couch. They’re stories being lived out across the country right now, particularly for many 18-26 year-olds.”
He asked, “Is there any hope?” I said, “Well, I think that’s up to you, but there’s hope in their return to friendship at the end, and the baby, right?” He patted me on the shoulder and said, “Thanks, have a nice trip.” I don’t know if he agreed with me, but he appreciated the effort, or that someone out there had been moved by it.
Christopher Shinn (CS): Sounds like we had similar reactions. I cringed at some of the more obvious characterizations and the slightly apolitical cast of setting the show in the pre-Obama era. I thought, ‘Why, if you are doing a punk-rock musical, would you choose to mock George W. Bush more than a year after he left office?’ I can see maybe wanting to not have Obama be the voice of the establishment, but what about Tim Geithner?
America’s youth have been disenfranchised by this country’s economy in the last decade in terrible ways. And asserting the continuity between Bush and Obama war policies – responsible for so much death, disability, and psychic trauma in the young – would have been a very punk rock, and accurate, perspective with which to kick off the show.
But almost from the first moment I was moved by what I felt were the sheer honesty and joy of the performances. The plotting ultimately had much more integrity than I expect from Broadway. The core story is complex, honest, direct and moving. And some of those kids not only tear shit up, they do it without lying about the experience of pain, confusion and longing. The choreography – stylized movement more than dancing – expressed the INEXPRESSIBLE, and my initial discomfort with it, I think, had to do with seeing those kids convey something so deep and dark.
And look at that old man’s reaction to you… at the end of the show he had a disturbed feeling he was trying to make sense of. I doubt he’d have that feeling at the end of Rent, where dead characters come back to life and everyone is happy and positive. At the end of American Idiot there is a feeling of ever-shrinking opportunity and an undeniable sense of disappointment and loss. There is some hope that these kids will find a way to move forward but it isn’t a messianic happy Broadway ending. There is a real sense of an actual human journey – something that happens in the real world, presented in a theatricalized but otherwise very real way.
JD: I have to say that after the opening, with Bush’s image on the screens, I forgot that the intent was to set it in pre-Obama America. It felt of our moment right now. I agree that they could have been bolder by including images of the current power structure, but the show still came off as a “generational musical,” one that gets at the current conflicts of young adults. Reminds me of what Michael Esper, who plays Will, said in an interview last May on TheaterMania, “…The show can work for all different kinds of people. I feel like it starts a generational conversation because the show captures things about youth culture.”
CS: Yes. The more I think about the show, the more I think about Hair and Rent.
Hair = life is tough, but free love and drugs are ultimately positive steps for society as they will help lead to political enlightenment, sense of community and peace;
Rent = life is tough, but ultimately an uncertain, desperate, transgressive lifestyle is positive for the individual because it will lead to authenticity and community;
American Idiot = life is tough and neither free love, drugs, nor transgression will lead to anything lasting or positive. Bleak.
Apart from uninspiring leadership, in America right now we are learning on the psychological level that, finally, life offers no easy solutions – especially not ones related to sex or drugs. This is a tragic message we are resisting because it is very frightening. There can be no Hair or Rent written today.
In a song like “La Vie Boheme” (from Rent), references to drugs and masturbation are positive, as if part of an amazing, unpredictable lifestyle that delivers massive pleasure. The references to masturbation and drug use in American Idiot stress the desperation, pain, confusion and hopelessness that inspire those activities, and their lack of any lasting positive impact.
American Idiot holds out mature love as the only possible “haven in a heartless world” to use Christopher Lasch’s phrase. But the musical’s kids don’t have the emotional skills to love, however deeply they want to.
JD: I think America remains traumatized by 9/11. That day, traumatic for families, survivors, and observers, created a collective PTSD that we haven’t examined fully. In our sort of numbness, isolation (how many people know what troops in Afghanistan are doing today?), and fear of unadulterated emotion (which can be difficult to control, like the event itself), we become frightened of experiencing any kind of tragic message – because it would recall the trauma. Given our tendency to avoid pain, I think it’s important for theatre artists to resist mocking or savaging seriousness, earnestness, and love. Plays that reinforce emotional defensiveness and encourage escape via quirky flights of imagination or sarcastic irony tend to challenge little. Call it the Jon Stewart brand of theatrical entertainment.
Now, after the Republican leadership’s move to defeat the 9/11 responder’s bill, Stewart has had a direct hand in shaming our political leaders for their callousness and encouraging action, and he’s done this by dropping the shtick. This is to his credit. It’s also an indication of what’s effective. Still, he’s said that he’s not becoming an activist and will remain a comedian.
I love to laugh as much as the next person, and I’m not asking for a theatre of earnest Christmas pageants, but I think, given the state of our country at the moment, it’s important to see more work that takes suffering, trauma and grief seriously, like American Idiot does.
CS: I think of what you’re describing in both pop culture and “high” art as a kind of narcissism – a retreat from full experience and the trauma of reaching out for others, for meaning… This retreat is plaguing our civilization at the moment.
I have been evolving a worldview that tries to combine the best of capitalism with the best of socialism, the best of pacifism with the best of aggression. Extremes in either direction simply don’t work, or are destructive. The sad fact is, we have not yet evolved fair and sustainable ways to live. We all need to be thinking about new ways, in all realms – political, social, economic. I think many people have stopped doing this. They feel safer complaining or being ironic, like Jon Stewart.
There are few true believers left. It’s hard to believe in things that are only partial truths. But the hope of our age is that we can grow up enough to realize that partial-and-evolving truths are worth fighting for.
JD: Yes. Look at the Tea Party: active, organized and undaunted in the pursuit of its ideals. As I see it now, with all the disappointments Democrats and progressives are experiencing, we run the risk of turning into a collective body, one that looks and sounds a lot like Will in American Idiot, who dreams of some other world instead of improving the one he lives in, with its half-truths and disappointments. Tony Kushner said once, “Hope is a bomb.” It was a bomb for progressives in 2008, and though Obama has done his part to deactivate it, we shouldn’t be so easily dragged down. Where is our community? The one we forged two years ago? Let’s return to that, regroup as the boys in American Idiot do at the end. We need to re-awaken ourselves with a connection to authentic emotion and love, and a belief that we can press forward, despite the timidity of leaders.
Jarrett Dapier is a former assistant publisher at In These Times and currently a readers’ adviser and theatre director working with young adults at Evanston Public Library in Evanston, Ill.