[Still feeling the angst 15 years on]
An American musical, an English cast, a Kiwi audience: can the early 2000s hit pop-punk band Green Day deliver a musical that crosses both time and culture?
Drawn from the 2004 rock-opera style album American Idiot which responded to American anxiety following 9/11, the public divide over the Iraq war, and the Bush ascendancy, the musical American Idiot follows three friends Johnny [Tom Milner], Tunny [Joshua Dowen], and Will [Samuel Pope] as they attempt to escape suburbia and make it in the city.
If you are completely unfamiliar with Green Day’s music or the world of punk, this could be a shock to the system. Cracking straight into the song ‘American Idiot’, the audience is swept into a youth populated world full of crude physical gesturing and nudity, rampant drug use (including a crippling heroin addiction and onstage needle use), and generally anti-social behaviour. It is not a show for children, and the bitter truth of it all might be lost on teenagers amid the bright lights and killer choreography. The extremely high production quality of this show, the tightness of transitions, and the excellent band lend a layer of seduction to the onstage misery and anger. Later this glamour is tempered by the appearance of a horrifically grotty toilet and cistern on stage left, with blood, vomit, and other substances clinging to it and smeared on the wall behind over the graffiti serving as a vivid reminder that the rebel lifestyle isn’t everything it appears to be on MTV (or stage for this matter).
However offensive it is though, this is not gratuitous disorder. The show gestures to the album’s impetus in having clips taken from a Bush speech on terrorism and footage of the Twin Towers burning playing before the lights come up. But there is no jarringly dated or geographically located material embedded in the show other than a couple of star spangled outfits in the song ‘Favourite Son’ which sees Tunny join the military to peppy criticism equal to Springsteen’s ‘Born in the USA’. This allows the material to feel timeless in a way I didn’t think would be possible. The spirit of dissatisfaction, and themes of government betrayal, suburban death, economic crisis ring true. That being said, while students protest the University of Auckland’s handling of white supremacist material on campus and rangitahi occupy Ihumātao, it is clear that in a New Zealand context true protest and revolutionary spirit is not with our mohawked youth (our punk scene is impotent at best), but with young Māori, Pasifika, and people from other minority groups. This musical would have greater resonance if there was some commentary on race or class.
But to answer my opening question: absolutely. The show delivers. The arrangements of the songs are sublime, with driving chords, fleet-footed drumming, and soaring strings thanks to Robert Wicks, Nick Kent, Luke Beirne, and Charlie Maguire who also have a couple of nice moments inhabiting the world of the show and interacting with the cast. The lyrics are as alternatingly beautiful and as acerbic as the first day Billie Joe Armstrong sung them and the cast’s performance of these songs serves to highlight their consummate skills alongside the quality of the melodies. The three male leads, Milner, Dowen, and Pope are particularly superb, each delivering passionate, compelling, and nuanced performances.
American Idiot is not a show that panders to what we expect of a musical. There is little dialogue, no recitative, nor much exposition besides Johnny’s marking of the dates and the composition of a letter to his parents back home. The audience is invited to be immersed in the force of the songs, captivated by the two-level set, enthralled by the cleverness of the staging that sees separate storylines and characters converging in a single song to climatic effect. Any meaning is to be felt, discovered, not shoved down our throats. This is why it works and why the shadow of 9/11 does not loom so large as to freeze this musical in time. If you thought pop punk couldn’t offer anything that would last outside of its own era, you would be wrong. While this is certainly the music of a generation, these songs belong to a long and varied canon of protest song and this show is as relevant today as it will still be in ten years from now.
American Idiot is a riot of talent, thoroughly entertaining, and resoundingly asks ‘do you know what’s worth fighting for?’ A question as timely now as ever.
American Idiot plays The Civic until 20th of October.
Directed and choreographed by Racky Plews with musical supervision by Richard Morris, sound by Chris Whybrow and lighting by Tim Deiling. The production is produced by Selladoor Worldwide and presented by arrangement with Music Theatre International Limited and Stetson Group.