I was born in 1990, and when Green Day’s album American Idiot came out in 2004, I was fourteen and had it on my stereo on repeat for months. It was the golden era of pop punk, and while I would soon graduate to punk proper, it felt like an easy and safe channel for a young teenager to express rage, frustration, and a growing sense of disquiet at the world that was taking shape around us. If only for this reason, it was an interesting experiment to go see the musical spawned from that album, and I believe that many of the people born between the late 80s and the early 90s may have a similar experience – an uncanny moment of finding themselves face-to-face with a surprisingly accurate representation of their younger selves, their troubles, their fears, and their hopes. It must be noted here that the music has aged much better than I would have expected it to; I was surprised to find I remembered the lyrics to pretty much all the songs. For that generation, then, American Idiot is likely to provide first and foremost a trip down memory lane. It has been no doubt successful in capturing the feeling of those first years after the 9/11 terror attack, where everything felt unsteady and warlike imperialistic rhetoric had become so dominant, and while that particularly applies to the United States, anyone who lived in Europe at the time will have experienced to some degree that feeling that is the main force propelling the musical: the sense that one ought to urgently do something, and that the time to do it is running short, without the ability to pinpoint precisely what one can possibly do, if anything.
Jukebox musicals always run the risk of feeling confused and directionless, with a flimsy plot built to suit the music rather than the opposite. American Idiot is no exception to this – in fact, there is barely a plot at all; a lot is not explained, and what explanation is provided through the songs can feel rushed and clumsy. Its greatest strength, however, is that rather than trying to avoid this issue, it embraces it, and finds a way to do something interesting with it. Rather than construct a complex plot, the musical gives the impression of aiming to capture a feeling, to be a portrait of a state of mind. That very sense of confusion, frustration, and lack of direction is what its characters feel, and what many in the audience, I suspect, would have remembered feeling as well in their younger years, where the need for rebellion was matched by the difficulty in seeing what shape rebellion was supposed to take. While its narration is in many places disconnected, then, the end result is surprisingly powerful, also thanks to some bold moves – the long, silent scene portraying a descent into addiction is a stark and unexpected contrast to the loud music preceding it, for instance, and more than one member of the audience was shuffling uncomfortably on their seat during that scene. To use a jukebox musical as a mean to unsettle is a brave attempt, not always entirely successful, but nonetheless worthy of praise.
The strong sense of empathy generated by the production would have not been as strong without the intense performances of some of the cast members. Tom Milner as Johnny had a stark, believable punk energy to his stage presence, and Sam Lavery as Whatsername is to be praised for her confident vocals and aggressive delivery. A particular note of praise must also go to Luke Friend as St Jimmy, who stole the scene in every moment he was on stage, adding nuance to his character through a clever use of body language.
The musical is at its best when it is satirical, and the moments in which the staging aid this, such as the sections in which video is projected to interact with the characters, are among its best. Its parody of an US army recruitment ad is one of the most effective moments in it. At other times there is an attempt to cram too many parallel narrations on the scene all at once, and a sense of chaos ensues that may make the audience feel lost or displaced. Then again, American Idiot embraces its chaos and its displacement: it is a feeling that we are all too familiar with, and that the musical helps us reminisce with surprising intensity. As a work, it has all the weaknesses of the jukebox musical and then some, but it is starkly honest about them, and it manages to turn more than one of them into strengths.