The original American Idiot album was written by alt band Green Day in 2004. Ubiquitous songs like “Holiday,” “Boulevard of Broken Dreams” and the eponymous “American Idiot” formed a kind of backdrop to my junior and senior years of high school. I never bought the album, but the songs were always there, simmering below the surface and echoing internal and external chaos. In a way, that’s how the songs play into the stage version of American Idiot. Yes, characters sing, but often the heavy lifting of a song is carried by the chorus or by a background character. The songs express the character’s emotions without necessarily coming from the character themselves. In essence, it turns the musical into one big music video–which is not necessarily a bad thing.
The show takes another step away from musicals with its heavy integration of video and art. The set is truly amazing: grungy dark metal, anarchy symbols, a dirty bathroom and rolling metal platforms. But there are also dozens of flat-panel TVs that flash scenes from the news, pop culture, abstract patterns, colors and phrases (seriously: I wouldn’t attend if you’re prone to seizures). The use felt similar to modern art pieces until it almost began to cross the line into performance art. Sometimes this goes a bit too far, as when an aerial ballet begins with a woman in a sparkly blue burka descending from the ceiling, only to strip to reveal a genie outfit and dance through the air with a recently injured soldier, but usually the imagery enhances the show, pushing the very limits of what we think of as musical theater.
American Idiot takes the work RENT started with rock operas and pushes it one step further. There is very little dialogue–this review will probably be longer than all the spoken dialogue in the show–and unlike RENT, there are no arias or recitatives. It’s all songs, many of them familiar radio singles. There is a story, about three loser friends who seek their fortunes, one in the big city where he gets sucked into drugs, one into the army where he loses his leg, and another is forced to remain behind with his girlfriend and their new baby, but it’s not really about specific people. Rather, it’s about that weird time known as the early 2000s, a time we can’t even come up with a good name for.
Remember freedom fries? The start of the Iraq War? The nagging fear that still never quite went away that there could be another September 11 any day? The roller coaster stock market, the constant uncertainty in almost every aspect of life? But wrapped up inside that uncertainty, we were supposed to have an emotional security. After all, we were born atop Maslow’s Hierarchy. We never wanted for creature comforts, for love, for self esteem. All these things were piled on top of us like down comforters.
So dammit, why weren’t we happy? Why does the main character resent his mom because she lent him bus fare to get to the city? Why couldn’t we settle own into the good, boring jobs and the good, boring lives that were planned for us? The show doesn’t really offer any answers, though our characters do find that home is a lot better than they thought.
The music is performed ably by a large, energetic and very young cast. The leads sound almost freakishly similar to Green Day, but the brassy voices of the ladies steal quite a few numbers. The dancing is aggressive, sloppy, apathetic and perfect. And above all, this show is loud, with cacophonous accompaniment from an onstage band. My feet were vibrating; my ears are still ringing. The moments of silence in the show were truly deafening, and many times the audience seemed to forget to clap or even breathe as we were plunged from noise into stillness.
Be warned: This is not a show for everyone. Many people will dislike this show intensely. I saw a few people walk out. But it’s a show that sticks with you, a show that reminds me of being young and confused and yeah, an idiot. Of not knowing where I was going or what I wanted or what mattered. And just a little bit, of coming home. I’m glad I saw it.
If you’re a Millennial you’re interested in recapturing that feeling or you want to see some pretty cutting edge theater with a retro (can we consider the 2000s retro yet? Dear God, I’m old), check out American Idiot. It’s playing at Clowes Memorial Hall through April 7. Tickets start at $25, which is a steal. The show is in one act and clocks in at a brisk 1 hour 45 minutes and is completely inappropriate for children in every conceivable way.
My tickets were provided courtesy of Broadway Across America Indianapolis. I was asked to tweet about my experiences and was not required to blog about the show. All opinions are my own.