Doris Lessing once said that every generation thinks that it discovered sex. The same could be said for drugs and rock ’n’ roll. The new Broadway musical American Idiot can have nothing especially new to reveal about any of these subjects but it does reinvent them in such a way as to make them once again feel a little more dangerous and a lot more alive.
Inspired by and including all the music from the popular 2004 album of the same title from the neo-punk trio Green Day, American Idiot is an authentic rock opera. Unlike Rent, from which it borrows the conceit of a central couple mired in drugs, and unlike Spring Awakening, with which it shares a director (Michael Mayer) and the use of a levitating platform and an onstage band, American Idiot makes scant attempt at a fully fleshed-out book.
Instead, its snippets of monologue, written by Mayer and Billie Joe Armstrong, Green Day’s frontman, provide just enough story to carry us through what is, in essence, a 90-minute wall-of-sound rock concert. It is performed by a young cast, with an occasional ballad to allow the actors to catch their breath.
The curtain rises with the voice of George W. Bush intoning ominously about evil-axis member North Korea, a gesture that plants us firmly in the mid-noughties. Youthful angst is at the centre of the show’s flimsy narrative. Johnny, the central character, given fierce drive by John Gallagher Jr, and his two best friends, Will, the magnificently coiffed Michael Esper, and Tunny, the slightly too all-American Stark Sands, are preparing to bolt the confines of American suburbia.
Their fates will be familiar to anyone who has seen Hair and its progeny: Johnny embraces drugs; Will gets his girlfriend pregnant; Tunny goes off to war. The point here isn’t story but style, and American Idiot delivers its predictable message (life, especially its US variety, can sometimes suck) in spectacular fashion. The poster-plastered, video-monitored set of Christine Jones and the driving orchestrations of Tom Kitt keep everything in visceral motion. Only the choreography of Steven Hoggett, beloved for his work on Black Watch, disappoints, its gibber-and-twitch vocabulary too often suggestive of over-caffeinated zombies. Otherwise, American Idiot ignites. ()