Brandon and I went to see the American Idiot musical last night in Pittsburgh, and I want to talk about it now before I forget all the things.
This June, I’ll turn 24. This September will mark 12 years since the September 11 attacks, meaning officially, half of my life will have been spent at war, in a country under the fear of terrorism, in a time when things are shifting and people are scared and angry and maybe a little lost–especially if you’re a 20-something. Everyone is afraid their opposing political party is going to send the country to shit, and we can’t all be right.
I was 12 when September 11 happened. At 13–literally days after my birthday–my dad left for his first deployment, albeit on a base in Italy. He returned several months later, then deployed two more times–including once when he wasn’t supposed to and left when given the opportunity–between when I was 15 and 17. I can’t remember the time clearly. They blur together. I think I was 16 when he was injured in Iraq, and my college years were spent dealing with the various ways being injured fucked him up.
I was about 15 when I started paying attention to politics. Green Day was one of the mainstays of raging against Bush and the Iraq war. I saw them on the American Idiot tour. I have the shirt and some confetti with the heart-shaped grenades. Rock the Vote happened–but I was too young–and the compilation album Rock Against Bush. I read. I watched. I questioned. Now I’m 23 and pretty damn liberal–war should be a last resort, but it usually isn’t. I get criticized plenty, living in Pennsylvania with a Republican boyfriend who’s not really all that Republican. I see things happening, and I want them to stop. They make me angry. When I really think about it, I’m scared, too–scared that we’re moving backwards, scared that an entire political party wants to deny me rights as a woman, deny others rights in part because of race and religion, control marriages and bodies and personal decisions. It’s a confusing time and a confusing age.
And American Idiot captures this perfectly.
The musical opens with the curtain slowly rising to reveal a basic set of just staircases, metal, and TV screens–which are great to pay attention to–with sound bytes playing of Bush talking about terrorism, reporters talking about North Korea, etc. It launches straight into “American Idiot,” sung with fervor and pure aggression–and the sets the tone for the rest of the musical, especially with the music itself. Some songs are gorgeous exceptions (“Last Night on Earth” probably being the most notable), but overall, the musical is a powerhouse of attitude, resulting in an extremely effective and moving show, despite a very simple and even predictable plot.
The plot is nothing new or groundbreaking, but its success comes in the delivery through the music, making any simplicity or predictability entirely forgivable. It’s a one-act show–about the perfect length–so everything gets right to the point. A lot is done visually, which I loved, from neat scenes to dance sequences that are downright aggressive to the actual plotting. It follows the classic writing rule “show don’t tell.” You’re told a little, but for the most part, you see it instead, sometimes even without any verbal explanation or context.
In that way, too, it’s fascinating to see how the songs have been adapted to fit a plot. “Favorite Son,” for example, is an entire sequence featuring an all-American military poster boy, while “Extraordinary Girl” launches into an impressive dream sequence involving wired acrobatics and badassery which is genuinely impressive and a thrill to watch. I was totally enthralled and engaged. Looking away meant missing something. Looking away takes you out of the show. That makes it succeed where some musicals fail–rather than being strung together by songs, the songs are the real heart of the show, and you don’t find yourself looking at your program to see what’s next. It powers through with no real breaks, which also provides a greater context for the album itself. Lines make more sense or hit harder, enhancing the album. In fact, I think American Idiot as an album has been vastly underrated.
Which brings us to the music. The band is onstage, which is awesome, and the music is loud from the start with more of the sound of a rock concert than a musical. The touring cast’s singers, though, are damn fantastic. They have great voices that work with the music rather than sounding too pretty. The most impressive of them was probably Whatshername, who was just an all-out badass with a real power to her voice, shown best in “Letterbomb.” I’ve always found some of the songs to be excellent rock pieces, but the musical helps to enhance them and really showcase the skillful songwriting. And, of course, a plot, characters, and story make things more moving. I almost cried multiple times not because of something sad or even remarkably happy but because of the sheer power of the music combined with the storytelling. I did cry during “Homecoming,” which was beautiful, and certain lines were particular moving for me.
American Idiot can very easily be compared to Hair and Rent, with hints of Across the Universe. Though not really political show, despite the opening and occasional subtle commentary, similar plots to Hair deal with the military and how people around the military deal with the military and what can happen–a similar theme in Across the Universe, too. But it has Rent’s sound, look–especially given the basic set–and attitude, sort of taking the larger commentary of Hair and stripping it down to the day-to-day. Rent, like American Idiot, isn’t particularly political, but you’re looking at slice-of-life countercultural living in changing times and what that means for the characters living it. Traces of Across the Universe come in with sequences like “Are We the Waiting” with a line of people going into the military, similar to but much simpler than “I Want You.” Similarly, the “Before the Lobotomy”/”Extraordinary Girl” sequence is very reminiscent of “Happiness Is a Warm Gun.”
I only disliked the ending–“Whatshername” closes the show (not counting the encore/curtain-call full-cast performance of “Good Riddance (Time of Your Life)”), but the entire “Homecoming” sequence would make for a better, more powerful ending.
Others, however, disliked sex scenes and plot points involving drug use, but isn’t that kind of representative of the times? For one thing, such things should, to some degree, be expected of a musical based on a rock concept album born out of a post-9/11 society. And this is 2013. Theater is pushing the limits, and as was Tweeted to me, there are plenty of vanilla musicals out there. American Idiot is gritty and raw, and therefore, realistic–because life in 2013 can be gritty and raw, too.
I hesitate to call American Idiot the New Millennium’s Hair or Rent because they are so iconic, but all three do represent the eras out of which they were born. The original Broadway run wasn’t particularly impressive after Green Day’s Billie Joe Armstrong left the cast, but there’s no reason the tour can’t kick ass and make this a classic.