On Green Day’s Vivid, Lurid, Somewhat Vapid American Idiot Musical


Fuck-fuck-fuck-fuck-fuck, goes the Green Day musical. Fuck this, fuck that, fuck me, fuck you. Like mall-punk Mamet. The 10-pound curse words are voluminous from the garish, manic onset of American Idiot, the curtain rising on a phalanx of pretty, vacant coed youth, grunged-up and homicidally disaffected, who bark out the title track amid an epileptic tirade of strobe lights and further hypnotic sensory overload via a couple dozen televisions embedded in the walls at jagged angles, MTV-style. The onslaught ends with our three putative male heroes all face-down on couches, the screens broadcasting upside-down American flags, the Friday-night crowd’s sustained applause impressively riotous.

And then it’s time for some swearin’. Opening line: “I jerked off into oblivion last night.” The putative male heroes introduce themselves, wave around a few middle fingers, greet each other (“Cocksucker!” “Shitbag!”), crack a stepfather = motherfucker joke, and prance off to the 7-11, deep in the throes of the multi-suite teenage-riot rant “Jesus of Suburbia.” Stage direction: “Johnny challenges his friends to give a shit.” The phalanx reconvenes, chanting, “I don’t care if you don’t care” en masse. Stage direction: “They all trash the place.” Bus tickets and packed bags materialize: “Take one last look at this shithole, ’cause these are our tickets outta here!” One of the dudes is held back by his knocked-up girlfriend, plops down on the couch, and pretty much stays there for the whole 90-minute, intermissionless duration, which, given that his wobbly falsetto is entirely at odds with the snot-nosed dominant vocal aesthetic here, is probably best for everyone involved; the other two prepare for an arduous, emotionally tumultuous journey to . . . the other side of the stage.

This show is not a terrible idea. Green Day’s original 2004 American Idiot is pretty much mainstream rock’s one and only credible album-length riposte to The (Fucking) Bush Years, not so much blatantly political as just generally bewildered and enraged in a way that still put the Berkeley boys light years ahead of the shock-and-awe curve, plainly re-energized by having something to sing about other than jerking off into oblivion. The musical, directed by Michael Mayer, he of rock-on-Broadway phenomenon Spring Awakening (itself notably verbally uncouth during such crowd-pleasers as “The Bitch of Living” and “Totally Fucked”), has plenty of ammo song-wise, a perfectly adequate onstage band cherry-picking as well from nominal 2009 sequel 21st Century Breakdown and offering one back-catalog mega-hit as an encore. (One guess.) Better these guys than, like, U2.

But the result, though vivid and lurid and imaginatively depraved, is also somewhat inarticulate, spraying its boilerplate discontent at no one in particular, with a lotta standard-issue bitching about The Media and The Man. At least the Spring Awakening crew had onstage clueless grown-ups to rebel against. Of the two dudes who actually get off the couch (seriously, the third one spends the whole rest of the show there, literally drinking bong water, his girl and their newborn baby eventually fleeing in disgust), Johnny (played by breakout SA star John Gallagher Jr.) gets hooked on drugs and does the usual hooked-on-drugs stuff, while Tunny (the excellently named Stark Sands) is enraptured by a charismatic, all-American, media-saturating beefcake dude into joining the Armed Forces and heading off to the Middle East, where he immediately loses his leg and does not-at-all-usual lost-my-leg-in-the-Middle-East stuff—namely, a Peter Pan–style, cable-assisted midair ballet tangle with a nurse who strips off her burka to reveal Princess Jasmine’s outfit from Disney’s Aladdin. To the tune of “Extraordinary Girl.”

Like American Idiot‘s best moments, that part is just ludicrous enough to not be disastrous. Johnny’s arm-tying rubber-tube wrestling match with his love interest, Whatshername (yes, really) also qualifies. The tunes (20 in all, leaving almost no room for dialogue, though that’s better for everyone involved, too) work best as either full-cast shout-alongs (the pummeling, angst-radiating “Holiday” is surprisingly great) or solo turns for Gallagher Jr, who ably strums an acoustic guitar and makes the slower, cornier, more maudlin stuff (welcome back, “Wake Me Up When September Ends”) sing. But anything in between, any tricky four-part-harmony stuff, crashes and burns. These arena-punk songs aren’t built that way; these particular singers, even less so.

“Totally Fucked” would have fit remarkably well into this show, too, actually—the conclusion is super-bleak, our putative heroes choosing between complete inertia and isolation, a prosthetic leg, or lovesickness and a goddamn office job. A wanly ambiguous closing statement—”And that was that, or so it seemed. Is this the end, or the beginning?”—can’t hope to leaven cynicism that absolute; nor can a post-curtain, full-cast, 19-acoustic-guitar encore of, you guessed it, “Good Riddance (Time of Your Life).”

American Idiot is far from the debacle it might have been, but it ain’t that, either. Everyone and everything is out to get you, apparently, and there’s not much to be done about it except . . . cuss louder.