American Idiot

America is a very angry place right. And boy, do we have a show that taps into that zeitgeist and tries to understand it…

I knew nothing about American Idiot when I walked into the Broadway theatre to see it. I had heard of Green Day, but knew none of their songs. All I knew was people loved this show. And I’m a huge rock opera fan, so I figured I would at least enjoy it.

And it fucking bowled me over, from the first song. Who starts a musical with “Don’t wanna be an American idiot!” It was like a shot of electricity! Such great music, such dense, interesting, aggressive, insightful lyrics, such strong, clear, epic storytelling! Everything about the show thrilled me. The next day I sat down in my hotel and wrote a blog post about how much I loved it.

It’s interesting right now, as Hamilton dominates the world of musical theatre (and then some), to start work on American Idiot. People talk about how Hamilton will fundamentally change the musical theatre (and I think they’re right and I’m really glad), but it reminds me that Rent was just as paradigm shattering, just as revolutionary, just as “fusion-ary” (fusing Top 40 rock with both musical theatre and opera) and just as influential, back in 1996. And I also realize now that American Idiot holds up the center of a political rock theatre trilogy. As tuned into its own zeitgeist as Rent was, so was American Idiot, and apparently, so is Hamilton.

Don’t you dare call this a show a jukebox musical or a catalog musical. Yes, the score started out as an album (and a half), but this is no Mamma Mia! This is serious, powerful storytelling, capturing a pivotal moment in our collective lives both then and now.

And that score! Every song is outstanding, so many of them powerfully emotional, some of them really haunting. Plus these songs were translated for the stage by Tom Kitt, composer of High Fidelity, Next to Normal, and If/Then. Green Day frontman Billie Joe Armstrong, who wrote most of the songs, really loved what Kitt did with his work. Armstrong says in the documentary Broadway Idiot, “I think some of these versions are better than what we recorded.”

It wasn’t until after seeing the show in New York that my analytical mind realized American Idiot is a triple Hero Myth, as Johnny, Will, and Tunny all respond in different ways to the cultural upheaval of a post-9/11 world, and all three go on spiritual journeys to find their place in the world, their path, their “Real” as Passing Strange would put it. Each of them takes his own Hero’s Journey, though Johnny’s is the most detailed.

Heroes’ Journeys can be concrete, as in an actual trip, or they can be interior. Or both. In American Idiot, director and bookwriter (which means in this case, re-conceiver) Michael Mayer gives us all three versions. Will stays behind, and his journey is interior, about learning to grow up and stop being selfish (just like Rob Gordon in High Fidelity). Both Johnny and Tunny take actual trips, but Tunny literally goes to the other side of the world, while Johnny physically travels to New York, but then journeys inside through the use of drugs. Both Tunny and Johnny travel to “the underworld” in one way or another, as many classic Heroes do.

All the big ideas in the show are present in the Green Day album but more abstract, more thematic, more metaphoric. In the context of our triple Hero Myth, “Wake Me Up When September Ends” is no longer about the death of Armstrong’s father, but instead it makes September into a symbol, the month that contained 9/11 and contains all the anniversaries, the post-9/11 mindset in its totality, forever with us. This song of personal lost and pain becomes instead a song about social oppression and delusion. September becomes the culture of the War on Terror.

What’s different about these three journeys from their archetypes is this additional element not usually present in stories like these. Not only do these men have to find their individual paths, but at the same time, a very aggressive, oppressive culture is pushing them onto a different path, into a mindset they feel is false and toxic. The entire conflict of the story is set up in the first sentence of the show, “Don’t wanna be an American Idiot!”

In other words, “Your Real is not my Real. Your fear is not my fear. Your path won’t get me to my destination. But how can I find my own Real, how can I avoid being an American idiot, if Bush and Cheney’s Real is the only Real anyone recognizes? How can I find my Real when their Real permeates everything?”

In the great book, Mass Media, Mass Propaganda: Examining American News in the “War on Terror,” media critic Ben Bagdikian explains corporate monopolization of the media bluntly: “A cartel of five media conglomerates now control the media on which a majority of Americans say they most rely. These five are not just large – though they are all among the 325 largest corporations in the world – they are unique among all huge corporations: they are a major factor in changing the politics of the United States and they condition social values of children and adults alike. These five huge corporations own most of the newspapers, magazines, books, radio, and TV stations and movie studios of the United States. They have acquired more public communications power – including ownership of the news – than any private businesses have ever before possessed in world history. Nothing in earlier history matches this corporate group’s power to penetrate the social landscape.”

Our three heroes don’t want to be passive, controlled people who accept what “authorities” tell them, believe what others believe, chase the prizes others chase. These three guys know or at least feel that’s not right. And yet, they have been passive in their own lives for so long. They have not yet taken control of their destinies. At the top of the show, these three don’t know what the right path is, but they can sure tell what the wrong path is. Even if they don’t know it rationally, they know instinctually that they can’t follow the same road everybody else (the “American idiots”) are following. They have to find their own road, their own Real.

But they have no road map. Armstrong says in the Broadway Idiot documentary, “A big theme of mine is just being lost in the chaos.” He also says, “It’s about learning the hard lessons.”

What’s particularly fascinating about this story is that we get three Hero Myth stories, three different responses to the obstacles of a post-9/11 culture of fear, disconnection, and lies. Johnny chooses a path to the “underworld” of drug addiction, and there he must confront himself in that underworld (in the person of St. Jimmy), just as Luke Skywalker did on Dagobah.

Tunny succumbs to the toxic drum beat and finds the only path out of his Depression is in joining the military, a potent plotline considering the central theme of our story is resisting the call. Arguably, both Johnny and Tunny choose terrible paths for themselves and suffer the consequences. Will resists the call to roam in order to “take responsibility” for his coming child, to stay at home and build a domestic life.

None of the three finds much good in the path he chooses, but ultimately we see the problem isn’t the three paths; the problem is the world has gone mad. And the triumph for any of our three heroes is in not going mad as well, finding wisdom and sanity in their own Real and staying on their own road, just as humans have done during times of turmoil and upheaval for centuries – just as our Hero Myths have taught us.

Occasionally (not that often, really) people criticize me for “putting politics” into shows. But I don’t put politics into the show we do; the politics are already there. Heathers isn’t explicitly about politics, but it is about the Othering of people, which makes violence and hatred against them easier. What could be more political than that? Cry-Baby isn’t explicitly about politics, but it’s a story about class and injustice. How can you divorce that issue and its context from politics? After all, politics is just the way we choose to live together in this huge country of ours.

The politics of American Idiot are even more overt than many of our other shows. Look at this opening lyric, set to a driving, aggressive beat:

Don’t want to be an American idiot
Don’t want a nation under the new media
Hey, can you hear the sound of hysteria?
The subliminal mind fuck America

Welcome to a new kind of tension
All across the alienation
Where everything isn’t meant to be okay
Television dreams of tomorrow
We’re not the ones meant to follow
For that’s enough to argue

Well maybe I am the faggot America
I’m not a part of a redneck agenda
Now everybody, do the propaganda!
And sing along to the age of paranoia

Welcome to a new kind of tension
All across the alienation
Where everything isn’t meant to be okay
Television dreams of tomorrow
We’re not the ones meant to follow
For that’s enough to argue

Don’t want to be an American idiot
One nation controlled by the media
Don’t want to be an American idiot
One nation controlled by the media
Don’t want to be an American idiot
One nation controlled by the media
Information age of hysteria
Calling out to idiot America

Welcome to a new kind of tension
All across the alienation
Where everything isn’t meant to be okay
Television dreams of tomorrow
We’re not the ones meant to follow
For that’s enough to argue
Hey!

Almost feels like this song was written about America in 2016, doesn’t it? You almost forget Billie Joe Armstrong was writing in response to George W. Bush and his War on Terror.

The world changed drastically in the mid and late 1960s. Values changes, perceptions changed, belief systems changed, humor changed, language changed, sexuality changed, culture changed. It’s the most obvious reason why Rodgers & Hammerstein shows no longer speak to the reality of modern-day America.

But change that big, that fundamental, is scary, traumatic, disorienting. Freedom isn’t easy. No longer armed with clear expectations about their future, America’s youth was lost, searching for meaning, for purpose, for spiritual truth outside mainstream religion. And that feeling of being lost, and that search for answers is the whole point of shows like Hair, Pippin, Rocky Horror, and Tommy.

But massive changed was visited upon our country again after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. And just as Hair documented the anger and disconnection of youth in the 60s, American Idiot is a clear companion piece, taking a similar snapshot of America in the earliest years of this new century. And like Hair, American Idiot doesn’t paint a pretty picture.

But the last scene, “The Final Letter,” leaves us with something of value, almost subliminally. It’s not optimism, exactly, but an embrace of life, the good, the bad, and the ugly. You can’t just embrace the easy parts of life; you have to embrace all of it.

FINAL LETTER
Somewhere New.

Johnny: And that was that.

Tunny: Or so it seemed.

Will: Is this the end
Or the beginning?

Johnny: All I know is,
She was right.
I am an idiot.
It’s even on my birth certificate.
In so many words.

Heather: This is my rage.

Extraordinary Girl: This is my love.

Will: This is my town.

Whatsername: This is my city.

Johnny: This is my life.

END OF PLAY

Whatever life may hand you, it’s your life. These characters learn what Chip Tolentino knows, “Life is random and unfair, Life is pandemonium.” That doesn’t have to be a bad thing, as you long as you understand it. Life is neither reward nor punishment; it’s just a road. The trick, as the great Joseph Campbell put it, is to find your bliss and follow it. Ultimately, our heroes find their Real inside themselves. Exactly like Pippin does. And Luke Skywalker and Rob Gordon and Charles Bukowski, and all the great heroes in all the great hero stories.

I’ve been re-watching the incredible PBS series The Power of Myth with Bill Moyers and Joseph Campbell. It’s a great reminder that there are really only a few great stories, which we repeat over and over in different forms, all of which act as metaphors for a human life. Storytelling is how we make sense of ourselves and the world around us. It’s good to be reminded how ancient and fundamental to our existence storytelling is. And it’s a worthwhile reminder to me, that though I’m working on a punk rock opera, these stories are as old as human experience.

It’s good to be humbled now and then.

This is going to be such an excellent adventure! We’ve got half our Heathers cast moving on to American Idiot, plus some very cool new folks. I can’t wait to get started this week! I’ll keep you posted…

Long Live the Musical!
Scott
from The Bad Boy of Musical Theatre http://newlinetheatre.blogspot.com/2016/01/american-idiot.html

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