A punk musical is an oxymoron if ever there was one. Is it even accurate to call the American band Green Day ‘punk’ as they often are? Johnny Rotten has described them as ‘a wank outfit’. If you’re going to use the word ‘punk’ to describe Green Day, then it needs the word ‘pop’ preceding it.
The band came to prominence in the mid-’90 with its album Dookie that spawned the hits Longview and When I Come Around. The songs were catchy but lacked the edginess of Nirvana or the authenticity of Pearl Jam, two of their popular contemporaries.
They scored a huge hit with the sweet Good Riddance (Time of Our Lives) before falling off the radar somewhat. Then they came back in a big way with American Idiot (2004). It was a concept album from the dark days of Dubya’s wars and the Patriot Act (amidst many other abominations), from which the world is still reeling. Many critics at the time cited this album as evidence of the maturing of Green Day’s singer, lyricist and guitar player, Billie Joe Armstrong.
Green Day’s American Idiot was developed out of a musical book by Armstrong and Broadway theatre director Michael Mayer and has been playing in America for almost 10 years. This local concert production with an Australian cast is directed by Craig Ilott (Velvet, Smoke and Mirrors and the Australian production of Hedwig and the Angry Inch).
The musical is billed as “the story of three boyhood friends, each searching for meaning in a post 9/11, Trumpian-suburbia, discovering love, loss, drugs, sex and rock and roll along the way”. It features every song from the American Idiot album and a few from the follow-up 21st Century Breakdown. (The music is performed by a quartet of rock musicians lurking at the rear of the stage. They do a stellar job.)
The three friends are Johnny (Linden Furnell), Tunny (Connor Crawford) and Will (Alex Jeans). Other main roles are played by Phil Jamieson (from Grinspoon) as St Jimmy and Phoebe Panaretos as Whatsername.
The show opens on a set revealing TV screens showing the state we’re in – Trump spewing forth during last year’s election campaign, scenes of war and carnage from around the world. A large screen stretching across the rear of the set is an animation detailing the horrors of contemporary life – including a reference to “a stable genius”. Lights up reveals the ensemble launching into the title number American Idiot, complete with generic musical theatre dance moves.
The musical’s book, written by Armstrong and Mayer, must be very thin given the scarcity of a narrative. It’s a Zeitgeisty snapshot of young, disillusioned, bored, middle class Americans. During one of the show’s infrequent, music-free dialogue exchanges, Johnny tells us he “just stole some money from mom. No, she lent it to me. Actually, she gave it to me”. This is a bigger indictment of contemporary values than any statistics about growing inequality. Whether you agree or not, for many, this is how young disillusioned, bored, middle class people see the world.
The three friends here feel alienated from the culture at large, where they see nothing of value for them, in the world of work or elsewhere. It’s a common motif in the history of punk ever since the Sex Pistols declared there was “No future for you”.
The narrative, such as it is, proceeds along to Johnny succumbing to heroin addiction – despite the affections of Whatsername (Panaretos has the strongest voice of the cast), Tunny joining the army with equally disastrous results, and Will having an unwanted child with his girlfriend Heather.
Phil Jamieson plays the drug dealer St Jimmy with a seductive menace, and he steals the show.
Green Day fans will love this musical.