Six years ago, Green Day came to Broadway; they came because even five years after the release of American Idiot, they still had something to say, something which refused to stay within the boundaries of a conventional musical setting.
Rock opera had been done before, but never punk opera. And never with an album which had shifted in excess of 6 million copies.
Building on the years immediately following 911, American Idiot was a master piece, right up with Chomsky in it’s ability to both communicate meaningful information and challenge how we saw the world. This was a fierce stance about the state of America. It made a forceful stand that whilst protecting against terrorism was important, removing civil liberties and imposing new laws was not always in the interests of the greater good. What mattered was the practice of free speech and the actions of critical thinking and information gathering.
Every song on the album was crammed full of intensity and raw emotion- so much so that the album could be considered a close relative to any Joy Division record; perhaps we British might hate the idea, but these records prove that Armstrong was as close to Ian Curtis as almost anything else this millennium has given us. Whilst perhaps not as accomplished or intensely personal as Curtis, Armstrong clearly has deep rooted concerns that he can’t help but share. This is the sound of a man so angry with the world, and the way it was being ran, that he became a zealot and decided to take them all on. It is the sound of a man who rebelled; a rebellion that would lead to self-medication, drug addiction and physical breakdown. We’ll get to the pop part soon, but don’t forget that punk takes up 50% of pop-punk.
Armstrong never intended a stage show from the concept album, that came via an unauthorized script and directorial contribution from Michael Mare. But firstly Mare needed to convince the band that this was a good idea- and that he could take emotional and physical care of the album. He does so well. This is not happy go lucky broadway theatre, this is dark and edgy; examining issues of 21st century disillusionment, boredom and the dangers both can have on young and impressionable minds.
American Idiot- the stage show- does a great job of bringing the core concepts of the album to life; recurring Green Day themes of self-obsession, getting high and watching tv are clear; but much more interesting is how we get to see more of the opposing arguments of the concept record which are either not as often talked about, or buried between the grooves. Drugs are portrayed as both enjoyable and dangerous; War is seen as a career choice and a destroyer of lives; promiscuous sex is seen as flippant and the creator of life; the media is seen as an informant and a manipulator.
Interesting, it’s the physicality and narrative of the stage show which proves the most benefit; providing a chance to see the emotions of each character, as well providing a clear structure to the album and links between the songs. Although minimal, the dialogue provides a context (and back story) to each central character, giving meaning to unreferenced lyrics.
Musically, the singing (and pronunciation) ability of the cast (as well as different arrangements of some songs- see last night on earth) allow us to hear Armstrong’s lyrics clearer than on record. Only a few of the songs are radically altered, but given that the record was as close to pop-punk-perfection as possible, that matters little; essentially the harder edges are made harder, and the softer elements are smoothed out. The live 3 piece band keep the show punk; and the cast (and their voices) keep this theatrical.
There is humour, the calling-card of Green Day and a tight walk they’ve managed well, providing sufficient humour without upsetting punk’s hard line stance on taking direct action. The Buzzcocks and the Ramones introduced sly humour to punk but Green Day made us laugh out loud. On record, humourous lyrics provided the pop in Green Days pop-punk. In the theatre, it’s the physicality of the actors which provides the pop; it’s welcomed as it reduces the intensity within the show and helps to make it more accessible.
The stage set is pretty basic but allows a lot of physicality, yet it’s the use of media and tv screens (not too far removed from zoo tv) before/during the break which help to draw the audience in and provide a context to the show; it’s important to remember just what the media was feeding us in 2001. Given what we know now, it’s also a chance to see the difference between what we were told and what the truth might be after all.
Just how much (or what combination of) workload, intensity, drug use, rage and/or overload led to Armstrong finally cracking isn’t clear; though clearly this was a man with plenty to say and a man who wanted to say as perfectly as he was able. If you’ve never seen it, their Cuatro documentary proves evidence of just how hard, and how far, Armstrong pushed himself; he made hard workers look lazy.
Strip Green Day of their comic personas, and one thing is clear; they mean it man.