American Idiot is nothing if not honest. Early in this musical written by Green Day’s Billie Joe Armstrong, Johnny (Luke Linsteadt) tells his friend Tunny (Steve Perkins) that the money he needed for a bus ticket to New York City came from robbing a convenience store. “Well, actually,” he admits, “I stole the money from my mom’s purse.” “Actually,” he admits again, “My mom loaned me the money.”
Johnny is a representation of Armstrong’s own punk lifestyle. He hates the society game in which he must get a job and take orders from a boss. He flashes his middle finger at the kids who study and play sports, and he thrives when those kids take a step backward from him due to discomfort. He notably forgets to bathe almost every day as Johnny admits often in one of the few running gags from the show. Johnny would mock me for psychoanalyzing him—but he would never read a blog like this, so I think I’m safe.
The characters and the anger, angst, and music that represent them is the focus of this musical, and the extraordinary cast of the Hypocrites store-front production gives their all to every swear word, stimulated drug injection, and adrenaline-laced guitar cord. Every cast member impressively jumps between singing, dancing, acting, and playing multiple instruments. I struggled to look away from ensemble member Elisa Carlson, who set the cast record by playing four instruments (bass, drums, keyboard, violin) between stints on the main floor.
The plot is pieced together through the music. “I Walk Alone” is Johnny’s attempt to earn money as a street musician. “Know Your Enemy” plays as heroin pulses through Johnny’s veins. “Jesus of Suburbia” expresses the three main characters’ desire to leave their small town lives, and “Wake Me Up When September Ends” (a radio hit with undertones of September 11) brings the three main characters back together on stage, all three dealing with unique pains—a leg lost in war, a hateful girlfriend carrying a child, a directionless life dulled by drugs.
As I left, I passed two women that were dismayed because children were in the audience. One suggested that perhaps the young theater-goers were relatives of the cast members. “Well, then they [the cast members] should have told them [the children] not to come.”
Perhaps my theater upbringing was atypical for having been exposed to adult theater at an age younger than any of the pre-teens in the audience.* (In one notable example, Barb did look a bit embarrassed during Six Degrees of Separation when an unattractive nude man walked center stage and started yelling a-minute-and-a-half’s worth of obscenities in the general direction of her 10-year-old son… Norm, most likely, had already fallen asleep.)
Viewing American Idiot does not encourage a theater-goer of any age to shout swear words in a teacher’s face or to reach for a heroin needle. If anything, American Idiot teaches that America embraces many cultures and counter-cultures. Billie Joe Armstrong’s music voices a world for people that refuse to conform to mainstream American values, and the result is an enduring work of art.
*Note: American Idiot would, of course, not be appropriate for small children. The Lion King might be a better option for the elementary-school crowd. In fact, I know so many people taking their grandchildren to see The Lion King during winter break that I suspect one might be considered counter-culture for seeing the show without a grandchild.