Punk is Dead, Long Live Punk Musicals


Rock journalists tend to argue punk music died the second Green Day’s anthems saturated mainstream radio and MTV in the early ‘90s. The argument went something like this: How could this stuff really be punk, anyway, if big media tolerated it? How could a generation of teenage rebels take its marching orders from three dudes riding around the Berkeley Hills in limos, painting eyeliner on each other?

But a funny thing happened on the way to Hot Topic. The kids listened anyway. A new generation of punks were born — Generation Punk Lite, we’ll call ‘em. And they (full disclosure: we) had real problems, too. Problems that needed diagnosing.

American Idiot, the eponymous Broadway musical adaptation of Green Day’s 2004 concept album now playing at the Orpheum Theater, takes these problems very seriously, if a little too seriously. In the modern parlance, shit gets way too real … for everyone.

It’s fairly clear what Green Day lead singer Billie Joe Armstrong, and by extension director Michael Mayer, set out to accomplish with American Idiot. The point is to consider what can happen when the disillusionment of youthful, aimless living becomes too much, but also to capture the spirit of a generation bombarded by faux, consumerist culture, with few options for meaningful existence other than drugs, sex and pop-punk rock.

The plot serves something of a subordinate function to this spirit-capturing mechanism of the album. Instead, the narrative plays out like an expanded but still abstract live music video, with characters acting out songs not necessarily meant to be acted out, and seemingly everybody looking like Billie Joe. These three central characters — Johnny, Will and Tunny — set out to ditch the ‘burbs for the adventure of the city, and perhaps come of age, or whatever it is youngsters do. But before they can even hit the great wide open road, Will’s girlfriend is pregnant, and his teenage ambitions are all but squashed. And before you can say “and then there were two,” Tunny quickly learns he’s not much for free-spirited gallivanting, and enlists in the army.

So Johnny goes it alone, exercising his own special kind of idiocy at various points along the way. His life devolves into something out of a Breaking Bad episode, and it is indeed hard to shake the feeling that we’ve seen his junkie story more than a few times.  

The lack of dialogue is a bit problematic, as we’re mostly left to connect with these characters via song and dance. And while the actors deliver a thoroughly expressive performance across the board, character development seems a bit stunted.

Fans of Green Day and the album will find plenty to like, though. This is what you want to have happen to your favorite albums — for them to be realized in a format that expands your understanding of the themes, stories and messages. The idea of an American Idiot is impossibly vague — are we talking about the media, the government, or anyone under the influence of either? But this rock musical gives specific life to the idea, and the idea that there’s more to Generation Punk Lite than Hot Topic posturing.

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