I’m revisiting Green Day’s American Idiot album thanks to me stumbling upon Broadway Idiot on Showtime. The 80-minute documentary focuses on the production of the musical American Idiot, which is based on the rock-opera album, emphasizing Billie Joe Armstrong’s growing involvement with the production. What started off as a passing interest turned into me truly enjoying this film. As the actors and director pointed out, the album, which was released in 2004, did a remarkable job of capturing the spirit of discontent and disillusionment, particularly among young people in the post 9/11 era. Though my zest for Green Day has diminished somewhat over the years, I fondly remember how I connected to American Idiot when it first came out. I was a pre-teen and wanted to be a bit rebellious, so I naturally gravitated to Green Day and their outspoken punk rock persona. Their combination of politics and social commentary with rock music definitely made a huge impression on the entire country.
The Broadway musical, which I saw in high school thanks to a city arts program, really captured the essence of the album and the anger and hopelessness that defined the years following 9/11. Seeing the production progress from rehearsals to a successful Broadway show was quite engaging. The musical is a coming-of-age story that follows three friends, Johnny, Tunny, and Will as they deal with romance, drugs, parenthood, and war, all while hoping to pursue their dreams.
The energy and enthusiasm of the cast and crew, along with the creativity and hard choices, from casting changes to choreography, really gave me insight into how an amazing and unique production is crafted. I had never considered the difficulty of crafting a story around pre-recorded songs or how groundbreaking it was to have punk rock songs at the heart of a musical on Broadway (which is known for more family friendly fare). Hearing from the talented artists that helped make American Idiot such a success, as well as seeing the joy of the Broadway first-timers, really solidified my desire to work in theatre. Kevin Adams’ lighting design and Christine Jones’ unique set, with its combination of television screens and newspaper clippings, both won Tony Awards in 2010, and rightfully so.
The dynamic between Tony Award-winning director Michael Mayer, music arrangement supervisor Tom Kitt, and Green Day front-man Billie Joe Armstrong, was very interesting. As Mayer states, and the film shows, Armstrong went from being mildly interested in the production to becoming an invested member of the team. It was great to see the early awkwardness and hesitation of Mayer and Kitt, who are clearly big fans of the band, as they negotiated their relationship with Green Day. In one scene they anxiously wait to hear how the band will react to their choral arrangement of “Last Night on Earth,” a far cry from original recording.
Armstrong soon becomes taken with the cast and its easy to see why–their energy is infectious. He moves from cautious privacy to real camaraderie with the cast and the crew, thanks in part to their shared love of music. Armstrong is clearly awed by their boatloads of talent; the entire room is moved as Rebecca Naomi Jones, who plays the character of Whatsername, gives a heart-wrenching rendition of “21 Guns” in the studio. The film hints that Armstrong has somewhat of a musical theatre background thanks to years of vocal training as a child. By the end of the film he has transformed from a punk rock star to a Broadway actor, playing the role of St. Jimmy in the musical. Whatever the reason behind it, it is clear that he has discovered why people like myself have fallen in love with theatre–the awesome sense of community.