The music of Green Day has arrived on Broadway in what is undoubtedly the best new musical of the season, American Idiot, at the St. James Theatre. Based on the band’s 2004 concept album of the same name, the show includes all 13 tracks — in order! — from the CD, and supplements it with additional Green Day songs.
Kudos should definitely go to director Michael Mayer, who is credited with the book, along with Green Day frontman and lyricist Billie Joe Armstrong. The story centers on three friends who go on separate but interlocking journeys: Johnny (John Gallagher, Jr.) descends into a life of drug addiction, Will (Michael Esper) unexpectedly becomes a father, and Tunny (Stark Sands) is shipped off to fight in Iraq. Spoken dialogue is minimal, with Johnny occasionally delivering journal entries that give very basic information.
Green Day’s songs are what propel the narrative, and they are ingeniously employed, sometimes in rather unexpected ways. For example, “Dearly Beloved” is sung by Will’s girlfriend Heather (Mary Faber) as she discovers that she’s pregnant, while the haunting ballad “Are We the Waiting” is the tune that accompanies Tunny’s enrollment in the military. Sometimes, a song starts out with one character, and then is hijacked by another, with the lyrics taking on new meanings. “Give Me Novacaine” begins as Will is taking a hit from a bong but somewhere along the way, it segues into Tunny’s story as he’s injured in Iraq and is screaming out for painkillers.
While the entire cast is terrific, Sands is the clear standout. Not only does he have a gorgeous voice, he manages to convey so much through nonverbal expression. He also duets on the most innovative number in the show, as “Extraordinary Girl” becomes an aerial dream ballet in which Tunny falls in love with the military nurse attending to his wounds (effectively played by Christina Sajous).
Gallagher takes the lead on some of the most recognizable Green Day tunes, such as “Jesus of Suburbia” and “Boulevard of Broken Dreams,” and has the kind of voice that truly bridges rock and musical theater. He’s often paired with Tony Vincent who fantastically and scarily inhabits the character of St. Jimmy, the embodiment of Johnny’s drug addiction. Their rendition of “Know Your Enemy” (from Green Day’s most recent album, 21st Century Breakdown) is a true stunner. Also making a strong impression is Rebecca Naomi Jones as Johnny’s lover, Whatsername.
Credit is also due to musical supervisor, arranger, and orchestrator Tom Kitt, who has put a new spin on some of the band’s music without losing any of its power, particularly in “Before the Lobotomy,” sung as a four-part round, and the show’s closing number, “Whatsername.” Choreographer Steven Hoggett has the performers moving in ways that are very atypical of a Broadway musical. It’s not always successful, but the cast throw themselves wholeheartedly into each and every motion. Particularly impressive is the staging of “Holiday,” in which a rolling scaffolding platform on Christine Jones’ multimedia set, is transformed into a bus while various cast members dance joyously around it and on it.
Comparisons are inevitable to previous rock musicals, such as The Who’s Tommy, also based on a best-selling album, and Spring Awakening, which was also helmed by Mayer. But American Idiot perhaps most resembles Hair, insomuch as it showcases one stunning song after another with just a loose narrative frame to hold it together, and a clear emotional throughline. They’re also both portraits of a generation, although the disaffected youth in American Idiot are a far cry from the Tribe members of Hair. But while Armstrong’s lyrics are laced with pessimism, the music is often buoyantly exuberant, which is one of the main reasons it succeeds as an amazing theatrical experience.