Punk is the kind of music that keeps mothers of impressionable young boys up at night, worrying that their babies will, some day, show up at the breakfast table with a bright red mohawk and a sullen, aggressive demeanor. Punk rock's power to call up feelings that polite society does its very best to bury — primal anger, distrust of authority, the need to proclaim oneself as truly unique — can make the music seem like some kind of dangerous, unpredictable live wire, randomly showering its sparks upon those who get close.
Which, it turns out, makes it perfect for a musical. It sounds a little crazy — what could be less punk rock than staging a huge Broadway production? — but if the point of telling a story through song is to connect as deeply as possible to human emotion, then punk is perfectly suited to the task. That would explain the success of American Idiot, the musical by the band Green Day, which opened on Broadway in 2010 and is set to open in the UK this September.
Leaving aside the question of whether Green Day is a "real" punk band, it's undoubtedly true that American Idiot is Broadway's first punk musical. Associate director Johanna McKeon calls it "the 21st century incarnation of the rock opera." The show is built upon Green Day's 2004 concept album of the same name, which follows an anti-hero named Jesus of Suburbia who leaves his small town for the big city. The musical expands on this story, introducing three young men who feel trapped in their suburban lives: two of them, Johnny and Tunny, leave for the city to escape their stifling, hometown existences while the third, Will, stays home with his pregnant girlfriend.
Though the themes of youthful rebellion and the search for oneself are timeless, American Idiot is set very specifically in a post-9/11 world, in 2003. The angst, emptiness, and anger that spur Johnny and Tunny to leave home are amplified and changed by the fact that the country as a whole is in the grip of those same feelings. "This show is absolutely political," says McKeon. "Everybody's life was changed on 9/11 — the announcements we hear, how we get on planes, the metal detectors. Life will never, ever be the same. That's what's so exciting about this show. Now we can think of it as more of a period piece, and think about all the heightened emotions that were happening."
But the show is hardly all politics. It's also a loud, exhilarating spectacle of singing and mosh pit-inspired dancing that doesn't stop for the show's entire 90 minutes. McKeon calls it a "real blast outta the cannon," while actor Casey O'Farrell, who plays Will, says "There's nothing on the planet that can prepare you physically for this show except doing it." The story, McKeon says, "moves forward so fast — it's so high-octane, and high-energy" that the audience is practically left panting along with the cast by the end of it all.
No less tiring is the show's emotional scope, which is conveyed so strongly through the raw power of the music. To use a poetic comparison — which is more appropriate than one might think — classic musical theater would be the disciplined Robert Frost, while rock and punk operas would be the Walt Whitman: the barbaric yawps sounded over the rooftops of the world. "There's an interesting connection between rock music and the heart of the person who wrote it," says O'Farrell. "I think the reason rock musicals have done so well is because that music comes from the heart ... it's about baring a part of your soul."
And while to many, baring a soul through punk music sounds like it would be one long loud screamfest, O'Farrell and McKeon both say adamantly that that's not the case. "It's not about being angry, about punk rock and hating America," O'Farrell says. "It's about the message behind the music, of this internal breaking away from what holds you back. If you're on stage screaming, the message is lost." He adds that the cast isn't trying to imitate Green Day: "We're not stylizing like Billie Joe, it's not a stylized delivery. The trick to punk is having that attitude. That's what makes it punk." McKeon, who was never a huge fan of Green Day, has also developed a deep appreciation for the music: "I didn't understand the deeply genuine poet inside Billie Joe Armstrong [lead singer of Green Day and writer of the musical's book]," McKeon says. "He's post-punk in the best tradition: he's honestly inspired by punk, but he takes it beyond, to another place."
American Idiot won't appeal to everyone, of course. Punk music seems to be the opposite of an acquired taste: it either speaks to you, or it doesn't. But if you're up for the challenge, American Idiot could be an experience like nothing else you've ever had inside the four walls of a theater.