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‘American Idiot’ Comes to UB This Weekend — Don’t Miss It

American Idiot
Angela Stefano

When Green Day released their album American Idiot in 2004, it was sort of like the 21st century version of The Who‘s Tommy: A rock opera about life in the present day, in the world of the disillusioned and mundane, for those who don’t want to be part of that majority.

It’s a story that repeats itself in a new way, generation after generation. Green Day’s topic of choice was nothing new; it just involved a (possibly imaginary) drug pusher named St. Jimmy — just one character in this full-out sonic revolt against President Bush and the war in Iraq — instead of a Pinball Wizard.

So it came as no surprise (at least to me) when history repeated itself in turning American Idiot into a Broadway musical (now touring, and at UB’s Center for the Arts this Saturday and Sunday) with a familiar premise: Three friends plan to embark on a journey to find a way out of Jingletown, USA, and then fall by the wayside, one by one, via pregnancy, war and drugs, only to find out, more or less, that life isn’t always wonderful, the grass ain’t always greener, etc. Think Movin’ Out, but with less Twyla Tharp and more head banging.

All this “been there, done that”-ness just makes it that much more spectacular that American Idiot storms onto stage, captures your attention for 90 straight minutes, and leaves you absolutely speechless by curtain call. The story is real; the few lines of dialog are powerful. The music and the cast and the whole thing implore you — force you, even — to get caught up in it all.

And you do, because no matter who you are or what you’ve been through, no matter what your life is like, you can find yourself in one of these characters. You do, because the story Billie Joe Armstrong crafted in those songs becomes clearer than ever before when you see it in front of you and hear it sung in so many different, beautiful voices. You do, because like them or not, Green Day has found a way to consistently put our generation into words.

You will laugh, and you will cry (no, seriously — you will cry), but the greatest part of American Idiot is how it makes you think. Unlike most musicals, which present a very structured story, American Idiot allows you to draw many of your own conclusions. I saw the Broadway production three times (including once with Armstrong in the role of St. Jimmy, which added an entirely new dimension), and I always came away with something different. By the time the cast joins together for an encore of sorts, a chill-inducing acoustic rendition of Green Day’s biggest hit “Good Riddance (Time of Your Life),” you know that you’re never going to hear this album — or much of the band’s music, for that matter — the same way ever again. And even though I’ve seen it three times already, to say I’m psyched to see it again this weekend is an understatement.

In adapting the album for the stage, Green Day added four songs from their 2009 release 21st Century Breakdown, threw in a B-side and a song off a compilation album, and wrote one song specifically for the musical, which they recorded as a bonus track for the soundtrack. They fit in seamlessly, especially the Breakdown tracks; when you listen to the album, you can hear the similarities in those songs, so plugging them into Idiot and inserting them around other songs just seems right.

American Idiot, as a musical, holds its own with the best of them. The Broadway production received positively raving reviews, and it rightfully deserved its two Tony Awards (and a third nomination). It is truly a stage production of epic proportions, even if it’s one that breaks the preconceived notions you have of what a musical should be like and what you think this show will be like.

If you see the show expecting a concert, you’ll be disappointed; but you’ll be disappointed, too, if you go expecting a “traditional” musical. Forget American Idiot the album. Forget Green Day. Forget that it’s punk-turned-Broadway. Forget that you dislike musicals, or you dislike punk music, or you dislike whatever else you think you’d dislike about this show. Imagine American Idiot as a new rock opera composed by this unknown musical composer, Billie Joe Armstrong. Imagine it as songs composed specifically for this purpose. Imagine it as the next Jesus Christ Superstar or Spring Awakening.

Go. See. This. Musical. You will not be disappointed.

A version of this story appeared on TNGG Boston in January 2012.

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