It strikes me that gig-goers and musical lovers don’t overlap much on the Venn diagram of evening entertainment, to judge from the programme-clutching hordes that pour onto my Tube as I approach central London from Brixton Academy. Even the jukebox productions, tribute acts with a tacked-on plot, don’t seem to hold much appeal for those whose first love is live music.
So it’s exciting to note that something different and, more importantly, louder is on the way. American Idiot, the stage version of the Green Day album of the same name, opens for a brief run in London on Tuesday, testing the waters with a view to returning at greater length. It’s not going to the West End but to a much larger rock venue, the Hammersmith Apollo, in what looks like a deliberate separation from the land of Queen and ABBA.
The band are calling it a rock opera, not a musical, with The Who’s Tommy as the chief inspiration. “If you’re gonna do a rock opera, you’ve gotta do it right,” Green Day frontman Billie Joe Armstrong says. “It’s gotta be louder and it’s gotta have energy. It’s rock, it’s not corny.” Loud and energetic are the words that spring to mind on hearing the cast recording. With a six-piece band on stage throughout, the guitars are every bit as punchy as on the original 2004 album, and although some of the solo vocals can’t match Armstrong’s distinctive punk snottiness, the massed voices of a 19-strong cast make the big moments even bigger.
“I think it will make Green Day fans out of people and I think it will make Broadway fans out of Green Day people,” said cast member Stark Sands when the show arrived in New York in 2010, after first opening in the band’s home town of Berkeley, California, the year before. Different and darker though it is from the usual song-and-dance fare on Broadway, the American theatre establishment liked it, giving it two Tony Awards for scenery and lighting as well as a nomination for best musical. The crucial New York Times review said: “Performed with galvanising intensity by a terrific cast, [it] detonates a fierce aesthetic charge in this ho-hum Broadway season. A pulsating portrait of wasted youth.”
Green Day fans of old (and there are plenty of them, given that the trio have been a major force in American rock music since their breakthrough album, Dookie, in 1994) should be reassured that this isn’t a diluted jukebox musical, shoehorning the songs into tenuous scenarios. In fact there’s pretty much no other dialogue, almost nothing else in it apart from the songs from the American Idiot album performed in the original order. Four more songs from its successor, the 2009 album 21st Century Breakdown, and one previously unheard Armstrong ballad, When it’s Time, are added to flesh out the stories of some secondary characters. Otherwise it works as it is, because the band had a storyline in mind when they first wrote it.
Set in the middle of George W Bush’s presidency, the album tells the tale of a smalltown rebel they call Jesus of Suburbia (renamed Johnny in the musical), who journeys to the big city where he’s torn between a girl and hard drugs. “I’m the son of rage and love,” he sings. An overpowering disillusionment with the state of America weighs him down: “Don’t want to be an American idiot/One nation controlled by the media/Information age of hysteria/Calling out to idiot America”. While a demonic alter-ego, St Jimmy, corrupts him, he falls for and then loses a city girl called Whatsername.
This was heavy stuff for a band whose best-known album previously, Dookie, was named after a cute euphemism for diarrhoea, and whose other songs include Platypus (I Hate You), Brain Stew and Geek Stink Breath. It revitalised the group, whose more lightweight pop punk sound was wearing thin, and went on to sell 14 million copies around the world. Thanks to these songs they became stadium fillers.
The musical goes deeper by using the songs to tell two more stories simultaneously — that of Tunny, who also leaves his hometown but ends up joining the US army in the Middle East, and Will, trapped at home in a cloud of dope smoke with a pregnant girlfriend to look after. It doesn’t shy away from showing sex scenes or drug use, with the touching love song Last Night on Earth providing the soundtrack to a kind of ballet of heroin use. A backdrop of ripped posters, many saying “OBEY”, and flickering TV screens, add to the bleakness, while energetic, aggressive choreography expresses what the lyrics cannot.
This isn’t completely new ground, of course. The director, Michael Mayer, previously worked on Spring Awakening, which brought an edgy rock updating to Frank Wedekind’s original 1891 play about teenagers discovering sex, and won multiple Tonys and then an Olivier Award in London for best new musical in 2010. John Gallagher Jr, American Idiot’s Broadway lead, was also the star of that production. Mayer took Armstrong to see Spring Awakening in 2007 and there the seeds were sown.
“Seeing Spring Awakening changed how I saw Broadway,” said Armstrong. “It was so cutting-edge and different and current. And there was also something reminiscent of Jesus of Suburbia in the songs and anguish of John’s character.”
The band were involved in the rehearsal process from the start and gave the show a resounding thumbs-up when they performed their song 21 Guns with the cast at the Grammys in 2010, and Amstrong has made more than 50 appearances, playing the part of St Jimmy, on Broadway.
He’s unlikely to turn up in London, however. In September this year, after an onstage rant about the band’s set being cut short at a music festival in Las Vegas, he went into rehab. “Billie Joe is seeking treatment for substance abuse,” said an announcement on their Facebook page. “We regretfully must postpone some of our upcoming promotional appearances.”
It’s an unfortunate case of life imitating art but at least when American Idiot’s Johnny succumbs to drugs, he’ll be up again to take his bow and back to do it all again the next night. With the real star out of action, this is the best place to hear Green Day’s music for the time being. It does the band proud.
Dec 4-16, Apollo Hammersmith, W6 (0843 221 0100, hammersmithapollo.net)