Green Day’s archetypal album, American Idiot, took the shape of The Who’s Tommy, Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust and the Spider from Mars, and Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber’s ‘Jesus Christ Superstar’; concept albums that used running characters and a central theme to tell a story as each song spills over to the next. The nature of ‘American Idiot’ allowed it to translate smoothly to a musical, which premiered in 2009 at the Berkeley Repertory Theatre.
It received mixed reviews initially, shocking audiences with its punk-pop soundtrack atypical of most theatre productions. However, many agreed that the show’s pulsating energy was infectious. It went on to receive more unified praise and won several awards, including a Grammy for ‘Best Musical Show Album’ in 2011. But with a story-line so embedded within the cultural and political snapshot of 2004, how would the stage show still resonate today – 15 years on and counting?
Green Day released American Idiot smack in the middle of the Bush administration, a year after the Iraq War began, and three years after 9/11. The political climate in the US was turbulent to say the least, with strong opposition to Bush’s Iraq invasion illustrating a decline in patriotism following 9/11. Armstrong believed the media was populating TV with violent images, and that the government had failed them. In response to this, he wrote the script to address the disenfranchised youth of America, trapped in the suburban underclass life.
The title song of the album came as a not so subtle middle finger to the government and mass media: “Don’t wanna be an American Idiot, Don’t want a nation under the new media.” It continues to throw fairly overt jabs at conservatism or what Armstrong refers to as the ‘redneck agenda’ and ‘age of paranoia’. It shot to number one, showcasing how the band had hit on something real in the call to break free from a media-fed society.
Green Day then released a string of successful hits from the album. Boulevard of Broken Dreams was the second release and remains one of the band’s most lucrative to date, earning them a Grammy for ‘Record of the Year’. After came Holiday, another political cannonball, and Wake Me Up When September Ends, a track that Green Day dedicated to the victims of Hurricane Katrina. Finally, they namedJesus of Suburbia as the anti-hero of the concept album.
As a result, American Idiot went on to win a Grammy for ‘Best Rock Album’ in 2005 as well as multiple MTV Video Music Awards, and made it to several ‘Top Album’ lists. In an interview with Rolling Stone, Armstrong explained how the musical came from the enthusiasm to transform the rock opera album into a film. Eventually, they abandoned the idea, but Michael Mayer saw potential and said he wanted to create an American Idiot musical for his next project.
Over a year later, the band got a call from Mayer. He explained that his inspiration for the show came from always being a fan of Green Day, particularly the thick guitar licks from Spring Awakening. While the music of the two productions shares that rebellious punk rock accent, the story-line differs. Mayer describes the plot of American Idiot as a “response to a seriously f*#ked-up environment, a political and social situation that became untenable”.
The production centres around three protagonists; Johnny, Tunny and Will. All three have become disenchanted in stagnated suburbia, struggling to find meaning in their lives. They decide to escape to the big city, but their hopes and dreams are soon shattered by the trials of life.
Before departing, Will finds out his girlfriend is pregnant and so stays behind, while Tunny and Johnny continue on their quest for enlightenment. The pair find that America fails to live up to expectations, leaving a torn Tunny enrolling in the military and a lonely Johnny becoming infatuated with ‘Whatsername’ and venturing down the slippery slope of heroin and drug-dealing.
I needed a bit of anarchy in my life
Meanwhile, Will suffers from inertia and finds an escape through drinking. Though the narrative is based upon the political backdrop of the Bush administration and the post 9/11 world, the themes of dissatisfaction, dreaming of escape via promises of a different life, and exposure of harsh reality and liberation through alcohol, drugs or joining the military are arguably still relevant to this day. Interestingly, ‘American Idiot’ re-entered the UK iTunes Top Ten last year, shortly ahead of President Trump’s visit to the region.
However, Green Day’s Mike Dirnt specified that American Idiot was not a Bush record, and it would certainly not be giving credit to Trump through dubbing it a Trump record. Instead, the title track and album are for music-lovers; those in search of an outlet for the built up frustration and antidote to deal with the current political climate. An article by Forbes believed that 15 years on, fans still turn to the album for ‘a sense of solidarity’, which perhaps is why its stage presentation of the musical will continue to strike audiences for generations to come.
We dove further into the effect American Idiot, the album, the musical and the legacy has had on today’s youth by talking to the reigning St. Jimmy, Luke Friend. Having earned fame through winning TeenStar in 2013 and becoming a finalist on the tenth series of The X Factor, Friend landed the role of the drug dealing counterpart to Johnny in the UK tour of the musical.
I based him off David – Kiefer Sutherland’s character in Lost Boys
After landing the role, Friend set to work developing his version of St. Jimmy through intense research of other films and characters. “I like watching my favourite actors so I kind of went a weird way about it. I had a lot of freedom to progress with the character, and I based him of David – Kiefer Sutherland’s character in Lost Boys.”
Getting into the character of someone so twisted and broken proved no easy feat for Friend, who spoke about how the intensity of being him could become difficult: “St. Jimmy for me is an anarchist. He’s really going through a lot. There’s some love there, but I think he’s got lost along the way”. A sense of familiarly came with it however, after all Green Day formed an integral part of Friend’s musical upbringing. “Green Day’s was the first album I ever bought. When I used to have a Walkman player, and I was on tour with choir at the time, I needed a little bit of anarchy in my life.”
“It was one of those where I got into [Green Day] so much and I listened to the album so much that I hadn’t actually gone back to it until we started the show”, something that many of Friend’s generation can sympathise with. When American Idiot dropped in 2004, the album became an instant hit after resonating with so many across the world. However 15 years later, interpretations of American Idiot have certainly grown and changed. “Back then I don’t think I related to the lyrics like I do now,” says Friend. “Having the right to vote, getting into debates, talking to more people wondering what life is going to be like and staying in the EU – [I’ve] grown up and care more about it.
Even 15 years on, the album proves to be relevant to today’s society agrees Friend, who recalled being young and watching 9/11 happen on the news. “Green Day followed it all with their album, specifically along the lines of their dissatisfaction at how it played out, and it’s still prominent today. Terrorism hasn’t lessened, it’s still putting people everywhere on high alert. The world at the moment is in chaos.”
“There have been people my age, who may have missed out on Green Day growing, who are learning a lot from the musical. Not just about politics, but about how much of a dark path drugs can be. How to deal with addiction and get through it, how to get out. It’s about how you balance everything, and how do you cope with life not being what you wanted.”
“We have a lot of younger fans, from the next generation coming up, watching the show as well. I think it’s really important for them to see it. They’ll be at stage door, saying how much they’ve enjoyed it. They’ll still see it a bit differently [to our generation], maybe only going as far as to say it’s ‘cool because it’s badass’, but [there’s still a lot to learn from it].
Of course, much of the audience is comprised of hardcore Green Day fans, sporting 90’s merchandise and a hint of scepticism to what the show might entail. “There’s definitely underlying pressure to do it justice every night. We are all humans, and on a tour as long as this getting ill can happen but we have to perform to the best of our ability.”
“That’s true for any show, but particularly American Idiot where there’s already a massive fanbase out of the musical theatre world. We get people from all walks of life.”
Thankfully, the show has exceeded the expectations of many, including longtime fans who avoided it for as long as they could for fear their youthful obsessions would be tarnished. Friend shared a story of meeting an audience member who spent almost a decade concerned that the show would tarnish his love for Green Day. “His wife had been to see it three years ago and asked him to come this year, and now whenever it comes by again he said he’d got to see it again because he loved it so much! I think that’s a massive respect to us, it shows that we are doing the show justice. It’s all I ever would have for the show, it’s brilliant.”
On top of the pressure from the fans, there’s the added layer of trying fulfil the expectations of the greats who have played St. Jimmy before him. Both the prolific actor Lucas Rush as well as Green Day’s own Billy Joe Armstrong have put their own spin on the drug-dealing pseudo-saint, and now Friend follows with his Lost Boys-inspired version. “It’s wicked. We’re totally different in how we do it. It’s [Armstrong]’s baby and it’s great that he got involved to that extent. I think it shows how much Green Day love the show themselves. Him, and Rush who played him before me – big shoes to fill.”
Despite the overarching pressure that Green Day’s legacy can bring, there is still room to have fun with it says Friend, who says his favourite song is Whatsername. “I’m not involved [in Whatsername]. I just love hearing that song from the cast.”
“In terms of what I do, it’s probably between Know Your Enemy and Homecoming, because that’s like the big dramatic end to my role. I think that it’s such an intense scene when we’re doing it on stage – so much is going on that it’s different every night.”
So what’s next for Luke Friend and the American Idiot musical? After the success of his musical debut, Friend is looking towards the future with hopes of one day playing the legendary Frank’n’Furter in Rocky Horror Picture Show, whilst American Idiot continues to show around the UK!
Find tickets for American Idiot the Musical