“Do you have the time to listen to me whine?” is the adorably angsty question posed by singer Billie Joe Armstrong in the song “Basket Case” around the time his band Green Day first entered the realms of popular culture back in 1994. If you’re curious to contemplate that question — do you really have the time? — you can do so at the new musical American Idiot that played at the Fox Theatre last week as part of the Broadway musical’s national tour continuing across the country. The show is based on the 2004 Green Day concept album American Idiot (the band itself does not appear in the performance).
Green Day certainly has its detractors, but I think it’s overall a pretty appealing band: the songs from American Idiot are solid. Though most of the songs are rousing punk-influenced guitar pop with catchy melodic hooks and harmonic layering, Armstrong also writes pleasant ballads and what we’ll call “fittingly mournful dirges.” American Idiot, the concept album — much influenced by The Who’s Tommy — centers on a young, disaffected and angry young man who travels from the suburbs to the big city.
The action is set during the Bush years, but strangely, the show’s aesthetic of teenage doubt, scaffolding, strobes, TV monitors and thrashing cast with spiky hairdos is very 1990s. (Armstrong was already a rock star millionaire by the time Bush came to power in 2000: his years in the LA punk scene were actually in the early 1990s, which may partially explain the aesthetic disjunct).
The young cast is energetic and talented, but it’s a pretty terrible show. There’s something deeply unfair about American Idiot. Fans, particularly young fans, might feel that they’re missing out if there are images and a performance associated with an album: this is obviously the angle the show is working to sell tickets.
But the additional story and characters are pretty light (there are perhaps five to ten minutes of spoken text added to a straightforward musical performance). The couple of songs I’d heard before seemed remarkably similar to how they’re performed on the album (only minus the band); the stage images are mediocre and the dancing is an embarrassment.
One of punk music’s most famous moments occurred during the on-stage dissolution of the Sex Pistols at the Winterland Ballroom in San Francisco. Johnny Rotten’s famous question to audience members after a lackluster performance of a single cover song before the musicians left the stage resonates here: “Ever get the feeling you’ve been cheated?” We’ve arrived at a strange moment indeed when the music industry has discovered a way to keep the album on stage and even send it on tour without the band.
Surprisingly, American Idiot was a hit in New York and picked up several Tony awards and a rave from the New York Times. Well, whatever. I’m glad others enjoyed it. I just hope it’s not a trend.