I’m not a theatre critic. My only connection to legitimate theatre is having had a primary school music teacher who ditched our music class to be in a London production of Cats. I remember these classes fondly as I spent most of them distractedly scribbling comics and short stories in the empty spaces between the staves of my exercise book. While I had nothing against playing Disney songs on the recorder (which left the bitter taste of Dettol in my mouth since I would always forget to bring mine and had to use the school’s) it simply didn’t interest me. I was, however, very much into music.
In particular, I was into a band called Green Day. I had heard of them from my mother’s friend’s son who would occasionally lend me a single headphone so that I could listen too. What a naïve little shit I was. My love of Green Day continued up until I hit thirteen and an encounter with the Stooges’ Raw Power made every other record pale in comparison and I was utterly changed.
Though I might be ending my career as a rock writer before it begins, I must admit: I did still enjoy Green Day. Even after Iggy Pop tore my brain stem from out of my neck with his bare hands, even after I discovered a world of quality rock & roll and even after I had left adolescence (a time when records meant everything) behind; I still hold Kerplunk, 1,039/Smoothed Out Slappy Hours, Dookie and Nimrod in fairly high esteem. So it goes without saying that 2004 elicited a rather loud ‘What the fuck!?’ from me when I first saw the video for American Idiot.
I watched the class clown become the emo kid. Billie Joe Armstrong quit giving a shit about who wrote Holden Caulfield and decided to write it himself with thirteen songs in the vain of Zen Arcade and, of course, Quadrophenia. Suddenly, there was something wrong with being an American idiot when back in ’94, the trio were relishing in being right in the lap of American idiocy. I wasn’t a huge fan of the repeated ironic use of the word ‘faggot’, either. But the time was right to be political, I guess. Which would’ve been fine if the album was in any way political. Oh sure, it made vague references to events pulled from CNN’s scroll bar in the corny, sloganeering excuses for lyrics. But you didn’t have to be Oscar Wilde to see just how shallow American Idiot ultimately was. The line between wit and dimwit that the band so masterfully used to tread had been removed in favour of a black’n’red emo motif. Their sense of humour had been totally eviscerated.
I was too disillusioned to really bother contextualising the record. I pieced something together from the interpretations of some emo kids at school, who were the Goth kids the previous year and became…vamp kids the next? Regardless, it was a concept album. Cool. It was a narrative about a disenfranchised suburbanite known as Jesus of Suburbia who goes through the tumults of moving to the big city and comes out a defeated but wiser man. Sounded like a lame novel or television show. Sure enough, it was only a matter of time until the album made the transition into a visual medium.
Unfortunately, that’s not my territory and I can only review American Idiot – The Original Broadway Cast Recording on strictly musical grounds.
Now, speaking from a strictly musical viewpoint this record is weak. Particularly when listened to in the context of the original Idiot. Billie Joe’s familiar drawl, which was previously the only thing reminding me of the fact that the band was Green Day, is gone. The safety blanket has been burned. The majority of the songs now sound as if they’re being sung by the dipshit who fronts Simple Plan or one of the two members of Destiny’s Child who aren’t Beyoncé. Where Billie Joe would put on the artifice of not giving a shit, the talented young cast of Idiot the Musical sing their hearts out and it comes out cornier than ever. Most of the voices are interchangeable and it wasn’t until watching performance clips that I discovered certain songs were sung by two vocalists who merely sounded exactly alike.
The day pop-punk music died – Ed.
The album consists of the entirety of American Idiot and its b-sides as well as songs lifted from follow-up 21st Century Breakdown and previously unreleased serenade ‘When It’s Time’. The Idiot material is played in the same order as the album with the other tracks pasted in here and there. All coalesce to tell the tale of Johnny, the Jesus of Suburbia and his involvement with inveigling pusher St. Jimmy and Whatsername, the girl he pines for. The songs themselves are mostly untouched save for the vocals. Changes to instrumentation and arrangement are minimal. Songs such as the title track, ‘Jesus of Suburbia’, ‘St. Jimmy’ and ‘Wake Me Up When September Ends’ are completely untouched. ‘Holiday’ is still a jumpy little piece of Passenger-lifting power pop that plays with all the fury of a teenager in a Ché Guevara t-shirt.
The only identifiable changes come in the form of altering the dynamics of the songs, inserting crescendos and loud-quiet structures. All for the sole purpose of giving an actor the chance to take centre stage before the cast erupts into a grand chorus. The tremolo at the beginning of ‘Boulevard of Broken Dreams’ has disappeared in favour of acoustic guitar and violin, which allows our protagonist to pour his little heart out. At most, it sounds like a mash-up of Green Day, ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ and Rent.
Naturally, no one releases these kinds of records for their musical merit. People don’t buy the Cats soundtrack because they like Andrew Lloyd Weber’s songs (I hope); they do it to relive the experience of the live performance. But if you’re going to make a sung-through musical based on a successful record and market it to pop-punk fans under the pretence of making Broadway fans out of them; then you’re operating in the field of music and not theatre. Still, the performance clips I’ve seen have looked rather spectacular. They’re aesthetically pleasing and exciting while retaining the corniness inherent in the album, as expected. This record is no better than its source material, only worse and further watered down.
The play might just be a hit. I wonder if Tony Awards are as worthless as Grammies?