American Idiot (Original Broadway Cast Recording) featuring Green Day
By the time Green Day released "American Idiot" in 2004, the band's rebellious punk aesthetic had long been co-opted by the mainstream, with a Grammy win, multiplatinum sales and a memorable usage of the group's music on "Seinfeld" attesting to the crossover. But the San Francisco band's members took it even further a few years later when they turned the sprawling rock opera of "Idiot," which encapsulated the angst and paranoia following 9/11, into a bombastic Broadway production.
You don't get more mainstream than that. And although the album is largely tied to a specific era, the stage play reaches for timelessness as "American Idiot: The Musical," which opened on Broadway in 2010, brings its national tour to Chrysler Hall in Norfolk on Friday and Saturday.
"This show is so incredibly urgent in its message, talking to a post-9/11 America and talking to the political climate that we were suddenly thrust into after 9/11," says Johanna McKeon, the show's associate director. "The musical and the album had a strong reason for existing, and you can feel that immediately after you see the play."
Driving the high-octane rock guitar riffs and all the vigorous singing and dancing is an evergreen narrative of teen rage, love and loss. The main characters - Johnny, Will and Tunny - are perhaps mirror images of most Green Day fans. They're disaffected young white men feeling stifled in the suburbs and longing for adventure in the heart of the city. They attempt to find it through a chaotic milieu in which they grapple with addictions, depression and the national paranoia following the 9/11 attacks.
"American Idiot," the concept album of sorts on which the musical is based, sold more than 10 million copies, something Green Day had done before with "Dookie," the pop-punk band's 1994 major-label debut. But "American Idiot" was the group's first critical smash.
Before that album, critics generally dismissed Green Day for almost Xeroxing the passion and bombast of feisty classic rock acts The Clash and The Who. But band members Billie Joe Armstrong, Mike Dirnt, Tré Cool and Jason White weren't just a bunch of imitators. With each album, they expanded, energized and added neon colors to the music that inspired them - from the surprise hit about self-gratification, "Longview," to the nostalgia anthem "Good Riddance (Time of Your Life)."
The approach coalesced on "American Idiot." Urgent and undoubtedly inspired by The Who's "Tommy," the album loosely addressed the confused, despondent vibe permeating the country after 9/11. Hits like "Boulevard of Broken Dreams" and "Wake Me Up When September Ends" were some of the most pointed singles Green Day had done. But for the musical, Armstrong, the group's chief lyricist and lead vocalist, collaborated with stage and film director Michael Mayer to give the album's concept a concrete narrative.
"You're looking at the world through the eyes of these kids who are looking for meaning in a vacuous, untrustworthy culture that's saturated by television and by the voices of politicians who are most likely lying to them," says McKeon, who oversees the casting and technical aspects of the show.
Cultural identifiers - familiar ominous lines from President George W. Bush floating from the many monitors dotting the stage, for instance - link the musical to a specific era. But the glib, boisterous story of post-adolescent fear and confusion gives "American Idiot" a certain timelessness. Its main theme is just as much a descendant of J.D. Salinger's classic 1951 novel "The Catcher in the Rye" as it is the '70s punk movement.
The visceral music, all by Green Day, of course, and the near-constant movement around a stage plastered with punk posters and television screens gives the production a tense, unrelenting feel.
"It's a really hyper, oversaturated style to reflect the bombastic energy of rock 'n' roll," McKeon says. "The show is very much about growing up in a broken home in a modern world. The traditional family unit exploded years ago. Your friends are your family, and there's not a whole lot to hold on to besides that. It really struck me that this is going on all over the world."
At the show, McKeon says she's noticed a lot of "teenagers with dyed green hair, dragging their parents along" and "people in their 30s and 40s who have been Green Day fans their entire adult lives."
"There are massive lights, massive pounding sounds," McKeon says. "It's a very maximized experience."
Angry young men stomping around and belting their frustrations, all while searching for clarity in chaos - that never gets old.