Filichia Features: American Idiot: A 21st Century Cautionary Tale

Filichia Features: American Idiot: A 21st Century Cautionary Tale

By Peter Filichia on March 18, 2016

It’s one thing to create a concept album, as Green Day did in 2004 with American Idiot. But it’s quite another to morph it into a Broadway musical as Michael Mayer did in 2011.

Although the original album’s liner notes and lyrics said that the songs ostensibly told the story of three friends – Johnny, Will and Tunny – listeners could just accept the songs at face value and not have to think if the story it told hung together.

But any director who wants to bring American Idiot to the stage must flesh out the characters, which is what Aubrey Berg did in his recent stunning production at the Cincinnati Conservatory of Music.

Louis Griffin, Ben Biggers, John Battagliese and Chris Collins from CCM's production of Green Day's American Idiot (Photo by Mark Lyons).

The cliché that’s often used to describe someone who’s meticulous with details is to say that “he dots every ‘i’ and crosses every ‘t.’” If we employ that metaphor, Berg can be said to do that one better: he dots every ‘j’ as well.

Berg started by showing us film of The World Trade Center followed by an American Airlines plane taking off and -- well, you know what unfortunately happened next. Berg’s specifically setting the show immediately after 9/11 reminded us that The Iraq War wasn’t as necessary as our leaders had had us believe. One of American Idiot’s anti-heroes would learn that lesson in a very hard way.

After the film reached its horrifying conclusion, Berg had his three lads bound onto the stage and complain how fed up they were with their dull suburban lives. Yes, SUB-urban does imply “less than urban” and Lord knows that sterility can be found outside any Big City -- but we would see that the fault, dear idiots, would lie in themselves.

Directors attracted to American Idiot had better have talented testosterone on hand. Of the seven principals, four are young men. Here too Berg scored with Chris Collins-Pisano’s Will, Louis Griffin’s Tunny, Ben Biggers’ Johnny and John Battagliese’s St. Jimmy, Johnny’s alter ego -- a more grandiose term for what we used to call in childhood “an imaginary friend.”

That these four dominated the action took nothing away from the achievements of Shauna Topian as Heather, Will’s girlfriend; Clara Cox as “Whatshername,” the woman with whom Johnny allegedly falls in love and Cameron Anika Hill, who’s the Extraordinary Girl of Tunny’s dreams. American Idiot simply didn’t give them nearly as much to do.

The three lads were as mad as Dante’s nine circles of hell and they wouldn’t take it anymore – although theatergoers might not have quite understood what made them rebel. Ah, but there is that standard-issue youthful belief that wherever your parents have chosen to live is automatically ninth-rate. Even before the long-forgotten group The Animals sang “We Gotta Get out of This Place” in 1965, teens were thinking the same thing.

“This is the dawning of the rest of our lives!” Johnny, Will and Tunny exuberantly sang while smiling, posing and posturing, all with world-by-the-tail smiles that are often found on the unwitting young. Meanwhile the audience felt the dramatic irony that dawn would turn to dusk in short order.

But at this point, Will was sitting in a shopping cart when he should have been out shopping for a job; this man-child rather resembled an infant in a playpen – unaware that a genuine child would soon be on the scene, as Heather informed him. That playpen suddenly became Will’s cage surrounded by wife and daughter, preventing him from following the two latter-day Candides.

American Idiot plays fair, for it indicts city life, too. Loneliness and alienation led Johnny to drugs: “Now we’re getting somewhere!” he exclaimed with glee. No, he was going nowhere as soon as he started wrapping a thin rubber tube around his upper arm. Worse, he introduced the habit to his girlfriend -- the aforementioned Whatshername. Johnny’s calling her that showed his reluctance to acknowledge her importance to him. In one of the score’s most tender songs, he could only state “Tell me when it’s time to say ‘I love you’” – because he couldn’t bring himself to introduce the phrase into their relationship. He eventually did – but only when Whatshername was asleep.

Ben Biggers and the cast of CCM's American Idiot (Photo by Mark Lyons). 

Johnny became so drug-addicted that even St. Jimmy looked at him in disgust before spurting out a mocking and very loud raspberry. When your alter ego turns against you, you’re really in trouble. 

Because Tunny spent his time watching TV, Berg surrounded the set with televisions. There Tunny saw one of those “Be All That You Can Be” commercials that shows the grandeur but not the danger of the army, just as casino commercials show everyone winning big and no one inserting dollar after dollar into a slot-machine and continually losing.

So when Tunny made the decision to enlist, Berg had Griffin raise his right arm high with his hand holding his TV remote. (It was reminiscent of Sweeney Todd holding his razor.) Meanwhile, costume designer Jillian Coratti had Tunny naked except for briefs, which implied that he was nothing without a uniform. Berg then had Tunny join a line of young men also solely clad in underwear, as all were getting their physicals prior to being inducted into the armed forces.

How brave – but soon Tunny was shot in action and grabbing his leg in pain. He awakened in a hospital bed where Berg delivered a heartbreaking moment. He had Tunny glance to his left where he saw a terribly wounded man, whom he gave a sympathetic look. Tunny then slowly turned to his right, which made him feel even worse when he spied a heavily bandaged man who was in even worse shape.

We’d already discovered something that Tunny was about to learn: his right leg had been amputated. Berg then had him look forward, see what had happened and scream in horror as three muscular young men entered and stood behind the horribly injured soldiers. What a powerful way of reminding us that not much earlier each of these three damaged soldiers were hale and hearty.

In came a Nurse to give Tunny a drug that would bring sleep and a dream. That dance came courtesy of Samantha Pollino, who may “only” be a senior at the school but is already an expert choreographer.

The song and dance ended as Tunny regained consciousness and resumed screaming. Even after the music had stopped, he continued wailing, which was stunningly effective. Music tends to bring us into a different world, but its sudden absence underlined Tunny’s vocal agony.

And Will? He sang “Give me Novocaine” to stop the pain of marital and parental responsibility. Novocaine, however, was a euphemism for that pain-killer known as beer. Alas, constantly drinking is a short-term solution, so not much time passed before Berg smartly had Will drinking a bottle that had been encased in a crumpled paper bag. Until this point, Will had been seen drinking in the privacy of his own home, but eventually his addiction made him start guzzling as soon as he’d bought a bottle. Collins-Pisano conveyed the thirst of a man who’d spent 40 days and 40 nights in the Sahara, but he wasn’t drinking to quench a parched throat; he was an official alcoholic.

A song called “Too Much, Too Soon” could refer to a person’s getting assets and perks ahead of the expected schedule and not appreciating them; here it instead meant that these kids were lumbered with responsibilities far too early in their lives when they weren’t remotely ready for them.

During “Wake Me up When September Ends,” Berg emptied the stage of all but the three lads in order to reflect the emptiness of their lives. Johnny then received a different kind of life sentence from Tunny’s: he was working at an office job, rubber-stamping one piece of paper after another.

Here was another Jillian Coratti masterstroke: in a show where virtually every character was seen in a T-shirt (Will’s had marijuana leaves all over his), workaday employee Johnny was STILL seen wearing a T-shirt, but one of those trompe-l’oeil jobs that have a jacket, white shirt and tie one-dimensionally pictured.

“It’s not over till you’re underground,” the ensemble sang. Such a sentiment is usually seen as a positive message, meaning that there’s enough time if we use it productively. But in American Idiot, “It’s not over till you’re underground” means that Johnny, Will and Tunny will endure misery until they’re dead.

What to do, what to do? Suddenly, Johnny and Tunny who couldn’t wait to get away from suburbia were exuberantly singing “We’re Coming Home Again.” Yes, the sterile town that they so desperately had to leave now looked pretty good to them.

Here’s the irony: Broadway Idiot, a 2011 documentary about getting the album to the stage, has one Green Day band member stating that he always thought of Broadway musicals as “fairy tales.” Well, the new-styled musical American Idiot has this song that extolls the virtues of home – just as The Wiz, Disney’s Beauty and the Beast, A Christmas Carol, Les Miserables, and Fiorello! do. The more things change …

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