It’s teatime in Southampton, and outside the city’s Mayflower Theatre,
a small huddle of teenagers are hanging round. Blue-haired girls and
black-clad boys skulk warily on the steps or else lean up against the
theatre wall. In the park opposite, little pockets of similarly clad
teens make their way towards the Mayflower in a slow-moving pilgrimage
of disaffected suburban youth.
In the pub next door, middle-aged men in Ramones t-shirts, greying
oasis hair-cuts and khaki jackets are grabbing one last pint before
they too make their way to the Mayflower. All of which speaks volumes
about the mass pan-generational appeal of the show that’s just about to
But no-one’s come out to watch a gig by some reformed rock revivalists
or the latest TV talent show sensation. Rather, the Mayflower is
hosting the opening UK dates for a piece of prime time musical theatre
called American Idiot, and the Green Day hordes are out in force.
Once upon a time, Green Day were cartoon punk pretenders formed in 1987
by a pair of Californian teenagers, Billie Joe Armstrong and Mike
Dirnt. By the mid-1990s, Green Day were one of the biggest bands in
the world. When they released American Idiot as an album in 2004, the
Armstrong-penned rock opera debuted at number one in the album charts
and won a Grammy for Best Rock Album the following years. One reviewer
had already compared Armstrong’s writing on Green Day’s previous album,
Warning, to the music theatre works of Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill.
American Idiot’s narrative of a suburban boy who flees to the city took
Armstrong’s dramatic sensibilities even further. It also caught the
imagination of Tony Award-winning writer/director Michael Mayer, whose
Broadway hits include directing the musical of Spring Awakening.
“It sort of haunted me,” says Mayer of the original American Idiot
album. “I was a big fan, and listening to the album, it very quickly
became apparent that what Billie Joe was writing was very powerfully
connected with what was going on in America politically and socially.
What also struck me was that the narrative was very simple. It’s about
a kid from the suburbs trying to find life somewhere else. It’s a
coming of age story. So I thought, Jesus Christ, this is a musical.
There could be a life for this, but I didn’t think Green Day would ever
go for it.”
It was only when asked in an interview with showbiz bible, Variety,
about Spring Awakening, what else he thought might work as a musical
that he threw American Idiot out there. Mayer’s friend, actor turned
producer Tom Hulse, picked up on this. Hulse had produced Spring
Awakening, and offered to do the same with American Idiot.
“I said, oh, sure, knock yourself out. I’m sure Green Day want to do
They did, and, given license to develop the original story by
Armstrong, Mayer expanded it to follow three teenagers rather than one,
as Johnny, Will and Tunny take on a world that included drugs,
pregnancy, America at war and other things that move the show way
beyond any notions of jukebox musical status. The result of this
previewed at Berkeley Repertory Theatre in 2009, before transferring to
Broadway, where Armstrong himself played the lead role for a while
before the show won two Tony awards.
American Idiot’s UK tour has drafted in a brand new American cast, led
by Alex Nee as Johnny, Thomas Hettrick as Tunny and Casey O’Farrell as
Will, plus Trent Saunders as St Jimmy, the iconic figure who leads them
into temptation. On opening night they and the other sixteen performers
onstage more than rise to the occasion in a high-octane impressionistic
and somewhat cynical twenty-first century take on the American dream.
With a live band on a stage that looks like the ultimate boys den,
despite the banks of TV monitors that punctuates action with
contemporary projections alongside furiously well-drilled choreography
by Frantic Assembly and Black Watch mainstay Steven Hoggett, American
Idiot is a reassuringly old-fashioned piece of Americana. The runaway
slackers trying to find themselves could be straight out of a Jack
Kerouac novel, while the reconciliation that comes before an
unexpectedly downbeat ending suggests The Deerhunter. The grit of the
songs, meanwhile, comes alive with a potency many modern musicals could
At the after-show party, the American Idiot cast are unrecognisably
glamorous in their skinny-tied suits and prom night style dresses that
still allow for a certain sassiness. Only when the girls somewhat
sweetly start to hand out first night cards to each other does it
register exactly how young these guys are.
In the morning, the rain-sodden park beside the Mayflower is again a
meeting point for dressed-down youth. Look beyond the hoodies, jeans
and trainers, though, and it’s clear that the little groupings aren’t
the same pilgrims from yesterday. The American Idiot cast have shaken
off their hang-overs and glad-rags, and have work to do.
In the corner of the room, Hoggett is sat down in-between Hettrick and
Saunders, giving notes. In the opposite corner, Mayer is impishly
holding court. Sitting with his co-stars, Nee may still be a student,
but he understands more than most how much American Idiot might mean to
“There are so many people in the audience like the people we play,” he
implores. “So for me, this show is a lot about failure in a way that’s
never talked about. It’s a reality-check to say that it’s okay to mess
up sometimes, and that we need to connect with each other more to deal
with that. I think the show acknowledges that we’re really trying. It’s
tough to grow up, and it’s tough to be a person, but Green Day have
always tapped into that, and with American Idiot, it’s saying it’s okay
to mess up a little bit. It’s okay to be different.”
American Idiot, Edinburgh Playhouse, October 22-27; Clyde Auditorium,
Glasgow, October 29-November 3
The Herald, October 16th 2012