Green Day’s American Idiot

americanidiot1By Gordie Felger
Photo by Len Struttmann

Cedar Rapids – Theatre Cedar Rapids recently staged a powerhouse production of “Green Day’s American Idiot.” While this is not a direct review of that production, I was inspired to dedicate these words to the music of Green Day. After all, above all else, the music is what this show is all about.

I was first turned on to the sound of the post-grunge, alt/punk band when I heard the high-energy song “Basket Case” in 1994. My admiration continued to develop over the subsequent years with the songs “When I Come Around,” “Holiday,” “21 Guns,” “Boulevard of Broken Dreams,” “Wake Me Up When September Ends,” “Good Riddance (Time of Your Life),” and “Oh Love.”

Yet, after a list of popular favorites, I did not consider myself a Green Day “fan” in that I didn’t collect any of their songs, and I didn’t take the opportunity to see the band in concert, but I did revel in the sound of whatever tracks I caught on FM radio.

I still remember the day when I heard a radio announcement saying that Green Day was soon to open a new stage musical in California. Coincidentally, I was volunteering at the TCR scene shop when I heard the news. Without knowing anything more about the show, I resolved to see it at the earliest practical moment.

That moment came when a touring production of “Green Day’s American Idiot” came to the Gallagher Bluedorn Performing Arts Center in Cedar Falls. As expected, the cast members were all young adults, both male and female, and ethnically diverse: the youth of America. The show itself was kinetic, fast paced—90 minutes with no intermission—and brightly lit. The set was sparse and industrial, the most prominent feature being an array of mounted video screens, which displayed a mish-mash of pop culture images throughout the show.

After my first viewing, I found the story line a bit thin. It follows three young guys, dissatisfied with their suburban existence, who plan to hit the road for the big city. Each takes a different path before reuniting in their hometown. I attributed this feeling of limited depth to the fact that the show’s creators are rock musicians and not playwrights.

This is not to say that I did not thoroughly enjoy the production. I did! I loved the look, the energy and the emotional power in the performance. But even more, I loved how the familiar tunes were brought to new life on a chorus of twenty-some youthful voices. I rarely feel an emotional connection to a song the first time I hear it, but I did with “Dearly Beloved.” The melody and the actor’s voice were just so alive and pure.

I immediately added the show to my list of all-time favorites.

Since that first time, I have attended performances at the Paramount Theatre in Cedar Rapids, at the University of Iowa and now at home at Theatre Cedar Rapids. Each production was slightly different and each contained its own unique, fun surprises.

And with time, as I’ve learned more about the creation and the intended message of the show, as I’ve taken time to listen more deeply to—and to actually read—the lyrics, I’ve gained a fuller appreciation for the story itself. It’s about more than just these three punks who want to run away from home to chase adventure.

It’s about having your youth interrupted by a horrid national tragedy, about the overwhelming media onslaught of the 21st century, and about learning to live in a post-9/11 America where you can’t always tell the good guys from the bad until it’s too late. It’s about shattered innocence, betrayal, despair, hope, rage, love, friendship, and trying to put your life on the right path when you’ve lost the road map. It is the anthem of our youth in the new millennium.

One might expect a show like this to be all “sex, drugs, and rock and roll.” While those themes are represented, the lyrics also employ vivid imagery, romantic poetry and clever wordplay. Here are a few of my favorites:

“Last of the American Girls/She’s a Rebel”

She puts her makeup on like graffiti on the walls of the heartland
And she’s holding on my heart
Like a hand grenade

“Last Night on Earth”

You are the moonlight of my life every night
Giving all my love to you
My beating heart belongs to you

“Too Much Too Soon”

She packs her bags and says goodbye
And bon voyage
Farewell, we’ll see you in hell
I hope you rest in pieces

Following one performance—I saw the TCR production four times—I told a colleague, “Every time I see this show, I get so excited!”  I’ve been entertained by theater for many years, and I have a short list of titles that I consider true favorites, but there are very few that I can say really excite me like this one.

I am truly and deeply grateful to the staff and volunteers of Theatre Cedar Rapids for bringing “Green Day’s American Idiot” home.

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