As you know, the director of Spring Awakening is developing a stage version of the Green Day album American Idiot to open this fall in Berkeley. Details, however, are sketchy. It will somehow follow characters from the album, despite it admittedly having no coherent storyline. But that hasn’t stopped anyone before! There is a long tradition of “jukebox musicals” that throw together a bunch of songs from an individual artist, sometimes with an explicit plot, sometimes with a more abstract plot, and to greater or lesser success, artistically and commercially. American Idiot, though, comes with its own dramatic baggage. As one of the most successful rock albums of the decade, its lifespan was stretched out over more than 13 months, and at least five of the songs have official videos. What, then, are the possible directions this coup de théâtre could take?
There seem to be three general options.
I. Ape Successful Jukebox Musicals
Lady Liberty, portrayed symbolically as a punk rock girl with liberty spikes, is about to get married to emo kid Jimmy. But on the eve of her wedding, a man in a George W. Bush mask comes in and rapes her. Jimmy walks in and, misinterpreting the sex act as consensual, flees in heartbreak straight to the nearest army recruiting station and is shipped off to Iraq. While there, he performs a lot of interpretive dances to express his anguish; these mainly involve pressing his hands to his chest and bending at the waist and kind of moaning, or stomping around looking angry but kind of ineffectual.
Meanwhile, Liberty finds the diary of the man who violated her, who writes about being the top executive at a major label. But which one? Liberty decides to become a superstar so that all three label heads will be forced to court her, and she can find out the truth. Embarking on her musical career, she goes through the usual cycle of hope and triumph and pluck and hardship, acquiring along the way a manager named Jesus, who beats her. When she returns to her hometown of Olympia, though, she is empowered by her friends to throw off the shackles of white male corporate oppression and, after firing Jesus, gives an electrifying performance that attracts the attention of the major labels. They agree to come meet her in Orange County.
Before they meet, though, Jimmy returns home from Iraq, having been dishonorably discharged for being too mopey. Distraught, he meets Jesus in a bar and, without realizing who he is, kills him in a drunken brawl with a tube of guyliner. The police arrive and throw him in jail. Liberty and the label heads meet, and through another interpretive dance, she discovers which one took her honor. At the trial, the label head is forced to wear the Dubya mask, and the trial somehow becomes a kind of impeachment hearing. At the end, he is convinced, and everyone cheers. But who is the next case? It’s Jimmy! Realizing what happened, Liberty explains that Jimmy was only killing her abuser anyway, which she thinks is hopelessly romantic, though Jimmy is confused, and they get the judge to marry them then and there. Hooray!
II. Take The Plot From The Videos
For all the somewhat confusing hype around the album’s music, it has to be said that the videos are really some of the best since the video market crashed in, what, ’02? The early singles, which came out before anyone knew how big of a hit the album would be, tended to have more conservative band-centric videos, but as the sales rolled in, the videos got increasingly narrative-heavy and baroque.
“Holiday” portrayed the tension in the lyrics somewhat allusively, setting scattered iconic images of bombs alongside desperate debauchery in a bar and (ironically) scantily clad dancers.
“Wake Me Up When September Ends” framed itself as a cinematic object, starting with a title card and almost two minutes of dialogue between teenage lovers standing in a field of yellow flowers. Once the song starts, we see more scenes of the couple having fun in the sunshine, but after a break in the music for more dialogue in which the couple fights over the guy enlisting in the Army, the rest of the video alternates war scenes with footage of the worried girl, and has an ambiguous ending. At the time it seems a little too obvious and on-the-nose, but in retrospect it’s a lovely little thing, emotionally resonant and beautifully made, especially in comparison to the grungy style of the previous three clips.
And then there is “Jesus of Suburbia,” which could be put in a time capsule as the exemplar of a particular slice of mid-’00s culture. It’s the sort of crazy, over-the-top masterpiece/shitstorm/disaster that rarely gets made anymore, a 12-minute short film about misbegotten youth seemingly determined to include every single thing MTV censors: swearing, violence, lawbreaking, sex, nudity, drug use, drinking, and barfing. (The above clip is foreshortened, so try here for the full version.) There’s not a plot, per se; an emo kid breaks up with his girlfriend in a super-asshole way and then wanders around misbehaving and insulting his mom. And then he cuts himself, because of course he does. The video ends with him running away from home and everyone being sorry, kind of like The Room.
What sort of musical would result from this? I have no idea, but it would be awesome.
III. Take The Plot From The Album
God bless Wikipedia, because somehow it’s teased a coherent story out of all this:
The album’s protagonist, Jesus of Suburbia, emerged out of Armstrong asking himself what sort of person the title of “American Idiot” referred to. Armstrong described the character as essentially an anti-hero, a powerless “everyman” desensitized by a “steady diet of soda pop and Ritalin”. Jesus of Suburbia hates his town and those close to him, so he leaves for the city. As the album progresses the characters of St. Jimmy and Whatsername are introduced. St. Jimmy is punk rock freedom fighter, “the son of a bitch and Edgar Allan Poe.” Whatsername, inspired by the Bikini Kill song “Rebel Girl”, is a “Mother Revolution” figure that Armstrong described as “kind of St. Jimmy’s nemesis in a lot of ways.” Both characters illustrate the “rage vs. love” theme of the album, in that “you can go with the blind rebellion of self-destruction, where Saint Jimmy is. But there’s a more love-driven side to that, which is following your beliefs and ethics. And that’s where Jesus of Suburbia really wants to go,” according to Armstrong. Near the end of the story, St. Jimmy apparently commits suicide. While the singer did not want to give away the details of the story’s resolution, he said the intention is for the listener to ultimately realize that Jesus of Suburbia is really St. Jimmy, and Jimmy is “part of the main character that pretty much dies.” The reason for St.Jimmy’s suicide is because of the Jesus of Suburbia’s conformity to regular life, illustrated in “Homecoming: East 12th Street” with “Jesus filling out paperwork now, at the facility on East 12th St.” Jesus of Suburbia longs to have the St. Jimmy personality back to break conformity and “be free” as heard in the same song by saying “I don’t want to stay, get me out of here right now, I just wanna be free.” Then, in “Homecoming: Nobody Likes You” it is said that Jesus of Suburbia’s relationship with Whatsername is starting to fade away. In the album’s final song, “Whatsername,” Jesus of Suburbia loses his connection with Whatsername as well, forgetting her completely. Whatsername is actually not her real name but since he can only remember her face he refers to her as Whatsername. It is also apparent that Jesus and Whatsername fell in love. But Jesus knew that the relationship was failing apart due to the fact that St.Jimmy was simply a character that he had made up to have a rebel side to himself, while Whatsername was a true rebel, who really believed in it. But St.Jimmy was not truly a rebel and she left him to go and make a life somewhere else, described in “Homecoming.”
Right, so… it’s kind of symbolist? And… self-destruction leads to conformity? Hmm, explaining this makes it seem much less interesting. But hey, “Rebel Girl” is involved!