illie Joe Armstrong is the lead singer of the Punk band Green Day. He’s also the co-writer of the script for a musical based on their 2004 Rock opera album American Idiot, which ran on Broadway for 422 performances in 2010 and 2011. Early this year, Armstrong heard the news that a school board in Enfield, Conn. had canceled a high school production of the show over concerns about sexual content, drug use and foul language.
On Instagram, Armstrong — who occasionally performed on Broadway — wrote, “I realize the content of the Broadway
production of AI is not quite ‘suitable’ for a younger audience.
“However, there is a high school rendition of the production, and I believe that’s the one Enfield was planning to perform, which is suitable for most people. It would be a shame if these high schoolers were shut down over some of the content that may be challenging for some of the audience. But the bigger issue is censorship. This production tackles issues in a post-9/11 world and I believe the kids should be heard.”
Unfortunately for Connecticut, the kids were not heard. (American Idiot was replaced with a production of the musical comedy Little Shop of Horrors.) Cincinnati audiences can check what the school board was concerned about as the musical theater program at the University of Cincinnati’s College-Conservatory of Music stages the first local production of American Idiot, opening Thursday and running through March 13. It will be performed in CCM’s Patricia Corbett Theater.
The story of three disillusioned young men who are forced to choose between freedom and the safety of suburbia is in the same mode as earlier concept albums including The Who’s Tommy and Jesus Christ Superstar. The stage production of American Idiot expands on the album, focusing on Johnny, Will and Tunny, who yearn to flee their arid suburban existence. Johnny and Tunny make the break, but Will stays home with his pregnant girlfriend. In “the big city,” Johnny has a hard time getting traction and falls into drug addiction under the influence of a drug-dealing alter ego, St. Jimmy, the role that Armstrong occasionally filled on Broadway. Johnny falls in love, but that goes badly, too. Tunny, who can’t cope with the undisciplined path Johnny travels, joins the Army, is quickly deployed and is seriously injured in combat.
None of them finds solace in these life choices, and their paths are reflected in the raucous Punk Rock score, which includes “City of the Damned,” “I Don’t Care,” “Tales of Another Broken Home,” “21 Guns,” “Wake Me Up When September Ends” and “Boulevard of Broken Dreams.” A writer for Rolling Stone commented, “Though American Idiot carries echoes of such Rock musicals as Tommy, Hair, Rent and Spring Awakening, it cuts its own path to the heart. You won’t know what hit you. American Idiot knows no limits — it’s a global knockout.”
The chance to explore a very different musical form makes American Idiot an essential opportunity for the educational mission of CCM’s musical theater training program, the oldest in the nation. (Pam Myers, the program’s first graduate in 1969, went straight to Broadway and earned a Tony nomination when she originated the role of Marta in Stephen Sondheim’s Company.)
“Our production philosophy in the musical theater program is simple,” said Aubrey Berg, who chairs the program, in a CCM release. “During the four years a student spends with us, they will be exposed to every kind of musical theater work. In the last few years, we have undertaken shows as varied as the groundbreaking Oklahoma!, the fancy footwork of Singin’ in the Rain, the moving spectacle of Les Misérables and the beloved childhood fantasy of Peter Pan. And that does not include our Studio Series, which features such cutting-edge works as Carrie and Blood Brothers. Forgotten musicals are also well-represented in our Musicals Redux Series, which digs into the great storehouse of musical theater history to find some lost gems.”
Berg is in his third decade of leading CCM’s highly competitive musical theater program. He’s joining forces with musical director Stephen Goers for American Idiot. They have collaborated on numerous award-winning productions at CCM, including memorable renditions of Into the Woods, Carrie and Les Misérables.
While American Idiot’s original story was set in the 1990s, Berg’s production has pushed it forward several years to the period immediately following the 9/11 terrorist attacks on America. That gives it a distinctive 21st-century perspective, one that the CCM performers can relate to. Many of them grew up listening to the original album.“I think it’s so special to be part of a program that embraces new musicals as well as the classics, in order to provide the most well-rounded education possible for its students,” said student Tom Meglio in a CCM release. “ American Idiot already has everyone in CCM’s division of theater arts rocking out and ready for some junior high nostalgia!”
Truth to tell, with a longer run than usual, it will have some impact beyond campus. Most CCM productions are only onstage for one weekend. American Idiot gets 10 performances during its 11-day run across two weekends in the 400-seat theater, so it’s an enhanced chance for Cincinnati theatergoers to catch it.
The show is not easy to watch: American Idiot takes a hard, cynical look at jaded youth who struggle with the expectations of the American Dream and come to epitomize a generation that failed to launch. By the story’s end, Johnny, Will and Tunny have moved on with their lives — getting beyond dreams and accepting the hard lessons of maturity. They’re not necessarily happy, but they can have stable, if unimaginative lives. The show’s final lyric in “Good Riddance (Time of Your Life)” sums it up: “It’s something unpredictable but in the end is right. I hope you had the time of your life.” A dark, punkish attitude, to be sure, but one we can learn from. Too bad those kids in Connecticut didn’t get to experience the lesson.
AMERICAN IDIOT at UC’s College-Conservatory of Music is onstage at Patricia Corbett Theater
Thursday through March 13. More info: ccm.uc.edu.