In 2004, in my mid-20s, I saw the musical Rent on Broadway. I’d also caught it when it came to Melbourne in 1999, and it had seemed revolutionary to me the first time. A rock musical about AIDS, featuring queer characters, with a live rock band on stage. It was bold and exciting and Christine Anu played Mimi and she was wonderful. When I saw it in NYC, in a tiny theatre, five years later, it felt dated – the music felt twee and no longer cool to me – Roger seemed like a narcissist and not the tragic bohemian artist I’d seen five years earlier.
American Idiot the musical, written by Green Day frontman Billie Joe Armstrong and based on the 2004 studio album of the same name, was first performed in 2009. Now, 14 years on, it feels like it’s aged far worse than Rent had to me then – and with fewer redemptive qualities.
American Idiot follows the story of three friends: Johnny (Mat Dwyer), Tunny (John Mondelo) and Will (Ronald MacKinnon), who live in the fictional suburban wasteland town of Jingletown, in post 9/11 US. They are disaffected, bored, purposeless and dream of moving to the city where they believe their luck will change. Will ends up staying because his girlfriend finds out she’s pregnant, Tunny ends up joining the army and going to fight in Afghanistan, and Johnny meets a girl, develops a wild-living alter ego (St Jimmy, performed with feisty energetic zeal in a glittery tiger-striped suit by Will Huang) and spaces out on heroin for a while. The story is pretty lacklustre, really – not that everyone is going to musicals for the storylines.
Now I have to ‘fess up: I was a massive Green Day fan. The height of their success in the 90s correlated with my own coming-of-age – so their stoner proto-emo punk rock was my absolute jam. And the music in Theatrical’s production of American Idiot, produced by Andrew Gyopar and directed by Scott Bradley, doesn’t disappoint. The band – situated behind wire mesh and visible through the dual-level metal scaffold-like set – are very talented and seamless. The musical direction by Tahra Cannon is also to be commended.
The music is an absolute highlight, and reason enough to see the show. The audio mixing for a musical with such a large cast is also really impressive – it’s tight and spot on. There’s a cute bit of band banter, when Johnny says that ‘the band will probably suck’, referring to his new girlfriend’s plan to take him to see a gig. The pretty sexist remark is interrupted by a loud ‘Oy, shut the f**k up!’ from the guitarist behind the mesh. Lol.
Which brings me to the heart of the ‘ageing badly’ issue: in 2023 it feels pretty boring to watch a musical about three dudes who whinge a lot about their lives, and where the female characters are so sidelined they often don’t even have names. The protagonist’s love interest is called ‘Whatshername’ and Tunny’s is ‘Extraordinary Girl’. In the show notes, Bradley mentions there was an effort to give the ‘female leads and ensemble more power, purpose and control’, presumably in having more women in ensemble roles – but there’s not much you can do when the script is what it is.
Theatrical is a not-for-profit production company, and the program indicates that it’s run by volunteers. So, as you may imagine, there is a somewhat patchy level of performances across the board, but on the whole it’s really quite impressive, when you think that this huge cast are also balancing lives and study and everything else, and not getting paid.
Some clear standouts are Romy McIlroy as Whatshername and Harmony Thomas-Brown as Heather. Both have incredible voices and their performances are great examples of the power of singer-actors. Through their singing, they are able to express the vulnerability and hopefulness, the bitter disappointment and rage of their characters’ situations – affected by the existential ennui, Peter Pan syndrome or impotence of their male counterparts.
The male leads are well cast and capably manage their larger roles – and there are some impressive moments that make the most of some of the more heartfelt, stripped-back songs, including ‘Wake Me Up When September Ends’, performed by Mat Dwyer as Johnny, Ronald Mackinnon as Will and John Mondelo as Tunny, all on acoustic guitar.
Now, nearly 20 years on from seeing Rent in NYC, I’ve grown to appreciate that musical more and more. While the AIDS epidemic is no longer what it was – at least in the Western world – and LGBTQIA+ politics have moved forward in so many ways, this was a story that talked about what it was like dealing with the challenges of just living as a young person. American Idiot, for all the nostalgia I have for the music, conversely feels like a story that’s missing any real heart, and it’s hard to actually care about any of the main characters.
But look, if you’re not worried about story, and you were a 90s/naughties punk kid – go for the ripping music, the quality production and for the nostalgia a room full of ripped-fishnets, tartan miniskirts, flannies, Connies and docs will bring you. And who knows – maybe in another 20 years I’ll come around to the story.
American Idiot is produced by Theatrical
Chapel off Chapel, Victoria
Director: Scott Bradley
Musical Director: Tahra Cannon
Choreographer: Grace Collins
Assistant to the Director: Karen Shnider
Stage Manager: Katherine Faichney
Production Assistants: Burnie Dariol and Liz Park
Executive Producer: Andrew Gyopar
Principal Cast: Mat Dwyer, Ronald MacKinnon, John Mondelo, Will Huang, Romy McIlroy, Harmony Thomas-Brown, Tashyia Prins, Thomas Martin
Katie Andermahr, Lilly Bajada, Jerome Eccleston, Caitlyn Le, Sasha Lippman, Oliver Midson, Lo Vanguardia, Sami Le Vaunter, Imogene White
American Idiot will be performed until 26 March 2023.