Green Day’s un-romanticized “American Idiot”
“Punk rock is about breaking out of the box,” stated Trent Saunders who plays St. Jimmy in the “American Idiot” musical. “So what is more punk rock than creating a punk rock musical? It is something no one would ever expect.”
This is precisely true. As Green Day has been at the forefront of the punk revival explosion for two-plus decades and the band has even won a Grammy for the American Idiot album. A stage play based on the album is something that even surprised fans, but considering the 2004 album is a concept album, the idea works beautifully.
Saunders described the musical as a “coming-of-age story between three friends: Tunny, Will and Johnny who come from suburbia and they feel stuck and oversaturated by the media and everything around them and want to get out of there.” Johnny and Tunny end up escaping, but the character of Will ends up staying because he gets his girlfriend pregnant and goes through a separate journey with that situation. Tunny joins the army and ends up going to Iraq and goes through the challenges that come with going to war.
Johnny, however, winds up meeting the girl of his dreams, but he can’t handle the alienation of a big city and when he meets Saunders’ character of St. Jimmy he gets turned on to the world of drugs, sex and rock n’ roll. One can say that this St. Jimmy character is as devious as the devil and just as charming as Casanova.
“He is very, very charming, but although a lot of people would classify him as an evil bad guy, he can also be thought of as just a direction to go in life, even if the direction may not lead to the best choices,” said Saunders. “I think people are drawn to him because of this charm and charisma that makes people like him. His character is powerful enough and crazy enough that you can go off your gut when playing him.” However, Saunders says that he would not want to be in any of these four characters’ shoes in reality. “They are full of struggles and their paths are not very enticing to me,” he admitted, while laughing.
Like the album, the play is set in a post-9/11 backdrop and it is used to create a commentary on the media wars and distrust caused by the events that came about after that terrorist attack, like the Iraqi war.
However, those who also want to see a parallel and commentary in other ways don’t have to look farther than the Green Day front man Billie Joe Armstrong’s recent stint in rehab and his onstage meltdown at the iHeartRadio Music Festival in late September 2012. It was there that, after he learned that the band only had one more minute to play in the set, he said, “You’re gonna give me one fucking minute? One fucking minute! … I’m not fucking Justin Bieber, you motherfuckers.” He then smashed his guitar onstage and then told the audience, “We‘ll be back,” and walked off.
Saunders, however, is quick and sincere enough to defend Armstrong’s recent troubles. “He is an incredible artist and a lot of that comes from dealing with the dark side and having your own demons, your own St. Jimmys,” Suanders explained. “That is the hard thing about this culture; the other side of it.”
The comparison of the play’s Johnny and St. Jimmy characters with Armstrong’s real life problem is shown again as Saunders described the characters’ existential search in their lives as a theme of the play.
“There is a point that we almost romanticize drug use, in that there is a reason people keep coming back to it and find an escape in it,” he explained. “It may never be the right decision, as the Johnny character finds at the end … but life’s meaning is the question in any coming-of-age story: the search for meaning, the search for purpose.”
He then added, “The St. Jimmy character is really for everyone and he will always be there, as the dark side is always there to entice you. I think that is scary, but this is also a truth to the character and meaning of St. Jimmy.”
In this way, “American Idiot” can be considered more in tune with modern society than most musicals.
“I think this musical connects to the people stronger than a lot of stories, because there is a truth to a lot of what these people have to go through in terms of current events,” said Saunders. “It is more resonant.”
Saunders also said that after people see the musical he wants an “awareness” to be created.
“There are two worlds that converge in the project: one is the Green Day punk rock scene [that comes] for the music and ends up connecting to the story; the other is the musical crowd that often sees ‘West Side Story’ and has to stretch and grasp a music style they haven’t even begun to understand,” he explained. “This musical creates conversations and awareness between different generations and cultures … that is always essential.”
Green Day’s “American Idiot” runs March 12-14 at the Victoria Theatre, 138 N. Main St. Showtime is 8 p.m. For ticket information, call 937.228.7591 or visit victoriatheatre.com.
Reach DCP freelance writer Nick Schwab at NickSchwab@daytoncitypaper.com