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American Idiot: musical theatre with a punk-rock edge

Music

Green Day’s American Idiot is more like a contemporary rock opera or wild concert spectacle than traditional musical theatre, says executive producer Nick Skubij – and its themes have particular resonance in the Trump era.

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For fans of American punk rock band Green Day, the lure of the stage production – which opens at Her Majesty’s Theatre in Adelaide tomorrow – is obvious. It features every song from their defining 2004 album American Idiot, credited with giving voice to a disillusioned generation, as well as tracks from follow-up release 21st Century Breakdown.

But in addition to what Nick Skubij describes as a “blisteringly hot and surprisingly moving” score, the production also has contemporary themes, stars rock musicians Phil Jamieson (of Grinspoon) and Adalita (Magic Dirt), and features dazzling audio-visual and lighting effects.

“There’s something about it that’s really uplifting and exciting and there’s really something in it for everyone … it sort of hits you in the face and then sends you off into the world,” Skubij says.

“It’s attracting people who often haven’t been to the theatre before, never mind musical theatre.”

He says the show – developed by Green Day lead singer and guitarist Billie Joe Armstrong and Michael Mayer – has a simple narrative “about three pissed-off young people looking for meaning”.

Friends Johnny, Will and Tunny live in a small American town called Jingletown and resolve to move to the city, but end up heading in different directions: Johnny falls in love and turns to drugs, Tunny joins the military and fights in the “War on Terror”, while Will stays home after his girlfriend becomes pregnant.

In Adelaide, Jamieson and Adalita will share the role of St Jimmy – Johnny’s rebellious alter-ego who represents the self-destructive side of his personality.

“There’s this great dialogue in the album that seems to tap into the sense of hopelessness and helplessness that young people feel at an age where they are no longer children but as they are entering the adult world they see this bunch of idiots in power,” Skubij says.

After seeing American Idiot‘s success on Broadway and the West End, Skubij’s Brisbane-based theatre company shake & stir (last in Adelaide with stage show Dracula) spent several years working to bring it to Australia. First they had to negotiate the rights, and then there was the question of where and how it should be presented.

“Then Trump became President and, boom, we decided this was the time.”

Green Day wrote American Idiot after 9/11, when many Americans were disillusioned with Bush-era politics and the war in Iraq. After Donald Trump was elected, Skubij says, it seemed like the start of a similar cycle – “only it’s more ridiculous”.

The current touring production, directed by Craig Ilott (who also directed the Adelaide Fringe cabaret-circus show Velvet), has been updated and set in a “Trumpian suburbia”. At one point, as the song “Holiday” is played, montages of direct quotes or slogans from Trump are displayed on screens.

“It’s a great time for this show because it’s supposed to get the audience thinking about their world but it’s also a release … a way to release your frustrations as you sit there and watch it play out,” Skubij says.

“You leave the theatre feeling that someone else shares your thoughts and is voicing these unspoken things.”

He adds that alongside the big rock ballads, there are also quieter acoustic moments.

“The music itself is so iconic … you don’t have to be a Green Day fan to appreciate it.”

Skubij says American Idiot is probably best described as “musical theatre framed in a concert spectacle”.

“The main thing we try to get across is that really awesome excitement you get when going to see your favourite rock band in a stadium or big arena. There’s a real palpable sense of that music hum.”

Green Day’s American Idiot is playing at Her Majesty’s Theatre from January 19-28.

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