As he was talking, I realized that Billie Joe Armstrong had written his own autobiographical Hero Myth story with the American Idiot album, and it seems, also with 21st Breakdown. And what Armstrong and Michael Mayer did was turn that single Hero Myth into three Hero Myths. To do that, a lot of songs that were originally sung by the hero ("Jesus of Suburbia" on the album, Johnny in the show) have been distributed among three "heroes" and the woman in their lives. And the result is that this very personal story has become a collective story, a national story.
Every Hero Myth story is a metaphor for a human life (the struggles, the mentors, the friends, the enemies, the acquired wisdom the journey gives you), and we are the heroes of these stories in American Idiot. This is our history.
And as it should be in this ironic, self-aware, "meta" moment in our history, our heroes seem to know they're off on a Hero's journey. They sing, in "Tales of Another Broken Home":
To live and not to breathe
Is to die in tragedy.
To run, to run away
Is to find what you believe.
Most musicals are either hero myth stories or stories about whether or not the hero will assimilate into the community. Once producing musicals got really expensive in New York in the 1970s, the community stories became less prevalent, because it's easier to make the budget work if there's no chorus. And that focus on the individual matched the culture of the 70s and 80s.
But today in this fractured time, we need stories about communities again, about our collective lives. That's why Rent still speaks so powerfully to us. These new shows are a kind of post-modern community stories. American Idiot is about the struggle not to assimilate into a mainstream culture gone astray. It's still a story about whether or not our heroes will assimilate, but the value of that assimilation is up for debate, unlike older shows. Johnny doesn't assimilate, Will does grudgingly, and Tunny does full-out. But their redemption in the end is learning that each of us must find our own road, even within a community. It's a complex, hybrid story form, and it serves these complex times.
But just as in old-school musical comedies, the community in American Idiot is a character too. Here the community is us, but pointedly not all of us (although, maybe it is "all of us" among the people coming to see American Idiot). Still, even if you've never been Johnny, Tunny, or Will, most people feel like outsiders at one time or another, like the world's going crazy, like we want to just scream.
That's what's at the heart of this show, that deep frustration.
It will be fascinating to see how people react to American Idiot right in the middle of this Presidential primary season...
In its early form at Berkeley Rep, American Idiot opened the show with Johnny singing the title song. That makes sense, of course, starting the story by introducing the central protagonist. But before the show transferred to Broadway, the creators realized their mistake.
Yes, this is a story about Johnny, but also Tunny and Will, and their entire generation. And not just them. Now the show opens with various members of the ensemble singing the beginning of the song. Now the song delivers context, not just emotion. Now the song describes a national problem. Now they begin their story with the community, and it instantly becomes universal.
This song – this show – is about all of us!
And when you put a community onstage, you're automatically referencing the community of actors telling this story, the one-night-only community of the this audience on this night, and the larger community of Americans and of humans, of which we're all a part. So American Idiot becomes America's collective Hero Myth, the journey and struggle we all took together. We need that connection right now, as social media is facilitating the splintering of our society, into Us and Them. We need to be reminded sometimes that we're all us.
Or as Bernard Jaffe (Dustin Hoffman) put it in I Heart Huckabee's, we're all the blanket.
I didn't directly experience this cultural disaffection in the post-9/11 years, because I was already a cultural rebel by then, the self-monikered "bad boy of musical theatre," and New Line was well into its second decade of alternative, socio-political musical theatre. We'd already produced Assassins twice and Hair twice by then.
On the other hand, I've spent most of my adult life being The Other, whether that was because I'm gay, or artsy, or atheist, or The Smart Kid, or because I was a very vocal musical theatre lover during the Barren Years. And I was always a skeptic. I have vivid memories of high school algebra and geometry classes, when I couldn't accept any mathematical concept until the teacher had proved to me why it was true. I couldn't accept it just on their say-so, but once they proved it, I was fine. I can now see an anti-authoritarian streak in myself, probably because I was born in 1964, right in the middle of the counter-culture revolution. My childhood was spent watching Laugh-In, The Smothers Brothers, All in the Family, Hogan's Heroes, The Monkees, Love American Style, and other iconoclastic TV shows, and listening to the great satirist Tom Lehrer.
I think it's fair to say that everyone who comes to see our show is either Johnny, Tunny, or Will – or they have the potential to be. This is a collective Hero Myth story, our story. We have to examine it and understand it, so we don't repeat it. America doesn't learn fast, but we do learn.
When I first saw American Idiot on Broadway, I thought it was a brilliant, powerful, beautiful piece of theatre. What I know now, working on the show, is that it's also a brilliant social document that so insightfully captures that moment in our history when we lost our collective way. This isn't just exciting theatre; this is important theatre.
Maybe even more important now than ever, in this pivotal election year. The adventure continues.
Long Live the Musical!