For director Richard Berg, taking on the stage version of American Idiot was an educational experience. The more he learned about the world of Green Day, Lookout Records, and 924 Gilman Street, the more he began to understand and appreciate a culture that always seemed foreign to him.
“I grew up in North Van, and I wasn’t a punky kid at all,” Berg says, speaking by cellphone between classes at Capilano University, where he’s returned to school to work on a liberal-arts degree. “So I had all these preconceived ideas about punk being about rebellion, punk being about ‘Fuck the man’ and all that sort of stuff.”
A deep dive into the history of Green Day and American punk gave him a different perspective.
“What I discovered through the documentaries and the books I read was that punk wasn’t about rebelling against something, it was about a place to belong,” he says. “It was about a sense of family. All the people that were interviewed talk about how punk was about no sexism, no racism, and no homophobia. It was a culture that was really a leader in what we see as the liberal side of things now.”
American Idiot started out as a critically revered 2004 Green Day concept album that has three friends—Johnny, Will, and Tunny—struggling to break out of the soul-destroying hell known as suburbia. A half-decade after its release, the album became a musical when Green Day frontman and main songwriter Billie Joe Armstrong teamed up with director Michael Mayer, the show eventually landing on Broadway.
In its original album incarnation, American Idiot was a punk-rock opera about a self-destructive antihero in the era of George W. Bush, the Iraq War, and sprawling cultural wastelands ruled by Walmart. Johnny—also known as Jesus of Suburbia—starts out raging against everything. After moving to the city, he’s reborn as the cocksure St. Jimmy, who ends up in a downward spiral of addiction. Will discovers that breaking out of one’s small-town shackles isn’t easy when you’ve got the obligations that come with having a pregnant girlfriend. And Tunny opts for a stint in the military that changes his perspective on life in ways that he never dreamed.
The U.S., of course, has a bigger problem in the White House these days, namely a deluded racist and classist megalomaniac who sees the developing world as a cesspool of “shithole” countries. With that in mind, the URP production of American Idiot updates things for the reign of Donald J. Trump.
“The album was originally a response to the George W. Bush, post–9/11 era and what was going on at that time,” Berg says. “But it wasn’t a lot of work for us to say ‘What if we just set it now? It will still be relevant.’ There’s a lot of rage from young people who feel like they are losing their country, and we don't really have to ask why that is. It's pretty evident from turning on the news.”
The power of American Idiot is in the way it suggests that sometimes anger can be cathartic, and that the bonds of friendship can get us all through seemingly hopeless times. Berg likes that the musical falls squarely between the worlds of theatre and rock show, with a six-piece band on-stage to re-create Green Day’s distortion-powered punk.
“The production isn’t afraid to treat the songs as rock songs,” he says. "I feel like too much rock-musical theatre lands too hard on the musical-theatre side, with sort of a tip of the hat to rock. This show lands solidly on the rock-music side, with a tip of the hat to the theatrical."
But because American Idiot nonetheless has its feet planted in both worlds, Berg adds that the play isn’t just for those fully immersed in punk.
“What’s been a real mind flip for me has been the way that I always thought of punk rock as being a rather exclusive, we-don’t-want-you culture,” he says. “Instead, it’s a very welcoming culture, which really comes through in the show. We’ve designed the costumes so the characters aren’t a cast of 18 homogeneous people, but instead a cast of 18 misfits who welcome each other and belong together. And to that end, my daughter can come enjoy American Idiot, and my mother and her friends, who are in their 70s, can also come and feel welcome. I feel like there’s a great message there.”
American Idiot runs from Tuesday (November 5) to November 10 at Centennial Theatre in North Vancouver.