Green Day lead singer Billie Joe Armstrong to debut Broadway Idiot documentary at SXSW


Billie Joe Armstrong joins the cast for the finale of “American Idiot.” “Broadway Idiot,” a documentary on Green Day’s shocking musical on Broadway, premieres Friday, March 15 at the Paramount Theatre. Billie Joe Armstrong of Green Day fame modeled the musical loosely on his life (Photo courtesy of Courtney Knittel).

Willa Young

Green Day’s seventh album, American Idiot, was wildly popular, with its brutal messages of American political and social issues. So naturally, Green Day’s leading man, Billie Joe Armstrong, decided to take this album and translate it into a Broadway musical.

The musical was obviously flabbergasting to Broadway goers, who were used to tap shoes and cheesy smiles and unrealistic, happy endings. Armstrong decided to film the making of this musical from its earliest origins to Opening Night at the St. James Theatre in New York, and to create a documentary to help audiences understand how this very strange venture came about. The resulting film, “Broadway Idiot,” is to premiere at the South By Southwest Film Festival on March 15.

“SXSW is the perfect place to premiere ‘Broadway Idiot’ because it combines film with two great music traditions – Punk and Broadway,” director Doug Hamilton said in a press release for “Broadway Idiot.” “The film ultimately is a profile of a famous artist (Billie Joe Armstrong) brave enough to try something completely different.”

Punk rock and Broadway are two seemingly conflicting styles. The first is characterized by mean and gritty three-chord songs, using bass, drums and electric guitar to blast a powerful melody. Broadway has a sugary sweet reputation, and often employs pastel costumes, whimsical dance numbers and the occasional love ballad.

“I never thought I’d end up doing Broadway,” Armstrong said in the film with a vigorous headshake.

Michael Mayer, the musical’s director, was shocked to find himself in this situation as well. 

“Billie Joe is a punk rocker from the East Bay, working-class kid. I’m from Rockville, Md., upper-class family and theater geek,” Mayer said in the film. “We have nothing in common. There’s absolutely no reason why this should work.”

The musical’s score is composed of every song on American Idiot, plus additional songs written by Armstrong. American Idiot was seen as an anti-war and anti-Bush album, and Armstrong was focused on addressing these same issues in the stage version. “American Idiot,” the musical, revolves around three young men who feel smothered in their suburban town and want to rebel against the mainstream. It addresses the dangers of drug use, the war in Iraq and the influence of the
American media. 

“Broadway Idiot” delves into the complex origins of Armstrong’s entry into the strange world of Broadway and the struggle to put his vision onstage in a way that is understandable and relatable.

“Broadway Idiot” captures the insanity and excitement of two crazy worlds coming together through the personal story of Billie Joe Armstrong,” producer Ira Pittelman said in a press release.

The documentary, however, does not address the events after the opening night of “American Idiot.” The musical received mixed reviews from critics. It was put down for a lack of character development and a skimpy story that was overshadowed by the powerful songs. It garnered praise for its high-energy score of hits, simple but innovative scenic design and immensely gifted cast led by beloved Broadway star John Gallagher Jr.

UT theater junior Shae Tomlinson went to see the original production of “American Idiot” in New York specifically for John Gallagher Jr., who was fresh off his Tony-winning run as Moritz Stiefel in the outrageously successful musical “Spring Awakening.” 

“After seeing it, I thought the music was great, but there wasn’t really a story,” Tomlinson said. “It just felt like a Green Day concert with great dancing and
lots of singers.”

Tomlinson also concluded that the cutting-edge idea of meshing punk and Broadway was commendable, but they did not pull it off. This opinion was shared by much of the Broadway community and the show failed to have the groundbreaking power that Armstrong and Mayer desired.

“The secret to success on Broadway begins and ends with the commercial appeal of the project,” said Justin Eick, the artistic director of the Theatrical Education Group, located in Los Angeles.

“As a producer, you have to ask yourself, ‘Will this sell tickets?’” he said. “Frankly, that’s a major reason why Shakespeare was successful in his time — he was a businessman first. He knew that in order for his plays to be successful they needed to appeal to the masses.” 

Eick was quick to add that the No. 1 way to guarantee solid ticket sales is, “Story, story, story. If the story is no good, no amount of theatrics will save you.”

Perhaps the “Broadway Idiot” debut at SXSW can achieve more success than Armstrong’s musical shocker.