When I was fourteen, my mother threw a book in my lap and asked me to read it quickly before I got too old. I looked at the worn-out white-ish cover and at a title I recognized—“The Catcher in the Rye.” She told me that if I didn’t hurry up and read this book, it wouldn’t resonate with me. It doesn’t resonate with you if you’re too old to feel exactly like Holden Caulfield does. So, I took her advice, and Holden Caulfield was a kind of hero to an eighth-grade version of myself. Now, as someone who studies literature for a living, I can confirm that Holden Caulfield is a whiny brat who needs to figure out a way to stay in school.
It’s true what Ally Sheedy’s character in “The Breakfast Club” says: “When you get old, your heart dies.” There are some things, be they films, albums, books, or anything of the like, that have an expiration date in your heart. The nostalgia factor might still be there, but that feeling of being able to take on the world because these characters exist or because this one piece of art is right there in front of you is gone. You’ve left Neverland, and you don’t even remember your trip out.
That’s what the Broadway musical, “American Idiot,” ended up being like for me. Admittedly, I still love the soundtrack and wouldn’t turn down a ticket to the show should it be revived on Broadway or the touring circuit, but it no longer holds the same power over me as it did when I was seventeen and eighteen years old. But when I lived under a blanket of head-banging, punk-rock-esque choreography and angry bar chords, belting out lines like, “To live and not to breathe is to die in tragedy,” I felt more on top of the world than the Carpenters themselves. For two years, I attempted to follow “American Idiot” the musical around the country. And although it’s not something I would attempt again, it was one hell of a ride.
“American Idiot” came into my life on a day I least expected it. As a longtime fan of Green Day, I was devastated when I couldn’t make it to New York City to see the show on Broadway. When the first national tour came around to Detroit in January 2012, I wanted desperately to go, but it seemed that no one bought tickets. I didn’t even (really) complain. Tickets to the theater are expensive. You basically have to take out a second mortgage to sit in the back of the balcony. But just when I thought my chances to see “American Idiot” had expired alongside the American dream, my mother handed me two tickets for the final Detroit performance that Sunday night.
I’m not sure how or why, but that show changed my life for awhile. I thought it was probably the most beautiful thing I’d ever seen, and I’d been to the Wizarding World of Harry Potter at Universal Studios already. The songs blended together seamlessly, the costumes were genius, and the vocal performances were outstanding. After that night, I would go on to see “American Idiot” three more times, but never again with that particular cast—my favorite to date. I was in love. I needed more. I even signed up for social media, my future greatest enemy, just so that I could follow this show around the country for the rest of the school year and into the summer. Even if I wasn’t there, making all these stops with these performers who had reminded me why art was so important, I wanted it to feel like it was.
In hindsight, that was probably pretty creepy. And I probably wouldn’t have done more than just read a few tweets and status updates had I not discovered that there was actually a moderately sized cult following for “American Idiot,” and two of its core members lived just on the other side of the highway from me. The two of them had been best friends since they were six years old, and they officially met me in the spring of 2012. I felt immediately comfortable around them. They were the first people I had ever met who made me feel like I was normal, even cool, because I could become obsessed with things, not in spite of it. They added the necessary fuel to my fire. They taught me not just how to love “American Idiot” but how to live in it.
Unfortunately, I didn’t get to live in it as well as they did. My two friends got to make a stop to see the show in Chicago that I didn’t make because at that time, we still hadn’t physically met. They made a scrapbook for their favorite cast member, and when another cast member saw it and got jealous, they returned the next night with a customized Build-a-Bear for him. That bear got a lot of social media buzz for the rest of the tour. I wanted to be just like them. They got to live “American Idiot” almost all the time while I struggled to remember the ninety-minute performance I had seen once. They loved “American Idiot,” and it loved them right back. I, however, was a faraway admirer.
But I tried my best to be like my friends. I tweeted at cast members, eventually garnering a couple of responses back. I was part of the ridiculous plan to get the three of us to San Francisco that July for the tour’s final performance, which obviously didn’t occur. My grandmother passed the venue on the night of one of the shows, and she reported that it was so terrifying that she needed to leave as soon as she arrived. The three of us got together at my friend’s house in Michigan, anyway, wearing matching “American Idiot” shirts and writing a sappy dedication blog post for the show and the cast, which embarrassingly still exists on the Internet. I hadn’t been involved in the following for years, and I’d only seen the show one time. Still, when I got together with my friends, and we were all somehow able to quote the monologues in between the musical numbers from the show, I felt whole. I felt at one with this piece that changed my life.
For a girl who likes “Harry Potter” and talking about “Harry Potter,” it seems like “American Idiot” should have been the last show to captivate me like that. It’s about three disaffected suburban young men in search of a greater purpose than sitting in their mothers’ basements, drinking beer and smoking, two things I have sincerely never done. One of them fathers a child, which I physiologically cannot do. Another joins the Army, which I haven’t done and probably never will. And the other, the protagonist, develops a drug addiction and a very vivid alternate personality called “Saint Jimmy,” a pair of events that will almost positively never happen in my life. On the whole, “American Idiot” is kind of depressing apart from its second and penultimate numbers. Nevertheless, I wanted to live it, and I think I’m old enough now to understand why.
“American Idiot” presented characters who were angry and unashamed of it. It presented characters who thought and felt deeply about politics, about music, about themselves. This was not “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.” This wasn’t even “Chicago.” It was an hour and a half of rage and love, and for that small window of time in the theater, it was okay to be uncool. It was okay to have the strongest emotions of your life, which arguably occur during your teenage years, too. There, intensity was encouraged, and I spent eight hours a day in a cinderblock building with posters that promoted individuality and individuals who promoted sameness. This musical and the friends I made because of it were my life rafts in a place where I didn’t think I could ever fit in.
The less I felt I fit in at my high school, the faster I chased down “American Idiot” with my friends. Not two weeks into my senior year, the three of us stood in my friend Emily’s dorm room and tried to coordinate a rushed trip to Buffalo to see the show, now in its second national tour with a new cast. I considered skipping my fourth round of the ACT to see this show (As it turned out, taking the ACT an additional time didn’t help me earn more scholarship money at all, so maybe it would have been worth it.). When we discovered that the quickest way to Buffalo was to cut through Canada, I looked up the fastest way to obtain a passport, as I didn’t have one at the time. Later, my friends and I made a trip to Ohio (where I now live) to see the show, and when it was twice canceled because most of the cast was ill, we actually convinced the cast member we’d been tweeting with for several months to come meet us at a record store. A few days later, the same guy gave us his complimentary tickets to the show in Kalamazoo, a city on the West side of Michigan, about three hours from where I used to live. I remember that I felt like a celebrity. I realize now that he was just a nice, recent college graduate with a cool job, but in that moment, it was more than that. It was the sound of hysteria, and I was in love with it.
I saw “American Idiot” twice during my first year of college. The first time, I returned home to my “Idiot” flagship—the Detroit Opera House. Due to some scheduling conflicts, I didn’t go with my two obsessed friends and instead took my sister, grandmother, and a friend I’d had since the fourth grade. I remember that when the new cast began to sing the titular track, the spirit of Roger Murtaugh came over me. I was too old for this. Two years in, and I was already too old for it. I still appreciated the artfulness behind the show, but it no longer thudded in my heart the way it had even ten months earlier. I felt like I was disgusting and like I had betrayed my teenage self. In retrospect, I hadn’t betrayed my teenage self. I had just grown. I had learned to channel my lifelong intensity into other arenas. The third time I saw “American Idiot,” I had finally begun to write again and was already starting a journey toward academia. Having this show in my life had served a purpose. I didn’t need to chase it around the country anymore, but it still beat on like an incredibly fast drum in my chest. I just let the heartbeat lead me to writing solid essays about modern sonnets and “The Great Gatsby” instead of into tweeting embarrassing things about my obsession with a musical.
My last tickets to “American Idiot” were a birthday present. The show was in Toledo, Ohio, not too far away from where I lived then or where I live currently. I wanted so desperately to be sad during that performance, and I guess I was. I knew that it was the last time I would see the show, at least for quite some time. But the waterworks I had expected the last time I saw an “American Idiot” cast perform the show’s encore (The entire ensemble returns to sing and play guitar on Green Day’s “Good Riddance.”) never came. Instead, I was smiling. I was ready to go.
After the show, my friends and I went up to the stage to see if we could snag any of the loose props. Believe it or not, there are a lot of those in this particular show. I finally grabbed my own “Love Happened Here on May 5” flyer, a signature prop from the middle of the story, and headed out to the stage door in a cluster of ultimate fans. Maybe it was the fact that it was a matinee, and I had only ever seen the show in the evening. Maybe it was that when we stood at the stage door, Billie Joe Armstrong’s nephew (who was in the third national tour cast) never came out. But as I stood there and smiled politely for pictures with friends, I didn’t feel like an ultimate fan anymore. I didn’t even go to the fan lunch at Friendly’s like I had the year before. Life went on. I went home. I did my reading for this English class I discovered that I really loved. John Travolta said “Adele Dazeem” at the Oscars that night. And I just wasn’t upset about “American Idiot” being gone at all. Even then, I must have known that the show had served its purpose.
It’s been almost six years since I saw “American Idiot” onstage for the first time. As I got deeper into academia, I lost touch with my “Idiot” friends. But not a day goes by that I don’t think about them or our time together or “American Idiot” as a whole. I might not have the time or even the energy to chase anything around the country anymore, but I don’t regret my teenage dedication to that show at all. My lungs were filled with the sound of hysteria, which eventually led me to great things. I wouldn’t have had it any other way.