Before the curtain rose for American Idiot at Manhattan’s St. James Theater last night, an announcer listed the house rules and then added, “By the way, the role of St. Jimmy will be played by Billie Joe Armstrong.” The subsequent shrieking was likely the loudest ever for a Broadway stand-in.
It was an impressive Broadway debut for the Green Day frontman, whose character is an evil influence on the punky protagonist Jesus of Suburbia (played by John Gallagher Jr.). It was also a rare opportunity to see Armstrong in the role: He is filling in for Broadway vet Tony Vincent (who is on short leave for a family matter) for eight performances, the last one of which happens Sunday night. His lines were few, but the 38-year-old fell naturally into the flow of the choreography, and of course, he gave inimitable, passionate performances of his own songs (“Homecoming,” “She’s a Rebel,” “Last Night on Earth,” and “Know Your Enemy”).
Armstrong appeared 30 minutes into the show, atop a moving staircase, where he howled the “1-2-3-4” count-off during “St. Jimmy.” The applause was deafening as he sang the first lines: He strutted down the stairs, grabbed his crotch during the thrashing breakdown, and joined the rest of the cast in their choreographed moves, shooting them up with heroin. As the track’s final note was struck, he grasped hands with Gallagher, and remained in the position for a full minute, to huge applause.
“It turns out he’s a really good actor,” Michael Alden, a fan in his early twenties, told Rolling Stone after the show. “He actually danced. There was choreography, and I believed his character.” Since the musical (which is based on the 2004 Green Day album of the same name, which itself sold five million copies and won a Grammy for Best Rock Album) debuted in April, Billie Joe has promoted it tirelessly, once surprising the audience with a short Green Day set, performing with the cast on Monday Night Football and appearing on local New York television. “These people were on a stage singing my songs — it was kind of like being invited to your own funeral,” Armstrong told Rolling Stone after witnessing the play last spring. “It blew me away.”
Playing St. Jimmy amounts to Armstrong’s biggest show of support yet for the show, which last week played to half-full houses. (Last night appeared to be sold out.) He was respectful of the role, and seemingly intent on not overshadowing the cast — he never broke character or sang numbers outside of his role. Still, he brought 20 years of stage experience to the role. He stood on a television during “Know Your Enemy,” making his trademark bug eyes and pantomiming a gun to his head, and ripped off his shirt during “The Death of St. Jimmy” (revealing plenty of chest tattoos) as the cast crowded around him until he fell backward into their arms.
After the full-cast bow (Armstrong didn’t take his own), the curtain reopened while the full cast held acoustic guitars. Armstrong picked the opening notes to for “Good Riddance (Time of Your Life),” taking the full first verse — typically, the cast trades lines — then left rest of them to the actors.
Afterwards, the audience spilled onto 44th Street and a massive mob waited for Armstrong to emerge (he eventually did, but went straight to his car). “It was surreal to see [Armstrong] singing what he wrote up close and personal,” 19-year-old Natalie Kolbo said outside. “From the first moment he was there, I was in awe.”