Theater Review: Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson

Benjamin Walker (center) and the company in Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson.
Joan Marcus

It isn’t news that America’s political past was as contentious and chaotic as its present. But the point isn’t often squeezed for its satirical juice as thoroughly as it is in Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, the purportedly “emo” bio-musical currently playing at Manhattan’s Public Theater. (Twice-extended, the show’s run currently ends May 30.) For writer/director Alex Timbers and composer/lyricist Michael Friedman, the wave of popularity on which Jackson rose from Tennessee backwoodsman to Indian-fighting, expansionist general to the Presidency inaugurates our national habit of investing politicians, rather than policies, with a near-Messianic capacity to realize “the will of the people” – especially politicians who can sell themselves, as Jackson did in the 1820s, as “outsider” alternatives to a corrupt, out-of-touch Washington elite.

Or, as this Andrew Jackson calls them, “croquet-playing cock-gobblers.” In Brian Walker’s portrayal, Old Hickory is by turns a petulant teen, a man of action, and a heartthrob in packed jeans: as the groupies at his rallies have it, “We want to fuck you…and also, we hate the tariff!” He’s a rock star, in other words, a conceit that underlies both the show’s score and its primary theatrical mode, which might be called allegory-by-anachronism. The 19th century White House is outfitted with speakerphones and sleek, boxy furniture; Congressmen hand out Valtrex to their constituents; “like”s and “brah”s pepper the dialogue. The device’s wittiest payoff comes with the entrance of Martin Van Buren, John Quincy Adams and other Beltway insiders – over a century before there was a Beltway – who vogue against neon and a pre-recorded Spice Girls track like so many Prada models. (Washington is techno; the frontier is “indie.”)

There’s also no shortage of cartoon violence. Early on, Jackson’s parents keel over to the thwack and twang of offstage arrows, inspiring young Andrew’s animus toward Native Americans. A narrator in a motorized wheelchair – played hilariously by Colleen Werthmann as a cross between The Church Lady and Kids in the Hall’s Cancer Boy – gamely offers historical context, until Jackson tires of having his story told by someone else and picks her off with his rifle. “Sometimes you’ve got to shoot the storyteller,” the ensemble sings. “Sometimes you’ve got to kill everyone.”

Jackson’s military exploits, and the “clearing” of Northern Georgia, among other tribal lands, take place offstage, but his personal life supplies all the sanguinity promised by the title, as the “cutting” kink – more goth than emo, really – shared by Jackson and his initially bigamous bride Rachel Robards is presented in Grand Guignol (or Sweeney Todd) fashion, with gouts of stage blood. That scene also leads to the score’s gamiest song, “Illness as Metaphor,” which ends with the line, “Susan Sontag’s dead, so I guess her cancer wasn’t metaphorical after all.” Complaining that the joke is tasteless only proves that one’s buttons have been pushed, I suppose, but it’s also clunky – the night I saw the show, the audience merely groaned – and distractingly remote from the show’s main concerns.

With this kind of clusterbombing of satirical targets, it’s fair to question the show’s coherence as political theater. “Sound familiar?” moments abound, without adding up to a one-to-one correspondence with current events. The mass appeal of Jackson’s feckless conviction is meant to bring to mind Dubya’s famously “incurious” character; but when his first presidential contest is thrown to the House of Representatives, who hand the office to “legacy” John Quincy Adams, the parallel to Bush v. Gore casts Jackson in the latter role. Even co-creator Timbers notes in an online interview that, over several years of workshop productions, the show has successively “felt like” a comment on Bill Clinton, George Bush, Mike Huckabee, and Obama. (Surely Sarah Palin could be added.)

The company in Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson
Joan Marcus

Of course, Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson is “about” all of these figures, and none. When the show gives itself a chance to pause for breath, it puzzles over broader questions about the relative merits of representative and direct democracy that are (at least) as old as Rousseau and as current as the latest batch of California ballot initiatives – conundrums it can hardly be expected to solve in ninety minutes. The core of the play may be an extended Oval Office sequence in which Jackson comes to realize that the “people” – White House tour-groups of idolatrous gawkers – have no cohesive idea of what their own “will” might be, vis-à-vis the “Indian Question” of the day, or any other. Sound familiar?

Michael Friedman’s music takes on the difficult task of scaffolding the show’s potentially ramshackle structure. The arrangements, performed by an onstage power trio (with cast members strapping on additional guitars as needed), are appropriately direct, managing to approximate rock-club intimacy and volume in a theatrical setting. That said, the lyrics’ juxtapositions of suburban angst (“Why wouldn’t you go out with me in high school”) and frontier rage (“I’m pretty sure it’s our land anyway”) sometimes feel strained, laboriously emphasizing connections made more effectively by Walker’s performance.

As to whether this is the world’s first “emo” musical, let’s just say that dedicated Rites of Spring fans are not the intended audience. The show’s signature sound – call it “Glee-mo” — isn’t thrashy but clean-edged, anthemic, and insistently if sardonically upbeat, underlining major-key hooks with ensemble choruses (“Populism, yeah, yeah!”) and full-band breaks (WHOMP – “This is the age of Jackson!”). Friedman’s compositional chops are apparent in some clever contrapuntal passages and harmonic turns, especially in the stand-out “The Saddest Songs,” but that’s just evidence that he’s plugged into the same feedback loop between musical theater and the pop-rock mainstream that allows Fall Out Boy guitarist Patrick Stump to confess his love for My Fair Lady’s “Almost Like Being in Love” and brings Green Day’s American Idiot to Broadway.

A full evening of this kind of meta-rock might be numbing, and the score wisely turns down the amps at strategic intervals, with a patter song on electoral machinations for Van Buren and his cohort, and a dark reworking of “Ten Little Indians” that serves as comment on Jackson’s dishonorable (and eventually dishonored) treaties with the Creeks and Chickasaws. If that sounds glib, the show’s culminating tableau is anything but, as a ghostly frieze of Native Americans on the Trail of Tears rises up while an older Jackson struggles to justify his career. In fact, the introspective tone of the show’s last fifteen minutes – and its closing song, the acoustic “Second Nature” — is at odds with the irreverence of much of what has gone before. Then again, it isn’t surprising that a show that questions the means by which Jackson pursued national unity would undervalue the dramatic kind; in a way, these shifts in tone reflect the creators’ acceptance of the final verdict on its central figure’s legacy handed down by the “Storyteller,” who reappears as a puffy-sweatered angel near the show’s end: “You can’t shoot history in the neck.” TC mark

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