Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson: The Public Theater, 6/15/10

24 06 2010

Populism, yea yea!  Of all the shows I planned to see in NYC, I was perhaps most excited about snagging a student rush ticket to the Public’s new production of Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, rumored to make a Broadway transfer soon.  With glowing reviews from the hyper-critical Ben Brantley (hailing it as “the most entertaining and most perceptive political theater of the season”), who wouldn’t have high expectations?

Written and directed by Alex Timbers with music and lyrics by Michael Friedman, Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson follows a recent trend in musical theater: time collapses.  This trend might be traced to Duncan Sheik’s Spring Awakening (2006), which suggests a transhistorical connection between the sexual repression of 19th century Germany and contemporary America by mashing a pop-rock score into the Frank Wedekind narrative.  Whether Spring Awakening‘s collapse is apt and effective is debatable.  Timbers and Friedman similarly crash an emo-rock score into the life of the 7th President of the United States, Andrew Jackson: “America’s firstpopulist president and greatest rock star since George Washington.” This time, the time collapse is undeniably relevant.

For me, Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson‘s time collapse makes a noble attempt at political commentary – but falls into the flash and hype of celebrity culture rather than offering new insight into American politics.  The simple linear narrative could have been ripped from a high school history textbook, simply splashed with contemporized characterizations and slang. While self-aware, the narrative uses and abuses stereotypes: from the feather-wearing Indians to the disabled.  The show’s narrator is a bubbly, present-day school teacher in a wheelchair; she is later shot in the neck (a la Stephen Sondheim’s Into the Woods and Assassins) so that Andrew Jackson can devise his own story. The score is undeniably catchy, though lyrically conversational and sometimes crude.  And like Spring Awakening, the potential heaviness of the narrative is often washed away by the flashy rock concert proceeding onstage.

Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson is undeniably entertaining, complete with an eclectic Spring Awakening-like set that emphasizes the transhistorical collapse (Donyale Werle) and innovative lighting (Justin Townsend), including chandeliers draped into the audience.  (According to executive director Andy Hamingson, whom I happened to meet before the show, the chandeliers were all under $30!)  Interactions among the cast and onstage musicians amp up the volume and energy of the overall production – and poured into skin-tight jeans, Benjamin Walker’s Andrew Jackson rages along with the rest of the 21st century teens in the audience.  In fact, the show hinges on such powerhouse performances and hysterical caricatures of 19th century politician celebrities, from Henry Clay (Michael Crane) to the Martin Van Buren (Lucas Near-Verbrugghe).

While immensely entertaining, I don’t know that Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson yet surmounts a contemporary caricature of a high school history textbook.  However exciting and relevant the premise, I left the theater wondering: is Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson really saying anything new? To my view, Americans are more aware than ever that politicians are celebrities and deeply flawed human beings, leaving a confused and disturbing legacy behind. Obama continually fails to fulfill the promising image of “hope” and “change” that his campaign plastered across the nation.  George Bush’s embarrassing speech slip-ups (immortalized in SNL reenactments) endure alongside the devastation of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.  And yes, Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson swept the nation with youth and populism in the early 19th century – but his image is now forever tarnished by the Trail of Tears. I am enthusiastic about seeing a new, politically-aimed show on Broadway … but Timbers and Friedman have some work to do yet.




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