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Sometimes you have to make your own story, sometimes you have to shoot the storyteller in the neck - EXCELSIOR, YOU FATHEAD!

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November 17th, 2012


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08:22 am - Sometimes you have to make your own story, sometimes you have to shoot the storyteller in the neck
Sonya and I caught SpeakEasy's production of BLOODY BLOODY ANDREW JACKSON on Wednesday night. I also caught it during its brief Broadway run in 2010 and both times was as thoroughly entertained as one can be with a musical which raises an interesting question: "What if Andrew Jackson, our seventh President, was a young emo rock star?" (Asked by the show's creators, one day, over coffee. Things don't get any higher concept than that.)

They've got a point, a very good one: Jackson was a political rock star, the first President who wasn't made by the caucus-loving political elite, a populist whose followers created a new political party for him and then trashed the White House during Jackson's open-to-the-public inaugural ball (a scene not included in the musical, but its spirit is definitely there.) And emo? He was definitely emo. He came from Circumstances which one would call Pretty Bad. His father died three weeks before he was born, his two brothers died during the American Revolution, and his mother died of cholera when he was fourteen. That's pretty much the perfect age for our musical Jackson to declare in song "Life sucks, and my life sucks in particular."(1) Jackson grew up hardened in battle, many battles really, and practiced ritual bloodletting with his wife. The dude was a cutter. I don't even know why I'm still pressing this point.

This, then, leads us to a very youthful musical about a youthful country performed by Kids These Days. I'm trying not to be dismissive here, I'm really not, but upon leaving the theater in 2010 I remarked "I think I know how thirty-somethings in 1968 felt when they saw Hair."(2) This youth culture is not mine; my youth culture was not this. This is the culture of bros, hipsters, fauxhawks and duckfaces. I am okay with this. The show requires brash, invincible twenty-somethings to put over the portrayal of a brash, invincible early 19th century country. When they collectively sing about taking the land "back" from the British, Spanish and natives, they need to believe, however naively, that they are "pretty sure it's our land, anyway." The musical is loud, angry, energetic, and in places sexypants as befits its slogan. In one of many wonderful anachronistic moves, our stage version of Andrew Jackson does not age beyond, say, twenty-three.

It's all a mish-mosh of period and contemporary, never trying to maintain one century over the other. Waistcoats, watch fobs and neck ruffs mix chaotically with t-shirts, tight jeans and eyeliner on everyone. Benjamin Walker, who originated the role of Andrew Jackson all the way from the show's first workshopping to West Coast tryouts to off-Broadway to Broadway, had the Billie Joe Armstrong look down pat. The score echoes Green Day in parts, but it also echoes Kander & Ebb: the backroom "Corrupt Bargain" which gave the 1824 election to John Quincy Adams when Jackson had won the popular vote is presented in a doodle-doo doodle-doo number which would have fit quite easily in Chicago. The next number goes right back to Green Day.

It's madness. There is no fourth wall; a contemporary narrator is shot in the neck before Jackson even takes office, which as Sonya pointed out to me, beats Assassins' record of early narrator removal. A song entitled "Illness as Metaphor" begins by refuting Susan Sontag but ends when it realizes "her cancer wasn't metaphorical at all... sorry." The Washington elite are preening runway queens. Henry Clay wears a weasel ascot with weasel head attached. Jackson has a Wii in his Oval Office and receives tour groups from Tennessee wearing orange "GO VOLS" shirts. James Monroe shows up in one of the show's final scenes, as Jackson receives an honorary doctorate from Harvard, and defiantly stays after another cast member informs him that he's dead by this point. Anachronisms, schmanachronisms, the musical just doesn't give a fuck and that's what makes it work.

Mostly.

At its best, Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson is a historical pageant gone horribly awry, a Schoolhouse Punk lesson in populism (yea, yea!) and a successful experiment in art direction. It could very well have been a half-assed revue featuring a bunch of hipsters singing historical stuff ironically and self-referentially for laughs, but it has faith in its non-fuck-giving convictions. The parallels run both ways. Jackson's line "Presidents don't need to ask permission" accurately points fingers at modern-day politicians, and a song near the end of the show asks if Jackson's immediate Manifest Destiny legacy was worth it for "the swimming pools, the highways, the ballgames in the dusk". (3)

But the show falls apart entirely in the last third when we reach a certain point in Jackson's presidency. The immature, Wii-playing cabinet (and Oval Office cheerleaders who make out with each other to entertain the tourists) are fine as Jackson dissolves the National Bank and tells the Senate to go suck his dick when they subsequently censure him. Those Senate guys are a bunch of douchebags, anyway. The attitude still works when Jackson painfully realizes that the people don't really want to dictate all that boring political policy themselves; they want their duly-elected leader to dictate it for them. Not even the band wants to pitch in and help him run the country.

But all this energy, all this rock star madness, all these anachronistic shenanigans which work wonderfully for Jackson's populist rise can not and do not work when it comes to the issue of his forced relocation of Native American tribes, the ethnic cleansing to make way for Manifest Destiny. The show opens with Jackson announcing "Here's the thing about the Indians", but much like admitting Sontag was right, it realizes it cannot address the heavier issues with such a light tone. It has to give a fuck here.

So it does, and everything stops cold. To its credit, the production doesn't shy away from the problem. Instead, it tackles it head-on as best as it can. The narrator comes back (with a halo and a harp) to tell Jackson that people are still divided on his legacy. Yes, he acquired more land for the U.S. than Jefferson's Louisiana Purchase, but at what cost? The angel narrator informs us that some consider Andrew Jackson "an American Hitler", and when Jackson wonders why history hasn't vindicated him, she responds "You don't shoot history in the neck!" If there is any time for Jackson to "grow up"(4) and admit responsibility it is now, but even though the show spends the majority of its running time celebrating the man, it does not give him an opportunity for posthumous apology and redemption. That's a form of revisionism which it will not attempt. I agree with this move.

The show ends with Jackson pondering all of this downstage in harsh white light, a sharp contrast to the predominantly red lighting scheme of the rock show. The cast stands upstage, holding up photorealistic masks of Native Americans, a sharp contrast to the plastic feather war bonnets and suction cup arrows in the first half. Lights out. Audience sits in silence. All the sexypants energy, so eagerly generated at the start, has been sucked out of the room. The upbeat curtain call rings false.

I should like to think it's not the fault of the show that it falls apart like this, but Andrew Jackson's. After all, he was the guy who did it. The show went through enough revisions and workshops that it's clear the ending was the best out of several attempts, so I suppose this is the best we get. I can make peace with that. The first two-thirds of the show are an absolute blast and the reason why I wanted to go see it again.

I was very glad to see the show another time thanks to SpeakEasy, but much preferred the cast I saw in New York City. SpeakEasy's Andrew Jackson was not played with as much strength, swagger, anger and power that Benjamin Walker brought to the role; instead, he took the petulant emo route, often coming off whinier than Jackson should be. He still had one hell of a presence, but at times I felt like he was channeling Doug from The State.

However, I suspect Boston probably had an influence on the sexypants swagger or lack thereof. In New York, Walker made his entrance in his tight black jeans and announced "I'm Andrew Jackson, and I'm gonna fuck each and every one of you tonight" and the crowd, younger than I, howled. Jackson did not make this promise in Boston. I was possibly on the younger side of the median age in that Wednesday night Brahmin audience, which may not have enjoyed hearing it. You can't give the nice old rich people heart attacks before the opening number. (They didn't get a lot of the jokes, either, and I think Sonya and I had to start the applause after at least one song. So it goes.)

The ensemble, all but two of whom were new to SpeakEasy, did a good job; Sonya was impressed by the singer who did, in her words, "the best Amanda Palmer impression I've ever seen from anyone who still had her own eyebrows". But as well as they worked together, I felt the energy was off. They were not acting all Rock Star. Jackson should act all Rock Star and he does, but the ensemble needs to as well to keep that energy up. The direction seemed to treat the rock musical more like a musical and less like a rock show, which is not how they did it in New York. It was rock show all the way over there. I am slightly vindicated upon hearing the original cast recording.

Perhaps it was just a mid-week lull. Perhaps it was because the arrangements weren't as loud and electric this time around. There was a lot more piano and less fuzzy, stomped-on electric guitar. But these are quibbles; I have no regrets. The show still had a lot of energy, the material which worked was as good as I remembered, and it was a damn good evening out for twenty-five bucks. We even got an occasional horn section this time around, which gave the curtain call number, a version of the folk song "The Hunters of Kentucky", a pretty great ska sound.

Oddly enough, the New York version of "Hunters" was all guitar and bass drum and a voice which made the song sound an awful lot like something the self-proclaimed "Celtic thrash" band Cordelia's Dad would have performed. In the mid-90s. Oh, hey, there's my youth culture. I wondered where we left it.


1. For the sake of narrative simplicity, Jackson's family and hometown die en masse after the opening number, but hey.

2. I did not feel the same way when I left the theater in 2012, but that was mostly because this time around I wasn't one of the oldest people in the audience.

3. The Broadway show hung John Gast's American Progress upstage left and lit it appropriately during this number; SpeakEasy's less ostentatious setting did not feature the painting at all, which I thought was a small shame.

4. Jackson was actually sixty-one when he assumed the office of President in 1828, but again, hey.

(11 comments | Leave a comment)

Comments:


[User Picture]
From:scholargipsy
Date:November 17th, 2012 03:05 pm (UTC)
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This is an excellent and thoughtfully written review. I am a big fan of the original NYC production, but I agree that the last third or so is problematic, probably inescapably. Nonetheless, as a show-tune guy and a high school history teacher, I like very much BBAJ's willingness to eschew both easy answers and easy irony. It's a deceptively smart, canny take on a complicated and divisive moment in U.S. politics, one that (as you point out) is still in many ways lingering on into our present.

Edited at 2012-11-17 03:05 pm (UTC)
[User Picture]
From:sovay
Date:November 18th, 2012 08:55 am (UTC)
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Nonetheless, as a show-tune guy and a high school history teacher

Good; that makes you the person I should clearly be asking about political musicals, because I've been trying to think of others since Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson and I'm coming up with a pitifully small number—Of Thee I Sing (with sort of half a point for Let 'Em Eat Cake), 1776, Fiorello!, Assassins. It really feels there should be more, considering there's no shortage of political music. Am I missing something really obvious? Should I have counted agitprop like The Cradle Will Rock after all? Okay, I've just remembered the existence of I'd Rather Be Right, but does anyone even know it outside of Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942) anymore?
[User Picture]
From:scholargipsy
Date:November 19th, 2012 03:58 am (UTC)
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Let's see...there's also Ben Franklin in Paris, featuring Robert Preston in the title role, and at least two Lincoln musicals: Abe and Abraham Lincoln: The Musical. And Berlin's Mr. President, and Strike Up the Band.

If you define politics just a bit more broadly, a number of musicals start qualifying: Weill's Lost in the Stars, Johnny Johnson and (less so, admittedly) The Threepenny Opera. Chess is pretty overtly political too, as are Urinetown, Evita, Pacific Overtures, and (sort of) Ragtime.

And last and least, let us not forget the ill-starred 1985 Ed Koch story Mayor: The Musical. Or maybe we should.
[User Picture]
From:ladymondegreen
Date:November 20th, 2012 12:12 am (UTC)
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And a few numbers from Annie, particularly "We'd Like to Thank You, Herbert Hoover".
[User Picture]
From:sovay
Date:November 28th, 2012 06:39 pm (UTC)
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there's also Ben Franklin in Paris, featuring Robert Preston in the title role

That would be one of the obvious I was afraid I was missing. I blink very hard every time I see that entry in Preston's CV and then I think my brain erases it from memory.

I've never heard of either of the Lincoln musicals. Is it the usual reason, or would I be surprised by them?
[User Picture]
From:asakiyume
Date:November 17th, 2012 11:10 pm (UTC)
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Jackson grew up hardened in battle, many battles really, and practiced ritual bloodletting with his wife.

What?!

I'm going to read the rest of the entry, but I just had to raise my hand and holler at that point lest I forget.
[User Picture]
From:asakiyume
Date:November 17th, 2012 11:22 pm (UTC)
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(So happy to discover you're a Cordelia's Dad fan!)

The show seems, from your and Sonya's descriptions, to be so allergic to the fourth wall that I wonder if bringing the audience to that abrupt final third of the show and the ending isn't in some way the point. But maybe that's giving too much credit; it seems equally likely that they had their emo Jackson concept (first two-thirds) and just couldn't reconcile it with the subject matter of the final third, and so just threw it up there and claimed--or hoped their reviewers and analyzers would claim for them--intentionality.
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From:derspatchel
Date:November 28th, 2012 06:47 am (UTC)
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(So happy to discover you're a Cordelia's Dad fan!)

Nice to meet another! I grew up in Western Mass and was in high school when the first few albums came out. How Can I Sleep? was my first. The band formed the musical backbone of one of my social circles; I have many fond memories of seeing them at the Iron Horse with a bunch of friends and then going out to the Whately Diner for late night trucker annoying. Lovely times.
[User Picture]
From:muffyjo
Date:November 18th, 2012 12:34 am (UTC)
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What a fascinating review and certainly an interesting sounding show. Having just seen the trailer for Rock of Ages, I'm now picturing Tom Cruise as Andrew Jackson. Well, perhaps an older and more jaded Andrew Jackson.
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From:greenlily
Date:November 18th, 2012 01:08 am (UTC)
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woohoo, Cordelia's Dad! Ran across their trad-punk stuff after listening to the Pogues' Rum, Sodomy And The Lash about six times in a row and going "...you know, there's got to be someone else out there doing this stuff". \m/
[User Picture]
From:strange_selkie
Date:November 19th, 2012 02:38 pm (UTC)
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......Huh.

That's really all I've got, not being a steady consumer of the surreal. I wanted to thank you for going to this strange and dangerous length to write a review so entertaining, though.

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