Who knew that a musical about states’ rights, the Trail of Tears, and presidential politics could make you want to stand and shout: “Populism, Yeah Yeah!”? It’s possible and it’s happening at the Public Theater through June 27th: Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson is a gleeful 90-minute romp through the life of our seventh president as seen through a pair of ironically worn plastic-rimmed glasses. And while the basic story of Jackson’s life is familiar enough, you’ve never heard it told quite like this: part rock concert, part history lesson, Jackson’s turbulent life and rise to the presidency unfolds in a series of sketches, in which our founding fathers eat Twinkies and Jacksonian groupies play Wii in the president’s office. Through director and book writer Alex Timber’s tightly staged production, the satirical comedy seems to explode from the text in the form of slapstick, mugging, and sheer silliness. Combine that with Michael Friedman’s music and lyrics—which paraphrase, parody, warp, and worship the rock sounds of bands from AC/DC to Weezer—and you have a witty and wonderful hybrid of history and hipsterism.
What is so great about this musical is that even the actors seem to be having fun as they draw almost absurd parallels between the disaffected hipster youth of 2010 and the founders of the Democratic party of the 1820s. Jackson is played by Benjamin Walker, who looks like he could have stepped out of a music video by the emo band Panic! At the Disco. Theensemble brings a range of characters—from valley girls to politicians to ballet dancing Indians—to life with straight-faced sincerity, and Lucas Near-Verbrugghe, Michael Crane, Michael Dunn, Jeff Hiller and Ben Steinfeld give stand out performances as Elizabethan-collar-clad founding fathers.. Emily Rebholz’s whimsically anachronistic costumes perfectly compliment the dive-bar-cum-portrait-gallery vibe of Donyale Werle’s set, and Justin Townsend’s lighting takes us from darkly lit indie club to spectacular rock show and back. Danny Mefford’s choreography is sharp and perfectly fitting for every situation, whether it’s a quote from Sondheim’s Company or a hilariously stylized bar brawl.
Less an heir to the “serious” rock musical Spring Awakening than the punk rock progeny of the satirical Urinetown, Andrew Jackson feels like one long wink at the audience—in the best possible way. This is camp done with intelligence, blending states’ rights with the Spice Girls and Susan Sontag. Of course, this isn’t a perfect musical. It grows unwieldy in the second half as it grows plot-heavy and preachy. And it’s clear from the first few moments of voice-cracking uncertainty
that punk rock wasn’t meant to be sung eight shows a week. The music itself is catchy but generic, and the lyrics are almost consciously “bad.” But the generic quality seems to be the point: the language of punk rock is generic, and it’s clear that the writers have an understanding of this musical vernacular. And while, in theory, an emo-rock musical might seem a strange way to tell Jackson’s story, this campy mash-up between genres and centuries is strangely fitting in practice. The narcissistic, anti-establishment anger that simmers beneath punk rock culture seems to parallel the motivation behind the man whose face adorns the twenty-dollar bill. Moreover, the trend-whores and groupies of the Jacksonian populist movement seem oddly familiar, only electing the president because he seems like a guy “you’d want to have a beer with.” If anything, the music of Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson just proves that if you don’t learn from history, you might just be doomed to repeat it. Only, next time, with tighter jeans.
PS Although the show closes one week from today, rumors abound as to BBAJ’s possible run on Broadway next year–just in case, catch one of the final performances if you can! And follow @PublicTheaterNY on twitter for updates!
Kay Prins SoA ’12