I take the name of my blog very seriously, although I will admit there's just a wee portion of hyperbole involved in the title "Everything I Know I Learned From Musicals." But I simply can't count how many times I've figured out the meaning of a particular word, say, or put something into historical context by accessing my knowledge of a certain show.
My high school history classes were a frickin' joke, taught mostly by football coaches and Salesian brothers who didn't know Alexander Hamilton from Hamilton Beach. It wasn't until I got to college that I became even remotely interested in history, but my two courses there focused on world history, not U.S. So, it's no great exaggeration to say that much of my grasp of U.S. history has come from such Broadway musicals as 1776, South Pacific, Ragtime, and Ben Franklin in Paris. And, to be quite honest, the only reason I know that Herbert Hoover was president at the start of the great Depression is...well...Annie.
However, I shall henceforth be able to wax historic about our nation's 7th president, thanks to Bloody, Bloody Andrew Jackson, which is currently playing a well-received engagement at The Public Theater. As it turns out, Andrew
Jackson was a rather polarizing figure in his day, and remains so. On the plus side, Jackson helped found the Democratic party and doubled the size of the U.S. by strategic land acquisition. On the negative side, he systematically ghetto-ized and decimated the entire Native American population. At one point during the show, the Jackson character, played here by the dynamic Benjamin
Walker, interjects during one narration about his decidedly mixed legacy by saying something to the effect of "Wait, I always thought history would vindicate me." Nope.
The show traffics in parallels, mostly concerning elements in the Jackson administration that seem to presage -- quite eerily, in fact -- our current political climate. Jackson was an ardent practitioner of populism, a form of politics that pits "the people" against "the elites." In the show, Jackson is frequently depicted fomenting anger against the New England intelligentsia. By coincidence, the day I saw the show, Sarah "Africa is a country" Palin was leading a tea-bagger....er...I mean, tea party rally on Boston Common. Jackson is also depicted in a deliberate and continual attempt to bolster the power of the executive branch at the expense of Congress and the Supreme Court. (cf. The entire tenure of the Bush administration.) The there's the "stolen" presidential election of 1824, in which Jackson won a plurality of both the popular and the electoral votes. But because no one won a majority, the U.S. House of Representatives stepped in and selected John Quincy Adams as president. (I'll let you draw your own parallels there.)
But, enough about my history lesson. Is the show itself any good? Well, the book and the direction by Alex Timbers are smart, funny, and sharp. Bloody, Bloody Andrew Jackson has an irreverent, meta presentation style that I, for one, was lapping up. For instance, at one point in the show, Jackson's wife proceeds to "die of grief." When one character balks at this romanticized description, another responds, "Well, it's the 19th Century. That's the sort of shit that happened back then." I have to say that the rest of the Wednesday night audience at the Public seemed rather subdued in its response, but I got the sense that, with an audience that actually smelled what Timbers was cooking, the show would be a veritable laugh-fest.
The show's main liability is its score by Michael Friedman. I read that Friedman and Timbers chose to create the score in the style of "emo rock," a genre I was not familiar with before this show. Apparently, it's a sort of a punk style with supposedly melodic music and a lot of existential teen angst. The show's creators figured this would be the perfect genre for the show, based on their thesis that America was then in its infancy, and now in its adolescence. So what better way to make the musical connection with the collective petulance of the U.S. electorate? Well, I found Friedman's score tremendously unappealing. Perhaps it's just not a musical style that I would ever respond to, but I wasn't a fan of Friedman's work on Saved either. The songs in Bloody, Bloody Andrew Jackson are serviceable, but never rise above the perfunctory.
GRADE: B (Smart and funny, but not quite exhilarating. Urinetown without the tuneful score.)