Move over, American Idiot, there is a new bad boy rock 'n' roll show on Broadway, and his guns are ablaze and his wit is dagger sharp. And his emotional outbursts may be as self-centered as yours, but his have deadly consequences on a national scale. His name is Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, and he has taken the rock, self-reverential and blistering satirical musical to a whole new level. If you were wondering how the groundwork laid by such shows as Urinetown: The Musical and the aforementioned American Idiot would progress into the next generation of American musicals, you need only get yourself to the Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre and find out what all the fuss is about.
Finally, there is a show that no one can say "they didn't carry it out as far as they could," or "they sold out and went commercial," or "it's it too bad they compromised." No, BBAJ is evidence that you can still be all out with your creativity, that you can be smart and still be fun, and that there is an audience for unlikely subjects as long as you stick to your point of view and you remember that musicals are first and foremost a form of entertainment. As such, this show is the almost perfect blend of what I love about musicals. It ignites all of my senses, it makes me think, it makes me feel and it sticks with me long after exiting the theatre.
Of course, when you do go all out, you are sure to alienate some people (have you read the message boards?), and are sure to make fanatics out of others. You are bound to insult some and cause others to roll their eyes in disgust. Long before Andrew Jackson was even an idea (the writers might not have even been alive yet or were very small boys if they were) there was another show that engendered such extreme reactions from its audiences and the theatre world in general. That little show was Sweeney Todd, and while I am not even remotely suggesting that Andrew is the masterpiece that Sweeney is, there is no denying that they are remarkably similar, right down to the blood stained costumes and sensory overload provided by their perspective productions.
What perhaps gives Andrew Jackson the edge on edgy is that it is about a real person. Sweeney is about a legendary figure of the penny dreadful tradition in England, and possibly a mass murderer or two that took their cue from the legend of the killer barber. On the other hand, Andrew Jackson, even considering how skewed and purposely fictionalized his history is depicted here, is about a real leader, and a real man who was responsible for a mass genocide within our borders. The ramifications of his actions remain with us to this day. And while he certainly doesn't remain in our thoughts these days like Washington, Jefferson and Lincoln are, Jackson represents a dark, if forgotten, period in American history.
Scarier still is the fact that a lot of his ways and political views have remained in the public political consciousness. Book writer/director Alex Timbers and composer/lyricist Michael Friedman have gone to great lengths and hit us repeatedly over the head with the parallels between the early 19th Century politics of Jackson and every president and the rest of our government in the late 20th Century and into the 21st. There are plenty of digs about a leadership who throws a temper tantrum when he doesn't get his way. There are plenty of moments about a president elected by a groundswell of support rallied during a campaign, only to see it all but forgotten when tough decisions, an unsupportive cabinet and an equally immature, self-centered Congress make great campaign promises impossible to keep. I could go on about actions/policies, etc. that fly in the face of our Constitution, and how ego and a need for admiration over leadership has throughout history has nearly brought this country to its knees. Let's just summarize by saying that Andrew Jackson as portrayed here was the first of a long line of American presidents to make more of a mess than even he ever dreamed possible.
Which brings me to the show itself. A lot of what makes this show work is that its subject is a dynamic, charismatic and dramatic central figure. The show certainly plays up to the fact that Jackson would perfectly fit into today's society. He was popular, loved to be in a scandal, and he was a completely a self-made celebrity (take that Paris Hilton!). Were he alive today, he'd be a media mega-star; a staple on shows like The View, the Fox News Channel and fodder for every other news outlet from The New York Times to CNN. He would keep Perez and TMZ in business. Everyone involved in the stage production is blissfully on the same page and understands this very well. The show is full of sound bites (literally and figuratively), and portrays Jackson as a rock star, a bad boy and a scandal ridden media whore. And the show hits everyone of these buttons with glee and gusto, including mock documentary narration, a news brief commentator, and an entourage of cheerleaders, backstabbing associates and an ass-kissing assistant. Fittingly, that "assistant," Martin Van Buren, ends up being the next president.
(Photos of the original Broadway cast by Joan Marcus.)