I used to joke that I learned all the history I knew through opera. Enlightenment? Mozart’s Le Nozze di Figaro. The Time of Troubles, 17th-century Russia? Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov. You get the picture. I’m pretty sure that as of this week, after seeing Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, a 90-minute musical in a limited run at the Public Theater—I’ll probably never look at early-19th-century America the same way again.
A few words about the set—which surrounds you from the minute you enter the theater. Long, bright-red (bloody bloody) fluorescent lights extend overhead for the length of the auditorium, and there are also little red teardrop-shaped lights, many of which are missing or not functioning. Red velvet curtains hang everywhere. A light mist hovers. Part of an alligator hangs upside down near the ceiling, audience right. (Reference to the alligator John Quincy Adams is said to have kept in the East Wing of the White House?) White lights in the tinkly crystal chandeliers keep powering up and down. Portraits framed in the ornate style of the period line the side walls. A drum set sits on a platform at stage right. Band members (a drummer and bass player) amble onstage and set up to play. The feeling is more like Halloween, or maybe an elaborate Saturday Night Live skit about to begin.
The motley cast of frontiersmen and politicians arrives onstage en masse, with Jackson (Benjamin Walker) starting off with the classic rock-show opener “Are you ready?” (loud audience response required), followed by the first of the show’s many references to Jackson’s tight, tight pants. Then the cast launches into “Populism, yeah, yeah,” a kind of rock/Broadway hybrid with a catchy hook that sounds like … a campaign commercial, which in fact it is. Jackson is depicted as an emo-rock-emotionally-needy-orphan-stud-muffin with homicidal tendencies, especially when it comes to Indians. The song that best sums up Jackson as emo-populist is probably “Life sucks (and mine in particular),” which veers back and forth between a rock/metal anthem and whiny emo “my life is so pitiful” interjections. You need to be awake every second of the show—jokes about Susan Sontag, Valtrex, and Manifest Destiny fly by, and there are far ruder cracks, which I wouldn’t dream of giving away here. Characters often step out from the action to make sarcastic commentary to the audience in the vernacular (explaining the tendency of nineteenth-century folks to “die of grief” as something that “just happened back then”). The show is hilarious and not at all politically correct—see: Jackson as unrepentant slave-owner and the spat-out song “Ten Little Indians”—not exactly historically accurate, but rather an “essence of” Jackson biography with a modern twist. Most interesting of all is how relevant the show seems. With all his contradictions, Jackson himself—shrewd/ uneducated/racist/kind/angry/whiny/heroic/sentimental/power-seeking/down-home—seems to mirror some aspects of politics today. In addition to Walker’s literally blood-thirsty, bad-ass Jackson, the excellent ensemble cast has a few standouts: Michael Crane’s befuddled Blackhawk and hapless schemer Henry Clay; Lucas Near-Verbrugghe as a near-idiot fawning Van Buren; and Colleen Werthmann’s wheelchair-bound sob-sister Storyteller.
Music isn’t the show’s main point—it’s just the most logical vehicle for telling this story. I came out humming maybe a melody or two, but what I really wanted to do was find out more about Jackson, so I picked up a copy of Jon Meacham’s Pulitzer Prize-winning 2008 book Andrew Jackson in the White House: American Lion. In the prologue, Meacham writes, “One of America’s most important and most controversial presidents, Andrew Jackson is also one of our least understood. Recalled mainly as the scourge of the Indians or as the hero of the 1815 Battle of New Orleans, he is only dimly remembered in the popular imagination, too far out of mind to be instructive or intriguing.”
Thanks to Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, our seventh president is not a dim presence at all—and I am now reading a 482-page, footnoted biography about him. History Class For Adults. Better late than never.
N.B.: For fellow cheap-tickets mavens not familiar with the Public Theater, there are two ways to find reduced-price tickets to this show. Regular tickets are $75; $20 rush standby tickets (2 per person, cash only) are sold 60 minutes before each performance, subject to availability. $25 student tickets (one per person, cash only, with I.D.) can be purchased during normal box-office hours.
Photo by Joan Marcus.