Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson

When I first saw Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson in New York, one of the things that struck me about it was how perfect that moment in history was for drama -- so many powerful, quirky, multi-agenda'd egotists (Jackson, Clay, Calhoun, JQ Adams, and others) at the center of this really high-stakes story, and such a volatile, chaotic context, as America found itself in the midst of massive, fundamental change.

Almost exactly like the political and social zeitgeist of 2012.

It's all true and it's also all so Shakespearean. Such gigantic stakes, such dangerous times, such powerful forces, such profound tragic character flaws, so many shadows. It's not hard to see the movers and shakers of the Jacksonian Era mirroring the political figures in Macbeth or Coriolanus or Richard III. I bet if Shakespeare were still alive, he'd have written a Jackson play.

It was a wild time in America. If 1776 was the birth of our country, then the election of 1828 must've been when we hit puberty, complete with all the chaos and growing pains that go with that period. As a country we were becoming a moody, needy, crazy, difficult, id-driven teenager writ large. What language could tell that story better than rock and roll? But Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson also tells the parallel story of the emotional and moral maturing of Jackson himself. His story follows the classic hero myth, alongside Luke Skywalker, Dorothy Gale, Rob Gordon, and Janet Weiss.

But even beyond the tumult of the times, Andrew Jackson is the Rorschach Test of Americans Presidents, so complicated and contradictory that almost everyone can find something in him that resonates. And despite the distance of a couple hundred years, his story is fundamentally in tune with the special character of the American rock musical in the 21st century – muscle, passion, emotion, irony, aggression, politics, roughness, rawness, ambiguity, authenticity, and a dash of anarchy.

Jackson was equal parts Barack Obama (charismatic populist, anti-corporatist, and intrinsically American success story), John McCain (crusty war hero Libertarian), Sarah Palin (loud, clumsy outsider), and George W. Bush (cocky, loyal, charming, and anti-intellectualist). Jackson's first biographer James Parton wrote, “Andrew Jackson, I am given to understand, was a patriot and a traitor. He was one of the greatest of generals, and wholly ignorant of the art of war. A writer brilliant, elegant, eloquent, without being able to compose a correct sentence, or spell words of four syllables. The first of statesmen, he never devised, he never framed a measure. He was the most candid of men, and was capable of the profoundest dissimulation. A most law-defying, law-obeying citizen. A stickler for discipline, he never hesitated to disobey his superior. A democratic autocrat. An urbane savage. An atrocious saint.”

A PBS documentary about Jackson contains the following list of chapters: The Wild Young Man, The War Hero, The Slave Master, The Candidate, The First Imperial President, The Defender of the Union, The Great White Father, and The Prophet. (The Great White Father became an ironic nickname when he expelled all the Native Americans from their lands, i.e., The Trail of Tears.) Jackson was all of those things. And his life spanned an amazing time in the American Experiment. He fought in the Revolution, he won the deciding battle of the War of 1812, and he presided over the birth of modern democracy, modern capitalism, and the early dawn of the Second Industrial Age, altogether one of the most tumultuous times in our history.

His election in 1828 was the first Presidential campaign decided by popular vote, the first grassroots Get Out the Vote effort, the first overtly public campaign for President, the birth of the Democratic Party, and according to Presidential historians, the dirtiest campaign in U.S. history. (The urban Northerners depicted Jackson and the Democrats in cartoons as a donkey, a stupid beast of burden; but to voters in rural areas and on the frontier, a donkey was dependable, strong, necessary for survival. So the Democrats adopted it as their party symbol.)

And Jackson's presidency brought to the forefront for the first time many of the issues we still fight over today, including states’ rights and nullification, secession, separation of powers, the expansion of executive power, fiercely divided politics, new mass media (lithography and the steam-powered printing press), and lots more. The Jacksonian Era grappled with one of the Great Debates in our history: Who is sovereign – the federal government, the states, or the People? That’s a question being asked in our courts today, over the Affordable Care Act, gay marriage, voter ID laws, abortion restrictions, and so much more.

Even gay marriage and gay rights are subliminally invoked here because Martin Van Buren is written as an openly gay man in the show. The real Van Buren was widowed at age thirty-five and never remarried -- one of our very few "bachelor" Presidents -- so some historians have speculated that he might well have been gay. By bringing that to the fore, the show again connects those times to these and gets some laughs in the process. The laughs come both from the anachronism -- Van Buren could never have been openly gay at the time -- and the homophobic attitudes of the other politicians toward him, which unfortunately is only partly anachronistic...

Because Jackson was the first President elected by popular vote – and in a landslide – the Jacksonian Era (the only era in American history named for a person) was a difficult time for our country. Just as our extreme political hostility today in this new century is born of a genuinely divided culture, so too was Jackson’s world. And to dramatize all this tumult and complexity for a modern audience – and perhaps to teach us some lessons for our times – Alex Timbers and Michael Friedman have created a rock musical in Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson that thoroughly captures those people and those times in contemporary terms, and the show’s angry, cocky, ironic, rock and roll aesthetic captures even more so that era’s emotional zeitgeist, freakishly like our own today.

Why didn't the show last longer than fifteen weeks on Broadway? Too aggressive? Maybe. Too political? Could be. Too self-indulgent? Possibly. Too morally complex? Probably. Too downtown rock and roll? Most likely. Too dark? Almost certainly. Too obscene? Yes. Too honest about America? Absolutely.

Helpful hint: People paying $140 a ticket don't like to be told they're shallow and fickle.

I think the show would have lasted longer had it stayed off Broadway. After all, the score is incredibly sophisticated and complex and the script is smart, dark, and emotional. Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson is a sterling example of what I call the neo musical comedy -- sort of like Mame crossed with The Colbert Report. But like The Colbert Report, the neo musical comedy is not comforting -- it's confrontational. We already know New Line audiences enjoy that kind of ride, but I don't think most tourists at a Broadway show probably do. I can just imagine a young family seeing Wicked and then Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson. They'd all end up with PTSD.

A new adventure -- and a new Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson -- begins!

Long Live the Musical!