It's Second Nature to Us

My favorite kind of theatre makes me laugh like an idiot and also makes important, serious, insightful commentary about our world and our lives -- shows like Bat Boy, Urinetown, High Fidelity, Cry-Baby, Spelling Bee, and of course, Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson.

This show is wacky, it's rude and vulgar, it's irreverent, and it's also a serious piece of theatre about American politics and American culture, about our collective shallowness and childishness. I saw a poll today that says a majority of Republicans want to cut spending and lower the deficit and they also don't want any changes to social security and medicare. Yeah. Real life doesn't work that way, folks. But that's the mindset BBAJ is satirizing, and it's not just Republicans. Jackson gets his share of satirical punches in this show, but so do the American people.

When I see wacky-serious shows like this, I often notice a point in the evening when the show "earns" our respect and rises above mere laughs or outrageousness, when the show leads us down a path of comedy to a suddenly powerful, sobering moment. Both Bat Boy and Urinetown "earn it" at the end. High Fidelity earns it in Rob and Liz's fight late in Act II right before the funeral scene. Spelling Bee earns it with "The I Love You Song."

And Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson earns it at the end with Michael Friedman's powerful, poetic, emo ballad "Second Nature." None of the characters have this kind of self-knowledge or this outside-of-time perspective on our history, so this moment belongs to the band soloist, someone who stands outside the story all night, a kind of rock and roll Greek chorus.

"Second Nature" addresses head-on one of the central themes of the story -- a child-like blindness to consequences. The band soloist sings:
The grass grows,
A prairie,
A wilderness,
Across a continent.
And we take it,
We clear it out,
And make it in our image.
The backyards,
The driveways,
The covered wagons rushing through the high plains,
And motels on the canyon...
They make a second nature.

We re-make nature "in our image," bend it to our will, clear it out, pour concrete and blacktop, destroy and create, and we make it into something other than it was. We make it a "second" nature, one that looks like the real thing but is controlled and restricted in a way that real nature never is. We make it a "human nature," to re-coin a phrase, and it can never again be truly natural.

The nature that the Native Americans loved, cared for, lived off of, and prayed to, had to be destroyed to create a new "unnatural" nature. This idea is a more subtle, more political version of the same point in the song "The Colors of the Wind" in Disney's Pocahontas.

"Second Nature" goes on...
What was it for,
This country?
The farms and the blood across the prairie?
The nation we become
As we build a second nature.
No no no,
No no no...

Jackson "tamed" the frontier and tripled the size of our country, but "What was it for?" That's a powerful question. Did our conquering civilization improve the virgin wilderness of our continent or did we make it worse? Was the slaughter of tens of thousands of people (Indians, Spaniards, and others) a necessary component of our national evolution or just the White Man's clumsy greed? And what exactly is the nature of "the nation we become as build a second nature"? How does our destruction and re-creation change who we are as a people? When Jackson secured Florida for us by slaughtering innocent thousands, did that change the American identity?

As we worry today about genetically engineered foods, hormone-injected animal meat, oil spills, carbon emissions and climate change -- this second nature we have created -- BBAJ forces us to recognize that even though some Americans need to believe that America is the unquestionably good (even divinely blessed) Greatest Nation on Earth, the real world is full of gray area. And so is our story. There is much complexity in America's history, just as there is in Jackson's personal biography, and BBAJ chronicles one of our messiest, most morally ambiguous periods. The more I work on this show, the more I realize that America is the central character every bit as much as -- more than? -- Andrew Jackson.

I said in my last post that the central theme of BBAJ is that sometimes our heroes are assholes. In other words, nothing in the real world can be all good or all bad. Gray area is an inescapable part of life. It's what makes life interesting and complicated, and it's also why humans require art to make sense of it all.

The repeated No's throughout the song -- words of resistance, denial, regret, delusion? -- are just as complicated as the rest of the lyric. In a sense, they are speaking for Jackson and for Americans today as we look back on our history. We want to resist or deny the death and slaughter that grew our nation. We want to deny that we gave the Native Americans "smallpox blankets" to help kill them off. We want to look away from our collective act of paving over much of America's natural beauty. We celebrate Eisenhower's achievement of creating the intestate highway system, but in this context, his great achievement sinks into gray area too, a gray area we try to ignore as we speed from place to place.

But the No's also form a kind of bookend with the show's opening, "Populism, Yea! Yea!" Jackson's story begins in rowdy optimism and the love of his countrymen, as the whole cast sings, "Yea! Yea!" over and over. And the show ends at the sunset of Jackson's life, with a single soloist and a moody emo ballad, repeating, "No, no, no... No, no, no..." And the music beneath the No's switches back and forth from major to minor and back again, providing a parallel musical/emotional gray area. Is the soloist telling Jackson he was wrong, that he took the wrong path in life...? Telling him that he had the wrong values and the wrong priorities? Or maybe the soloist is just making the point that nothing is only good or only bad, that the good that came from Jackson's actions carried lots of bad with it too.

Maybe the soloist becomes History in the same way the Storyteller has been throughout the show, and he's telling Jackson that America's founding impulses weren't just to kill and take and destroy, that Jackson misunderstood -- and forever changed -- America's national character. From the soloist's and Storyteller's point of view, outside of time, Jackson failed morally and his kill-and-take strategy would continue to grow America after he was gone, but at what moral, spiritual price?

The band soloist continues...
The rivers run,
And parking lots,
The endless, endless fields and cities.
We make them,
Replace them with
All our dreams of the future.
And what was it for?
The swimming pools?
The highways?
The ballgames in the dusk, on the battle fields?
A time we were so foolish and so young.
No no no,
No no no.

And the song ends with an insightful and disturbing conclusion about America as Despoiler, and a return to the more conventional meaning of "second nature" -- an acquired behavior or trait that is so long practiced as to seem innate. But it only seems innate. It's artificially created but we perceive it as natural. It's a second nature.
The grass grows.
We take it.
We want it.
It's second nature to us.

And that's where the show earns it -- "We take it. We want it. It's second nature." It has always been our (seemingly) innate impulse to just take what we want, the show is telling us, and we try our best to ignore the moral implications as much as we can -- just as Jackson does throughout the show. But there is always a price to pay. This is serious, subtle storytelling about America as a nation, slyly camouflaged through most of the show behind rowdy, wacky, high-energy comedy. But it's truthful comedy. It's real in all the ways great theatre always is. And like all great storytelling it leads us to a deeper, fuller understanding of ourselves and our world.

The adventure continues...

Long Live the Musical!