The Saddest Song

When I saw Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson on Broadway, I thought it was essentially a very clever period biography that pointed up interesting parallels to our own times. But now working on the show, I think it's something slightly different from that. Something bigger and more ambitious. I think it's a story about politics in America, not just then, but now. Always.

It's a show about us.

It's about the election of 1828, but it's also about the election of 2008. And 1932. And 1980 and 1992 and 2012. It's not just about Andrew Jackson; it's about you and me. The show actually plays fast and loose with Jackson's biographical details -- for instance, his father died in an accident before Jackson was born. And so far, I have not found one reference anywhere to Jackson and Rachel being cutters. I see now that this show is a companion piece to Stephen Sondheim and John Weidman's Assassins, not just in its political content but in its agenda. This is not a show about historical authenticity; it's about emotional authenticity, about our collective emotional state.

Jackson says to Chief Black Fox late in the show, "I'm the will of the people." He doesn't say he represents or understands the will of the people; he is the will of the people. He sees himself as the literal embodiment of America. Midway through the show, Jackson says to us, "And you can say, whatever, that I've killed a lot of people, that I'm a cowboy or a murderer or even that I represent the national character of this country. Because I kind of do." Bookwriter Alex Timbers is giving us a sly little meta-moment there, as Jackson reveals a world-class ego but also admits directly to the audience that he functions as a metaphor in this show. Like all great art, but more explicitly than most, this show is a cultural mirror, and we may be surprised at what we see there.

As a nation, we can be selfish, greedy, paranoid, stubborn, impatient, violent, jingoistic, self-righteous, and only sometimes self-aware. Democracy is messy. Democracy means that stupid people get the same vote as smart people. A crazy person's vote counts the same as a normal person's vote. Democracy is a collective act -- that is its miracle and its greatest weakness. A country truly run by the people who live there was a radical idea that even the Founders didn't totally believe in -- they didn't want women, people of color, or men who didn't own land to have a say in our democracy, only those elite white men who were morally and intellectually superior, in their own estimation of course. Jacksonian Democracy terrified John Quincy Adams and his circle of elites. The reason we see so many parallels between the elections of 1828 and 2008 (and 1992, 1980, etc.) is that the central character is the same -- the American people, the worst of us right alongside the best of us. Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson is about that complex mix of good and bad in each of us and in our collective national character.

And even beyond the parallels to modern-day politics, BBAJ also implies the politics of just a few decades later, when secession and Civil War became a reality. In the final Oval Office scene between Jackson and Black Fox, Jackson says, "And what I also promise you? Is you sign this treaty here tonight and in thirty years, you and I are gonna look like fucking heroes. For uniting this country." The moment is thick with irony as the audience realizes that thirty years from that moment, America will not be anything close to "united," but will instead be shattered by Civil War. We know what's to come but Jackson does not. He thinks he put to rest the question of secession when he stonewalls Calhoun, but we in the audience knows he has not. Like Cabaret, BBAJ implies as much as it shows.

My writing teacher in college, Victor Burg, taught me a valuable trick for understanding other people's writing and for writing clearly myself. Look at the beginning and end of any well-written piece of storytelling and that will tell you the writer's central agenda. In Sondheim's Company, the first and last songs totally encapsulate Bobby's long arc from an inward world view to an outward one; the first song is entirely about Bobby, but the last song is about "someone" else. Similarly, in High Fidelity, the first and last songs shows us Rob's arc from emotional selfishness to emotional self-less-ness.

And here in Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, the first and last songs define Jackson's (our?) journey from the superficiality of mindless American populism inward to its dark underbelly and unintended consequences, from the shallow "Populism, Yea, Yea!" to the sobering "Second Nature." Instead of going from one place or time to another, as most narratives do, this show goes from the outer shell inward. The audience accepts the show's dual time period (always both then and now at the same time) because this journey is the same in every period. As the show plays out, we spin deeper and deeper into the complexity of America, of politics, of race, of Jackson himself, and of us as a people. It's a classic hero myth, but it's us on that journey, the American people as protagonist -- and it's a journey we're still on in 2012.

Timbers' writing here is deceptively complex. Like Hair, this is a show that feels unpolished, chaotic, spontaneous, out of control. But also like Hair, it is very skillfully and artfully constructed. Though the character of Jackson often seems ridiculous and childish, though he may seem like a cartoon sometimes, he's actually a very real, complicated man. There's a wonderful moment late in the show when Jackson crashes into reality, as he first starts to comprehend how different the world actually is from how he has always perceived it.

It's the second-to-last number in the show, "The Saddest Song." In yet another meltdown, Jackson screaming and cursing at some tourists in the Oval Office, he yells after them, "The people aren't going to stop Andrew Jackson from doing what it is that Andrew Jackson knows that the people want!" Once, he saw himself representing the People; now he sees them as an obstacle. We can see here that he takes too seriously his own symbolism in this complicated, new populist world. All through the story, he has bullied and battled to get what he wants, playing by his own rules, rarely suffering any consequences. But once he's elected, everything changes -- and he rages against this new world:
When it stops being fun
And your patience is done
And you see being president's hard,
With this country before you
That cannot be governed
You find yourself powerless, bloody, and scarred.

Whoever said running the country would be fun? It's like Jackson is stomping his feet and yelling, "It's not fair!" Where's the swaggering hero of the Battle of Horseshoe Bend? Jackson is the President of the United States and yet he feels powerless. He feels alone, he feels both handcuffed and responsible -- probably like every President in American history. He's no longer the cocky but charming bully-hero. He has lost his mojo. He rages on:
And what is it for, the love of the people?
Who is it for, this nation we made?
That guy who did everything his way,
Where has he gone?

So tonight I'll sing the saddest songs
To everyone that I've done wrong,
And if you don't know how to sing along
Well I'm sorry, I'm sorry, I'm sorry,
But the band plays on.

This is a song about self-pity. It reminds me of a line from Chicago -- "And now, Miss Roxie Hart and Miss Velma Kelly sing a song of unrelenting determination and unmitigated ego."

Jackson proceeds to position himself as the Biblical prophet Jeremiah, and the comparison is a fascinating one. According to Wikipedia, "God’s personal message to Jeremiah, 'Attack you they will, overcome you they can’t,' was fulfilled many times in the Biblical narrative. Jeremiah was attacked by his own brothers, beaten and put into the stocks by a priest and false prophet, imprisoned by the king, threatened with death, thrown into a cistern by Judah’s officials, and opposed by a false prophet." The comparison reveals Jackson's lifelong persecution complex. He sings:
Jeremiah looked down
On the people of Judah
And told them their future was bloody and cursed.
When I think of the conflict
And the change that awaits us,
It's gonna be hard
But this country comes first.

On the other hand, Jackson's right, isn't he? We know that America's future will be bloody and cursed, from the Civil War and lynchings in the South during Reconstruction (and up through the 1960s), World Wars I and II, the bloody Civil Rights movement in the 50s and 60s, Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan, Iraq...

Jackson's warnings echo President Obama's reminders during the 2008 election that change never comes quickly or easily, that those who oppose change (in the show, JQ Adams, Calhoun, Clay) will fight hard to preserve the status quo. Jackson is gearing up for battle...
Revolutions will come to you,
Swift if you let them.
The nation united cannot be undone.
Adams, Jefferson, Washington,
Monroe, and Madison
Started a war but it's hardly begun.

We didn't just fight for independence from the King of England, the lyric suggests; we fought for our freedom from a powerful few dictating to the rest -- something Jackson and his followers saw happening again in the first years of our nation. (Jackson refers to "King George Washington" in once scene.) The country had been born decades earlier, but Jackson had begun a new battle, one to wrest power from the rich and privileged and put it truly into the hands of the people. This is a song  -- a soliloquy -- about creative destruction. The stage direction says, "The song has become a raging anthem of aggression and venom," as Jackson continues:
So we'll ruin the bank
And we'll cripple the courts
And we'll take on the world for
America's sake.
We'll take all the land,
And we'll take back the country,
We'll take and we'll take,
And we'll take and we'll take ...

It's a scorched earth campaign he proposes here, to ruin, to cripple, to take. He's at war with the Second Bank of the United States, with the Supreme Court, with the Indian nations, with Congress, and with the South, now threatening to secede. His promise to "take back the country" certainly conjures today's Tea Party. But Jackson is not done fighting yet (is he ever?), even if the polls are turning against him. But notice that it's no longer "the people" making this country, now it's Jackson alone that will save us.
And this country I'm making
Cannot be divided.
The will of the people
Won't stand in my way.
How can I tell you
How deeply I'll make them all bleed?

And so I'll sing the saddest songs,
Of enemies who did me wrong,
And the war will go on
And on and on
And on and on
And on as long as we need...

Even on into 2012...

Long Live the Musical!