Bloody and Cursed

Some people might find it hard to believe, but the vast majority of musicals New Line produces have the word fuck in them. You wouldn't think there'd be that many musicals that use that word, but there are. You wouldn't think that because most people hear the word musical and think old-fashioned musical. Which they probably hate. Ask an average person on the street to name a musical and I bet you get a Rodgers and Hammerstein title before you get something written in the last ten years. But almost all the really interesting new shows have very adult language.

Because that's how people talk.

Musicals we've done that use the word fuck include High Fidelity, Passing Strange, bare, Hair, Kiss of the Spider Woman, Hedwig and the Angry Inch, Grease, Assassins, Sunday in the Park with George, Rocky Horror, Best Little Whorehouse, A New Brain, and others. As far as I know, the New Line record is the fifty-two fucks in Johnny Appleweed.

But Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson might provide Appleweed with some competition. Certainly, BBAJ is one of the most vulgar shows we've done. (And true to form, we're doing the even more vulgar Bukowsical in June.) Jackson throws around fucks with complete abandon. When I first saw the show, I really didn't register that -- I hardly notice what we call "adult language" in shows anymore, because it's both common now and realistic. It never stands out in my ear. Imagine how silly the characters in Rent would sound if they never cursed. They'd seem phony to us. We expect our storytelling to reflect our world.

One review of our production of BBAJ said that the obscene language revealed lazy writing. I disagree. Now having worked on the show for a while, and having seen it with audiences, I've been thinking about the language even more. And I realize it's a very strong and -- surprisingly enough -- very subtle narrative device that accomplishes two important jobs.

First, as I've written about before, in BBAJ the character of Jackson matures as America matures -- and as the show itself "matures," from sketch comedy to adult drama. And the language is part of that. Jackson curses all the time because he fancies himself a rebel. He doesn't follow rules. His language is an act of aggression. He assaults people -- including the audience -- with his words. When he first enters at the beginning of the show, he interacts briefly with the audience and engages in what can only be called (fake) sexual harassment. It seems like a naughty "throw-away" moment, but it's actually an important establishment of the tone and agenda of the evening. Jackson uses his language to bludgeon and to flamboyantly reject the "polite society" he associates with New England and John Quincy Adams, and also to wage an assault on those "higher classes" and their more "refined sensibilities." (Forgive all the ironic quotes.) Jackson is a frontiersman and there are no rules on the frontier. A prime example of all this is his first campaign speech in the show, as music starts underneath:
Uh-huh. That's right. Underscore, motherfuckers. That means it's our time. Time for the real people of this nation -- you and me -- time for us to take this fucker back. We're gonna walk right up to President Momoe's house and we're going to show him that the name Ol' Hickory doesn't only pertain to the length and girth of my penis. No, it also pertains to the inflexible and unyielding brand of populism that we're gonna shove four-and-a-half inches up his ass!

Language as a weapon. Even the title of the music that accompanies this speech is obscene -- "Underscore, Motherfuckers."  The audience doesn't know that, but it tells the actors and musicians something. In this retelling of his life story, Jackson is Johnny Strabler, Jim Stark, Danny Zuko, Wade "Cry-Baby" Walker, the tough guy with the emotional boy inside, rejecting the world that's already rejected him. And all that gets expressed in Jackson's obscenities.

The other reason for the language is about time and place. David Milch, the creator of the brilliant HBO series Deadwood talks in one of the DVD commentaries about why he used such pervasive obscenity in his dialogue, and his answer is purely artistic. He wanted his audience to feel the lawlessness and wildness of that time and place. Most of us could never imagine a world like that, with no laws, no authority, no social compact, no rules beyond survival. So Milch decided to use extreme, "lawless" language to get at that danger and chaos. The joke among Deadwood lovers is that the complex, poetic dialogue often sounds like Shakespeare wrote it, and every other word is cocksucker or motherfucker. (And now that I think about it, if Shakespeare was writing today, he'd probably use those words too. He loved his dirty jokes and obscene insults.) Milch admits that many of the curse words he used in Deadwood weren't even invented until later, but they're not there for historical authenticity; the words are there for the sense of that world that we can feel viscerally no other way.

The same is true of Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson. The obscene language creates a world of verbal and moral anarchy -- which underlines and connects subliminally with Jackson's own lack of a moral code, his massacre of Native Americans and his other immoral -- amoral? -- acts. It gives us a sense of what the Washington establishment thought of this vulgar frontiersman invading their insular, tightly controlled little world. He horrified them, just as he (comically) horrifies us when he says he'll fill us with "popula-jism."

As Van Buren would say, Yuck.

There are shows that use obscenities gratuitously (Silence!, The Book of Mormon), but Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson isn't one of them.

But maybe we should take a step back here. I mean, why not use curse words? People use these words. I use these words. Why shouldn't characters in our storytelling use these words? One reason so many of the shows we produce contain the word fuck is that we do a lot of fairly new shows, and younger writers are no longer afraid to use that word in a musical, if it's organic to the character and situation.

So yes, I guess I'm saying that the obscene language is there in BBAJ for a reason and also that we need to relax about it. After all, they're just fucking words.

Our production of Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson is going incredibly well, we're getting great audiences, and so far we've had ten rave reviews! Come join us for this amazing, smart, fearless piece of modern musical theatre. Two weeks left!

Long Live the Musical!