Populism, Yea, Yea!

Most people who see Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson don't consciously notice the incredible craft and skill in the show's writing. They see lots of wacky comedy, including some pretty sophomoric gross-out humor, they hear very raw language and driving rock and roll, and it doesn't even occur to them that this deceptively complex theatre piece is operating on a much deeper, more sophisticated level than it appears.

Though we don't recognize it in real time, the obscene language and the gross-out humor actually contribute to characterization, to getting at the socio-political zeitgeist of the Jacksonian Era, to the show's central metaphor, and to the show's rejection of Rodgers and Hammerstein that is the lifeblood of this amazing piece of neo musical comedy.

But nobody thinks about all that stuff while they're watching it. It's totally subliminal.

I've already blogged about how the character of Andrew Jackson is more a construct than a representation of the real guy, about how he is a metaphorical stand-in for America as a nation and as a people, about how Jackson and America and the show itself all share the same character arc, evolving from angsty 'tween to sober, self-aware adult, about how even the way the show is narrated has meaning both in the story and also in the context of the evolution of the art form. Yes, all that stuff is in this rowdy, crazy musical.

And more.

Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson is a hybrid of the two new forms in the American musical theatre. On the one hand, it's a Neo Musical Comedy, using the tools of old-school musical comedy melded to the irony, moral ambiguity, and socio-political content of our current Age of Irony (which arguably started in the 60s but took over pop culture in the 90s). But it's also a Neo Rock Musical (and our next show Next to Normal is too), using the tools of the Rodgers and Hammerstein model but jettisoning R&H's ponderous mid-century morality for a more complex -- and more real -- look at human emotion and interaction.

(And on a side note, that's all politics is -- human emotion and interaction -- and that's why politics is inherently dramatic.)

One of those R&H tools that this show retains is the reprise. When our art form was still young, musicals used reprises (a repeat or approximate repeat of a song we've already heard) to remind the audience of the hit tune the producers wanted them to buy (recordings or sheet music) after they saw the show. Or sometimes a reprise gave the secondary leads another musical slot in Act II that they wouldn't otherwise get.

But Rodgers and Hammerstein changed that. Well, really Hammerstein changed that, most famously with Show Boat in 1927, but even more regularly and confidently in his shows with Rodgers. Since Hammerstein, reprises have been more functional and less decorative. In shows built on the R&H model, a reprise revisits an earlier moment, but in a new context, with (sometimes only subtextually) new meaning. A reprise refers back to the first hearing of the song, but it doesn't just repeat it. Either the lyric is different to fit the new circumstances, or the lyric is the same but it means something substantially different in this new context. Probably the clearest example is "Let Me Entertain You" in Gypsy, a song literally designed for its reprises. The first time we hear it, it's an intentionally bland kiddie song; later on, it becomes an ironic symbol of the maturing girls being trapped in their childish roles; and at the end it become Louise's strip number and the lyric takes on a much darker, more complex meaning about sex, objectification, power. This one seemingly simplistic song goes from kiddie number to sexual invitation. Bravo, Sondheim!

And Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson handles reprises with equal intelligence.

The show's aggressive opening number, "Populism, Yea Yea!," operates on so many levels, both sincere and ironically Brechtian at the same time. These characters think this inarticulate cheer means something, but the writers are also telling us at the same time that the characters are shallow and trivial, that they are to be dismissed. And that tells the audience a lot about how this show will operate. And it also immediately sets the debate for the evening -- is populism good or bad? Of course, the answer is it's both. And we see that it is both as we hear the song reprised throughout the show. It returns, really more as a leitmotif than a reprise, marking moments of populism throughout the story, as commentary, counterpoint, even as an acknowledgement of its own dark side when Rachel quotes it in "The Great Compromise." She's sees what's wrong with populism here, but Jackson still doesn't.

The whole score plays with the idea of a leitmotif/reprise. "I'm So That Guy" starts as a new song, but after only one verse, it bursts into counterpoint, with Jackson singing a reprise of "I'm Not That Guy" and the rest of the cast singing the first verse of "Populism, Yea, Yea!" And the counterpoint of these two songs subliminally suggests the immaturity and shallowness behind Jackson's confidence and ambition. While Jackson's vocal soars over the rest, they shift back and forth between the first verse of this number, and the chorus of "Populism, Yea, Yea!" It's a crazy, irrational, passionate mess. Just like Jackson's emotions. Content dictates form.

"Public Life" is another example of this same device. It begins as a new song, an emotional ballad for Jackson, as he mourns for his wife. But by the second verse, his focus is already moving from his wife to his People. Soon the People join him, reprising "I'm Not That Guy," the song Jackson sang the last time he was faced with a major life choice and started off on a new path. The chorus is his inner voice. Suddenly the song bursts into three-way contrapuntal life. On top, Jackson takes on a new melody, with a lyric about "change" that could have come out of an Obama speech. Half the ensemble continues with the reprise of "I'm Not That Guy," and the other half of the ensemble picks up a campaign ditty that we heard in the background of Rachel's "The Great Compromise."  This third lyric -- "Jackson's back! He's got it going on!" repeated over and over -- reminds us of the vapidity and mindlessness of populism in general and Jackson's followers in specific. There is no there there. Jackson may be the voice of the People, but the People aren't really paying attention. By the end of the song, Jackson is singing, "The path is clear and I've made my choice. I'm gonna listen to the people's voice," more empty words, as the rest of the cast returns to the chorus of "Populism, Yea, Yea!"

This number is a remarkable piece of writing. It moves us forward in the plot, it takes us through several different emotional states in Jackson, and it provides a funny but straight-faced, socio-political context for it all, which sets up the complex obstacles ahead for him in later scenes.

The only true reprise in the show is "Crisis Averted," which bookends the first section of the Oval Office scene towards the end of the show, functioning both as commentary and as Jackson's inner voice. This song frames the biggest turning point in the story. It's a peppy little tune, more like They Might Be Giants than an emo band. In "Crisis Averted #1" it's all about optimism, immortality, invincibility. In this first version, they sing:
Crisis averted!
He's taking a stand
And the best part is
Everything he says is right.
I really think
That this will work.
We're young.
We'll live forever.
At least for one more night.
My luck will hold this time,
It always has before.
So I  think, I think it just might work.

Then the cheerleaders leave (more about that in a second), and in "Crisis Averted #2" it's all about the end, mortality, failure. This time they sing, still to the same peppy music:
Crisis averted!
I'm going alone
And the best part is
Everything I say is right.
Did you really think
That this would work?
You're fucked.
You won't live forever.
Your luck won't hold this time.
It won't be like before.
It's never, it's never gonna work.

The perky music accomplishes so much. First it tells us that even the narrators -- the band soloist and the other actors -- don't care what happens to our hero. We've gone from hero-worshipping narrator (the Storyteller) at the beginning, to the band soloist as narrator, to shallow girls (in "The Corrupt Bargain") and later random actors, as the most disinterested narrators of all. But these two songs also bracket the moment when the Good Times turn Bad. It's when Jackson's personal cheerleaders leave the Oval Office because "this isn't fun anymore" and "direct democracy directly applied is totes lame" that the tone changes.

Up till now, the cheerleaders in the Oval Office seem like a cheap running joke. But here we see they represent the public, the voters, us; and the relationship between them and Jackson takes on fascinating, much more complicated colors. When the cheerleaders turn on him, we have turned on him, just as American liberals did to some extent to Obama in 2010. And when Jackson loses the people, he loses everything. He feeds on them. (As I typed that last sentences, I got a great idea for a Zombie Jackson musical...) His whole persona is wrapped up in his populism, his status as the People's President, but can he still be the People's President when the people don't want him anymore? As the song says, "You're fucked." (Notice that the first version of "Crisis Averted" contains no obscenities, but the second version does.) Things are different now, these songs tell us. "It won't be like before."

This turning point (the cheerleaders leaving) is really important, but because it's subtle, these two matching songs underline it for us. Just the way Brecht liked it. And they're funny songs too. And that's great writing.

I expect no less from this brilliant piece of rock theatre. I fall more in love with it at every performance. There's truly nothing else like it.

Just three more shows!

Long Live the Musical!