The Corrupt Bargain

One of my recent blog entries was about how the authors of Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson used obscene and vulgar language to create a theatrical parallel to the lawlessness and chaos of those times in our early history. But the show uses another parallel to the wild, untamed world of the frontier -- the show itself.

Just as the show matures along with Jackson and our young nation, it also fully embodies a rejection of rules and conventions that parallels a similar rejection of the rules of New England by Jackson and the frontiersmen. Stephen Sondheim famously believes that Content Dictates Form, that the story dictates the kind of storytelling. In almost every way, this show's creators, Alex Timbers and Michael Friedman, have created a show that is its story.

Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson careens from style to style, from serious to wacky to darkly ironic, from introspection to ironic detachment, from the Marx Brothers to Brecht. It keeps us off balance. There are no conventional signposts to grab onto here. And that's part of the point.

One great example of this is the scene-song "The Corrupt Bargain." We get to Jackson's first real defeat and the show stops the story cold to explain the politics of what just happened. Brecht would love it. So would Sondheim. This song purposefully breaks every rule of musical theatre. It describes action instead of showing it. It offers commentary, but it's unreliable commentary. It's literally embodies the absurdity of the politics it describes in its mindless, comically pointless dance breaks. The song uses both direct narration to the audience and dialogue, but there's something wrong with these narrators, and as this reveals itself over the course of the song, it once again throws us off course. We can't trust the narrators?

Who is the narrator in this show, by the way? It starts out being the Storyteller, but once she's removed from the story, the bandleader takes over. But sometimes the actors narrate. There's no consistent voice to the story's narration and once again, that's a conscious choice. There is no objectivity in American politics, TImbers and Friedman are telling us. Everyone has a different perspective and that colors what they see and how they talk about it. And this lack of a consistent narrative voice is also subtextually a commentary on storytelling itself, on bias, on narrative agenda, and on our current struggle to talk about our world in a time when the two opposing sides of American society (liberal and conservative) can't even agree on what is objectively true and what is not.

Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson fully and consciously embodies this moment when facts have become a matter of opinion, and the show plays around (a lot!) with how that affects the retelling of history.

And even within this one song, whose voice do these girls represent? They're not The People here, and they're not on Jackson's side or his opponents' side. But they're also not omniscient or objective like conventional narrators. On top of that, they're both shallow and bad historians. Every time the girls seem to be invoking the perspective of an historical figure for a little extra insight, they also short-circuit that reference at the same time. For example...
Alexis De Tocqueville says something in French
That none of us can translate...
. . .
James Madison said something prescient about this
But he was kind of a dick...
. . .
I'm sure Michel Foucault would have an opinion
But he hasn't been born yet...

You get the idea.

These girls are objective only in the sense that they don't much seem to give a shit about any of this. On the other hand, they sorta seem to agree with the Washington elitists. Just look at how they describe Jackson: "Do you really want America run by a man from Tennessee?" And even more potent, "Do you really want the American people running their own country?" -- that was a real debate at the time! Who is 'worthy" of voting rights? John Quincy Adams had written to a friend, “Depend upon it, Sir, it is dangerous to open so fruitful a source of controversy and altercation as would be opened by attempting to alter the qualifications of voters; there will be no end to it. New claims will arise; women will demand the vote; lads from twelve to twenty-one will think their rights not enough attended to, and every man who has not a farthing, will demand an equal voice with any other, in all acts of state.” What? Women and poor people VOTING???

Adams would have been right at home with the GOP's 2012 campaign of voter suppression. Notice how the conservatives talk about the American people in this song, satirically but powerfully putting 2012 audiences in mind of Romney's infamous "47%" comments, even though those comments had not been made yet when the show was written.
Adams: The people are stupid.
Clay: They can all go rot.
Calhoun: They're lame.
Adams: They suck.

Inside all this silliness, satire, dancing, and jokes, the song actually paints for us a very accurate and accessible picture of how Adams, Clay, Calhoun, et al. literally stole the 1824 election from Jackson. By the end of the song, we really do understand the infamous Corrupt Bargain. And for modern-day liberals, it's hard not to see a parallel to the controversial Bush v. Gore decision by the Supreme Court in 2000.

Like the rest of the show, this song delivers on plot, satire, entertainment, and contemporary political commentary. It contains the three elements of good art -- Poetry, Popcorn, and Politics, or in other words, artistry, entertainment, and substance. The song is incredibly well-constructed and deceptively subtle in its agenda. Like The Daily Show and The Colbert Report, this song (and the whole show) is both hilarious and serious at the same time (though I think the original production short-changed the serious side). Brecht would have been very proud.

We have only one week left of our run and I continue to find amazing buried treasure in this script and score, incredible craft and skill and intelligence. Like many of the shows we produce, this is one that no doubt will be given lots of shallow productions by people who don't realize all the wonderful things hidden inside this rowdy, vulgar, outrageous show.

I'm already working on my next book, an exploration of the New American Musical in this new millenium, and there will be a chapter on Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson so people can see what's so genuinely brilliant about this under-rated, freakishly original, and surprisingly powerful work. It has been a real privilege exploring it and sharing it with our audiences. It's been such fun to read the rave reviews that each found different treasures in our show. For people who thinks musicals are all old-fashioned and trivial and simplistic, this powerful piece of rock theatre will disabuse of them of that ridiculous notion.

This is a show about important, consequential things, about America, about our politics and how we choose to live together in this experiment we call American democracy, about the dark side of populism (Sarah Palin, anyone?), about the complexity of morality and the impossible choices our leaders face every day.

In short, like almost every show New Line Theatre produces, this is a show about the real world and about us. And that's what makes thrilling, potent theatre.

It's been an amazing ride. Thank you, Alex Timbers and Michael Friedman.

Long Live the Musical!