Underscore, Motherfuckers

Sometimes there are things about a show I don't discover until we put it in front of an audience.

When we did Hair the first time, none of us truly understood it, me included, until the audience provided the final missing piece. Then it all made sense.

We opened Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson Friday night, and what a great opening it was! We had a big, rowdy, smart audience, and the cast and band were all at the peak of their powers, just absolutely on fucking fire. We also had live Tweeters for the first time, and that turned out really cool -- you can read their tweets here. Everybody seemed to love the show. It is a wild ride, that's for sure, and that was even more obvious to me, watching with audiences for the first time.

And seeing our production in its finished form, I saw something about the show I hadn't seen before, even when I saw it in New York.

I've written on this blog before about how the character of Andrew Jackson in this show (as distinct from the actual guy) goes from rowdy, vulgar, angsty teenager to darker, more self-aware adult. In that process he stands in for America as a country, crossing over from national childhood through adolescence. But now I can see that the show itself does the same thing.

The evening starts off with some off-color sex jokes (from a  2012 perspective, we might even say Jackson sexually harrasses the audience), followed by lots of angsty whining in the first song, then a silly and shallow version of Jackson's early biography. The show itself is juvenile here.

But the evening ends with the complexity of real world consequences short-circuiting Jackson's swagger and ambition, followed by an assessment of Jackson's atrocities against Native Americans, even going so far as to call him "an American Hitler." By this point, the show is about the weight and weariness of being an adult, about the consequences of a (collective?) life lived recklessly. In the last thirty minutes, the show becomes serious, adult storytelling. And then in the final moments of the show, as the last great irony in an evening chock full of ironies, the band strikes up a driving punk version of Jackson's real-life campaign song, "The Hunters of Kentucky," letting its shallow, folk storytelling bang up uncomfortably against the very sophisticated, nuanced story and the moral ambiguity we've just been left with. But where it's placed in the show, as a kind of epilogue, "The Hunters of Kentucky" also makes a final, subliminal point about the nature of storytelling itself, its construction, its bias, its agenda, its place in the culture, and by turning this folk song into a driving punk anthem, Friedman and Timbers marry the two storytelling forms and reinforce one last time the double time-frame of the show.

The audience leaves feeling "up" from the rowdy rock music but also conflicted about all the darkness they've just seen play out. It also reminds us, perhaps subconsciously, that Jackson's greatest triumph was made by his younger, cockier self, long before he was President, long before he had to settle The Indian Question and argue with Congress about tariffs.

After all, it's easy to be a bully. It's hard to be President.

Even the length of the scenes increases as the show unfolds, progressively taking more and more time to go deeper, to explore contradiction, self-delusion, complexity. Bookwriter Alex Timbers and songwriter Michael Friedman drop hints all through the show about the central theme of maturing -- backstage at the political rally when Jackson asks why he can't live both the lives he wants, Rachel answers, "Because you're an adult." It's the first time we come up this explicitly against Jackson's tragic flaw. Emotional teenager Jackson is not equipped for the problems and complexity of the real world, and this moment foreshadows his unraveling later on in the Oval Office. (I can't help but see George W. Bush in this aspect of the character.)

The Bloody Bloody score also "grows up" in this same way. It starts with the wild, heavy, driving emo rock of "Populism, Yea, Yea!" a lyric consciously swimming in angsty shallowness, with a chorus that really contains only one word until the last line:
Populism, Yea, Yea!
Populism, Yea, Yea!
Populism, Yea, Yea!
Populism, Yea, Yea!
This is the age of Jackson.

This lyric tells us almost nothing, other than just nakedly announcing one of the show's themes. But it also tells us a lot. It tells us about the point of view of the show, its tone, its humor, its political satire. It presents us with an ironic swipe at the often mindless over-simplicity of American politics; and it sets up the double-time-period device, as it tells us this is the Jacksonian Era but set to driving rock and roll. In a (probably intentional) break from conventional musical theatre rules, this opening number doesn't do all the plot and character setup that most openings do, in shows like High Fidelity, Bat Boy, Company, Assassins, Jesus Christ Superstar, Songs for a New World...  Instead it defiantly refuses to do those things on the surface, while sort of doing some of them anyway subtextually and musically.

And really, one could argue that America is the main character of this story as much as Jackson is, so maybe this opening song does some important character work after all. And if you really want to dig down deep, 19th century America isn't the character we're talking about here -- this is a show about America in 2012. Which is why rock and roll is the musical language.

And the verse of "Populism, Yea, Yea!" returns later in the show as counterpoint, now standing in as a metaphor for Jackson's emotional state.

As the score progresses, it moves from rowdy to nuanced. "Rock Star," halfway through the show, is the last fully rock number. (One might argue that "The Saddest Song" is pretty driving rock and roll, but it's also essentially a waltz -- that's really interesting, melding the two periods musically, but it does make the song less than fully rock and roll.) The next two songs, "The Great Compromise" and "Public Life" start smaller and quieter,  and then are taken over by rock and roll by their ends, as the score goes through a musical transformation. After that, the last four songs in the show (not counting the epilogue) abandon the rock beat. And they also begin to have more ambiguous endings, leading the audience less certainly toward applause -- and since applause is often an emotional release, keeping the audience from applauding builds tension. Both "Crisis Averted #1" and "Crisis Averted #2" end very abruptly, without a musical "button" on the end, which cues applause. "The Saddest Song" doesn't end at all -- it stops mid-phrase and segues directly into the last big dialogue scene between Jackson and Black Fox. It's a brilliant move because it takes us directly from inside Jackson's chaotic emotions straight into the powerful dramatic tension of his final one-on-one negotiation. And likewise, "Second Nature" does not resolve itself harmonically at the end of the song, making it sound like it doesn't finish -- and maybe that's part of the message of its lyric. Our "taking" continues...

The turning point for the entire show is when Jackson's resident cheerleaders leave the Oval Office, saying, "This isn't fun anymore." Exactly. One cheerleader says, "Direct Democracy directly applied is like totes lame." (She doesn't know it but she's said something really smart there.) The Cheerleaders represent The People, who now turn on Jackson -- and they're all he really had. And that's followed by the second of the two versions of "Crisis Averted." The first is peppy and optimistic, but this second one is cynical and defeatist. The show has turned from Marx Brothers to Brecht. Likewise, the character of Black Fox turns from punchline to formidable opponent.

We have a rare luxury here at New Line Theatre. We've never, in twenty-two seasons, chosen a show for commercial appeal. We produce only the most exciting, most original, most well-crafted works the art form has to offer, and we've developed an audience over the years who want to see that. As I learned many years ago, audiences don't like only what they know; they like what's good. None of us working at New Line make very good money, but we get to do really amazing work.

Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson may not have done all that well financially on Broadway, but I believe it's one of the genuinely great works of this new Golden Age. Timbers and Friedman are at the top of their games, and I can't wait to see what they each do next. Our art form has never been more vigorous or more alive than it is right now. The nonprofit musical theatre wave of the 1990s and the creation of the internet have democratized the musical theatre. Just as Jackson wrested away power from the political elite, today we have wrested away power of the musical theatre from New York commercial producers. And all of us together across the country and around the world are moving the art form forward every day.

It's so exciting to be part of that.

Come see Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson -- details on our website. As Faulkner (and Judy Newmark) said, "The past is never dead. It's not even past."

Long Live the Musical!

P.S. Yes, there is actually an instrumental number in the show called "Underscore, Motherfuckers," over which Jackson says to the audience, "Uh-huh. That's right. Underscore, motherfuckers." You gotta love a musical like that.