Opera turned the soliloquy into the aria. American musical comedy turned it into the "I Want" song -- like "My White Knight" in The Music Man, "There Are Worse Things I Could Do" in Grease, "Being Alive" in Company, or "The I Love You Song" in Spelling Bee. And at about the same time the musical comedy was first blossoming, Bertolt Brecht was in Germany working on surprisingly similar devices, including fourth-wall-ignoring monologues.
Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson borrows from both these more recent traditions, old-school musical comedy and Brecht. The BBAJ song "The Great Compromise" is a prime example. It functions as a pure "I Want" song for Rachel, and in telling us what she wants, she also tells us who she is, what her relationship with Jackson has become, what she thinks of his politics, and lots more. But it also functions as a Brechtian, split-screen illustration of Jackson's fractured life. The song alternates between Rachel's lament and dialogue between a couple who met and fell in love at a Jackson rally, representing two opposing perceptions of Jackson. And they're light years apart. Rachel sees only the private Jackson and finds him selfish and immature. The couple sees only the public Jackson and they see him as essentially perfect. The last line of the dialogue inside the song is the woman in the couple concluding that "Jackson is love." And yet his wife is miserable and alone. Jackson creates love in the one case and destroys it in the other.
As I've written before, sometimes our heroes are assholes.
A soloist appears who acts as Jackson's inner thoughts, as he works his way through his dilemma. From the point of view of the singer -- and Jackson -- all the previous Presidents tried to be rock stars, but they all failed. They just weren't up to it.
Washington crossed the Delaware river.
Washington acted like a rock star.
Washington made America deliver.
Washington tried to be a rock star.
But all the fame that he had won,
It wasn't really any fun,
And soon the people started turnin'.
Whoa, whoa, whoa...
That boy who couldn't tell a lie,
Two terms, and then he said goodbye,
And Georgie went back to Mt. Vernon.
Only Jackson can pull it off! Or so says Jackson. Not even Washington could do it. Of course, the truth is Jackson will also fail in many ways, just like the others, because it's an impossible job. But he can't see that. The chorus of this song is brilliantly conceived. Like the show's other songs, it never comes at its subject straight on, but instead from around a corner, through a different lens. Jackson's mind (and lyricist Michael Friedman's lyric) comes at the idea of the Presidency through self-righteous outrage -- outrage, you'll notice, over an offense not yet committed -- or is he still talking about the 1824 election that was stolen from him...?
Why don't you just shoot me in the head,
'Cause you know I'd be better off dead,
If there's really no place in America
For a celebrity of the first rank!
In other words, an America that wouldn't elect Jackson to the Presidency is an America not worth living in. Wow. We see here again that Jackson's ego is considerable, and that will be his tragic flaw. He can't see his own limitations and inadequacies. He has no self-awareness.
The first part of the song is Jackson's inner thoughts, but halfway through, when the soloist introduces Jackson, he is reborn -- "That's right, mothafuckas! Jackson's back!" He has made his decision. He will run again. (Rachel who?) He know he's better than all those other guys. The song transforms itself from interior monologue to stump speech, and in that transformation it moves the story forward, like any good theatre song should. This is the show's obligatory moment, the point toward which everything before it leads, and from which everything after it flows. If Jackson makes a different choice here, his life goes down a different path. Rachel might even live longer (at least in this version of the story). But his decision is based on a self-assessment that is not a serious one.
Now as the song continues, it's Jackson himself singing. He has found his voice and his confidence, he has put Rachel out of his mind, and he's ready to kick some Republican ass. But notice how shallow and simplistic his views of his predecessors are...
John Adams tried to be an American Idol,
Jefferson tried to be a rock star,
Madison tried to make the Presidency vital,
And James Monroe was a douchebag!
The story always ends the same,
It's hard to handle all that fame
If you don't really have it in ya.
Whoa, whoa, whoa...
There's no place in democracy
For your brand of aristocracy,
So take that shit back to Virginia
(Or Massachusetts, Biatch!)
Note that last dig at his incumbent opponent John Quincy Adams, who's from Massachusetts. Jackson might as well be holding a sign that says, "We are the 99%!"
And as he repeats the chorus several times, The People join him. It becomes not just Jackson's opinion, but The People's opinion as well, that the American Presidency should be able to accommodate a superstar. (It's hard to ignore parallels to Obama here.) But as they sing, we hear two melodies in counterpoint to the chorus. One is a variation on the earlier bridge:
You thought you were just a Founding Father,
But everyone wants you to be their father.
And the third counterpoint melody is also one we've already heard, but set to a new lyric:
But all that fame can take its toll,
The people force you into a role,
And soon the tables will be turnin'.
Yes they will...
These three melodies and lyrics bounce off each other, then finally, everyone comes together on a driving, climactic unison repeat of the chorus. The People are with him! This is not only great music and lyric writing, but it's great storytelling. The song starts inside Jackson's head, as pulsing, pounding rock, like a musical migraine in Jackson's brain, throbbing, almost exploding out of him. Then the song moves from the surrogate inner voice to Jackson's own voice, then to the voice of The People, alongside but also at odds with Jackson. This is complicated psychology, politics, and storytelling, all rolled into one seriously kickass rock song.
That's how good and how smart this show is.
And all the music is totally stuck in my brain. I can think of worse problems.
What a wild, wonderful ride it was. Thank you to everyone who came to share it with us.
Long Live the Rock Musical!