American Idol contestants, take note. If you want to learn how to deliver a compelling, mesmerizing performance that audience members can’t take their eyes away from, take a cue from Benjamin Walker. The star and title character of the Public Theater’s Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson delivers just that, and then some. This creative, compelling rock musical, with a book by Alex Timbers and music and lyrics by Michael Friedman, presents the country’s seventh president in an inventive, engaging format that somehow fuses history lessons and social commentary with emo music in a seamless combination.
From the opening song (“Populism, Yea, Yea”) – even the first line (“Why wouldn’t you ever go out with me in school?”) – it is clear this is not a conventional musical. Set on a crowded stage packed to the brim with relics of Americana and taxidermy and performed by a cast of energetic young actors wearing modern, Western costumes and speaking in modern, colloquial language, Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson bluntly presents America as a hormonal teenager who is mad as hell and not going to take it anymore, but not sure what it will do about it.
One would think Andrew Jackson would not be an easy character to memorialize through music. America’s seventh president, and the first “commoner” elected president, Jackson created the Democratic Party (something we may not want to thank him for nowadays) and expanded America’s land more than any other president had. He was also a supporter of slavery and responsible for the Indian Removal Act and subsequent Trail of Tears, which caused the death of countless Indians. (The performance of a haunting rendition of the “Ten Little Indians” nursery song is a highlight of the show). He loved his wife deeply; so much so that he married her while she was married to another man, despite accusations of bigamy. A conflicted, confusing man, he may not seem a strong candidate for a musical. But then again, emo music (short for “emotional hardcore”) is actually perfectly suited for him.
And Benjamin Walker is the perfect actor to portray him. Dressed in tight jeans and a white shirt, radiating sexual charisma from head to toe, Walker plays Jackson as a frustrated activist with a big ego and an even bigger chip on his shoulder. Strolling into the audience, he informs them they are “a sexy bunch” and offers to show several people his “stimulus package.” Several of his female supporters offer, and then plead, to have his children. (Anyone remember the Obama girl?) In another brilliant moment, one voter declares that Jackson is the candidate he’d most like to have a beer with.
The blurring of the line between a politician and a celebrity is a familiar one and just one of the many aspects of government this show comments on. Part history lesson, part political satire, Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson achieves the holy grail of historical theater, managing to be simultaneously silly and poignant, entertaining and thought-provoking. It is refreshingly sarcastic and frighteningly accurate. As Jackson promises to be the President of the people, one can’t help but remember President Obama’s campaign promises. A young, sexy, energetic man mobilizing the youth feels very familiar, as does the repeated use of the word “maverick”.
The show also employs some very dark, wacky comedy. The schoolteacher narrator (Colleen Werthmann) who educates the audience about Jackson’s past is quickly found to be annoying and is shot in the neck (an apparent habit of Jackson’s). When the political powerhouses of Washington are introduced, they strut onstage to the song “Spice Up Your Life,” while wearing long black robes and puffy white collars. After Jackson’s wife Rachel (Maria Elena Ramirez) dies, the doctor declares “grief” to be the cause of her death and Jackson skeptically repeats, “Grief?” The doctor’s response is, “Yeah, it’s the 19th century. That’s the kind of shit that happens.”
It’s not all fun and games onstage. After Jackson wins the election and transforms the Oval Office into a frat house, he quickly learns being president isn’t as easy as he thought and representing the people can be a big pain. After seeking numerous supporters’ opinions, and finding them all contradictory of each other, he yells in frustration, “I don’t think you know what you want!” This scene is a poignant portrayal of how quickly political dreams can be crushed and a bittersweet reminder of the many stalled hopes after Obama’s first year in office.
The Daily Show and Saturday Night Live have been the main sources of political satire lately. Happily, Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson can join their ranks.