Bloody, Bloody Andrew Jackson
This new-ish to New York production at the Public Theatre tells President Andrew Jackson’s life story by re-imagining the seventh president as an angsty rock star, and is heavily aided by an emo-rock score. (“Emo” is a music genre typified by super-sensitive guys writing super-sensitive (read: emotive) songs about the gals who break their heart. It’s a little cheesy, but honestly sincere – and it makes the ladies swoon!) I’m not much of a history buff; most of what I know – or have retained over the years – about Andrew Jackson comes courtesy of Aaron Sorkin, via The West Wing in the episodes, “The Crackpots and These Women” (season one) and “Somebody’s Going to Emergency, Somebody’s Going to Jail” (season two). Ever the populist, Jackson wanted the White House to belong to the people and as such would put a two-ton block of cheese in the main foyer of the White House for all who were hungry.) That said, this retelling of the divisive historical figure, who introduces himself by saying, “Who am I? I’m Andrew fucking Jackson!”, makes the story – and the accompanying history lesson – not just palatable but thoroughly enjoyable.
Jackson’s rise to power and struggle to lead are ever poignant in today’s society. For example, toward the end of the deliciously salty and raw 90-minute musical, we see Jackson in his Oval Office. He wants to represent the will of the people, but after polling the people, realizes they aren’t the most reliable or well-reasoned bunch. That and other lessons from Jackson’s journey parallel today’s form of (dysfunctional) governance and electioneering. As I was walking out of the theatre, a gentleman walking behind me commented that he thought this should be required viewing for high schoolers. Hell yes! They’d be learning history in a way that’s accessible and interesting and be exposed to theatre – all in one sitting.
The hip, get-ready-to-rock vibe envelops you as soon as you walk into the small theatre, thanks to Donyale Werle’s excellent scenic design. It really does feel like a dive bar – with worn drapes hanging on the walls, portraits of presidents adorning those drapes (well, you might not find presidential portraits hanging up in a bar, but you might see other paintings lending to its character), semi-working chandeliers hanging from the ceiling and drooping candles scattered about. Plus the lights were low and the colors kept changing, pulling you in to the atmosphere.
The entire cast was great: They’re all hilariously self-aware and are having a blast rocking populism, 19th century style. But the standout is Ben Walker in the titular role. He struts out on stage and his rock star machismo demands your attention. With his tight white shirt, even tighter black jeans, kohl-rimmed eyes and virile growl, he is a sexy force to be reckoned with. I dare you to look away!
This show has been gestating for a while, enjoying runs in LA and in the PublicLAB here in New York last season. No word yet on whether Jackson will be reelected next season, or whether a cast recording will be added to the presidential library but I certainly hope so. (Visit the show’s Myspace page for song clips.) Head on down to the Public Theatre until April 25 for a bloody, bloody good time!
Visit the Public Theatre for tickets or more information.
(The show’s garnering lots of press. Check out this article and its accompanying video of star Ben Walker, this primer article from Playbill.com, this slideshow with voiceover by writer/director Alex Timbers and these production stills from Broadwayworld.com.)