He’s hot, he’s sexy, he’s a man of adventure, and he was very popular with the general public, especially the ladies. Oh yes, he also died in 1845.
And he is the subject of the current musical at Studio Theater. “Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson” is a pop musical biography of our seventh President, one of the most influential and still controversial figures to ever sit in the White House. Besides, how many Presidents get a musical named after them – take that Grover Cleveland!
It is a perfect election year offering, but if you are expecting a totally irreverent tweaking of the President like Landless Theater’s “President Harding is a Rock Star,” then think again. While depicting “Old Hickory” in rock star mode, writer Alex Timbers and composer/lyricist Michael Friedman are after bigger game here. Jackson is a far more important and complicated figure than Harding, and the humor is more scathing and the themes (and music) much darker. Jackson is basically depicted as an Emo rocker with eyeliner makeup, skinny jeans, and a penchant for cutting his skin with his romantic interest.
The musical spends a lot of time detailing Jackson’s rise from frontier nobody to war hero to major political figure. These are the best parts of the show, where the humor is biting and often rollicking. Indians attack with very fake looking arrows and exit dancing to the strains of Swan Lake. When Jackson is captured during a battle, he literally becomes the punching bag for a pair of British soldiers. American leaders like Henry Clay and James Madison, who scheme to retain power from Jackson’s rising populist movement, come off as spoiled aristocrats who just stepped out of a Louis XIV movie set.
In these early scenes, Timbers and Friedman get so much right, so it is a shame that the last third of the show is not as successful. One can place one’s finger right where it goes weak, when Jackson becomes President. It was a very complicated and turbulent presidency, and important issues like the Nullification crisis and the ongoing battle with the National Bank are mentioned in passing but not referred to again. These final scenes are either too much information or too little to be satisfying.
But until then, “Andrew Jackson” is a galloping romp. The young cast does an impromptu pre-show sing along to welcome the audience and then in frontier chic clothing gives us a rousing opening number “Populism, Yea! Yea!”
Heath Calvert enters as young Andrew Jackson as he soon dominates the show. The band is tight and the whole ensemble is in fine voice.There is fine supporting work by Rachel Jackson as the President’s love interest, Davis Hasty as a constantly fretting Martin van Buren, and Ryan Sellars as Black Hawk, an American Indian “friend” to Jackson who sees the most controversial aspect of this Presidency – the forced removal of Native Americans from their land, which some historians have compared to “Ethnic cleansing.”
Then there is the dependable Felicia Curry as the Storyteller, and it is surprising that the writers of this musical did not use this narrator more in that final third of the show to supply the audience with some much needed background information. Curry still has some hilarious moments early in the show and she makes her final comments to Jackson really sting.
What “Andrew Jackson” does well is show us an America in its adolescence, ready to move on from that defining Revolutionary War generation and strike out on its own: Jacksonian Democracy would not be the same as Jeffersonian Democracy. It shows us dark side of populism, as Jackson lectures about the Common Man while centralizing more and more power himself. It is the danger of patriotic jingoism where catch phrase like “we need to take our land back from the Indians” can be so humorously inaccurate and so deadly in its consequences.
For anyone interested in this period, I heartily recommend the history book “What Hath God Wrought” that covers this early nineteenth century American scene very well. It is an exhaustive and at times exhausting study of this critical period of American history. The book is pro-Whig and therefore anti-Jackson, but it fills in a lot of background.
“Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson” has already been extended at Studio Theater through August 19. For more information, call (202) 332-3300 or go online to www.studiotheatre.org