Election Season Gets Bloody: Exploring the Legacy of Andrew Jackson through Song at SpeakEasy Stage

6 Nov

A version of this article originally appeared in The Citizen newspaper

Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson SpeakEasy Stage

Andrew Jackson (Gus Curry, far left) takes on the Washington Establishment (from left: Joshua Pemberton, Ben Rosenblatt, Tom Hamlett & Ryan Halsaver) Photo courtesy of Craig Bailey/Perspective Photo.

There may be no better political theatre than the creative storytelling and mythmaking broadcast live 24-hours a day during the current presidential election season, but SpeakEasy Stage’s production of Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson comes pretty close for those of us who just can’t get enough horse-racing and realpolitik. Instead of suffering through songs by Toby Keith, 3 Doors Down, and Taylor Hicks at Romney campaign rallies, audiences of this political pageantry get to enjoy a fist-pumping emo-rock score while exploring the legacy of our blood-letting seventh President.

On the surface, the musical attempts to answer the question posed by our wheelchair-bound, pink Crocs wearing narrator, “Was Jackson a great president, an American hero or a genocidal murderer?” The brawling, dueling, slave-owning Andrew Jackson became a national hero for his role in the War of 1812. Tired of an unresponsive bureaucracy controlled by northeastern elites who ignored the needs of Americans on the frontier, Old Hickory attempted to bring the presidency to the people. With a corrupt system mobilized against him and facing seemingly impossible challenges including the “Indian Problem,” the audience must accept the uncomfortable task of exploring the legacy of the founder of the Democratic Party.

At the show’s core, however, is an attempt to address the role of populism in our present day political system. When writer Alex Timbers and songwriter Michael Friedman first proposed an emo rock musical about King Andrew I and adolescent America in 2006, it was really meant to poke fun at President George W. Bush. When Jackson is denied the presidency in 1824 despite winning the most popular and electoral votes in 1824, it’s hard not to think of Bush v. Gore during “The Corrupt Bargain” musical number.

“John Calhoun says, ‘We need to find a scheme to keep the power in the hands of the chosen few.’

John Quincy Adams says, ‘If my dad was president, I should get to be president too.’

Henry Clay says, ‘I’ll make you president if you make me Secretary of State.’

Alexis de Tocqueville says something in French that none of us can translate.

All you educated people, you can talk of liberty. But do you really want the American people running their own country?… Let’s Dance!”

When I saw the musical’s world premiere in Jan. 2008 at the Kirk Douglas theatre in Los Angeles, it seemed like perfect commentary for the populist campaigns of Huckabee and Edwards. When the show made its journey from LA to Off-Broadway and then On-Broadway in 2010, it seemed like sharp commentary on the rise of Sarah Palin and the Tea Partiers. With the Obama and Romney election coming down to the wire, there’s no better time to experience the play that explores what it means to be an American and the challenges of being a direct representative of a divided people.

Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson SpeakEasy Stage

Andrew Jackson negotiates with Indian tribes. From left: Evan Murphy, Joshua Pemberton, Gus Curry, and Tom Hamlett. Photo courtesy of Craig Bailey/Perspective Photo.

Don’t let me give you the wrong impression. Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson is not all talk of corruption, the spoils system, and the forcible relocation of Native Americans during the Trail of Tears. For every uncomfortable truth we are forced to confront about our bloody history, there’s a couple cheerleaders making out in the Oval Office and an irreverent couplet like, “Would you like to see my stimulus package? I’m gonna fill you with Popula-jizz-m.”

Normally relegated to the director’s chair, this project allowed writer Alex Timbers to embrace his inner history nerd (he studied at Yale, but we won’t hold that against him). With allusions to Reagan’s Morning in America ads, political activist Susan Sontag, and French philosopher Michael Foucault, there are plenty of Easter eggs for the political nerds among us. Songwriter Michael Friedman uses the rock and post-punk score to explore the politics of pop music as well as the role of pop music in politics. The Green Day musical American Idiot will surely come to mind when enjoying the loud, irreverent songs and nasal delivery throughout Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, but this musical benefits from actually having something to say.

The Boston premiere of the most relevant show this political season features a comically gifted cast under the direction of Paul Melone and an electrifying set designed by Eric Levenson. Musical director Nicholas James Connell does a commendable job as bandleader, but his solos fall a bit flat in comparison to the laudable vocal performances by the rest of the cast. Gus Curry possesses the intensity, rock star presence, and vocal talent to pull off the challenging role of Andrew Jackson.

The Era of Jacksonian Democracy may be long gone, but the legacy of the deeply controversial and complicated veto-wielding President is still unsettled. The script continued to evolve as new scholarship emerged on this polarizing figure responsible for expanding our territories and preserving the union, as well as the deaths of countless Native Americans. Jackson may be on the $20 bill, but his role in shaping our current political system often goes unnoticed. It’s about time this important period in our nation’s history got the pop-culture treatment. As the show’s poster promises, “History just got all sexy pants.”

Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson runs through Nov. 17 at the SpeakEasy Stage, Boston. Tickets are available at speakeasystage.com with student rush tickets available for $14 at the Box Office window an hour before curtain.

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