Who the hell is Andrew Jackson? Ask a dozen scholars about our seventh president’s legacy, and you’re liable to get a dozen different answers, ranging from “hero of the people” to “genocidal monster.” Ask anyone else, and he or she will most likely mumble something about the $20 bill. One description of Jackson that probably won’t come up is “someone whose life story I’d like to see adapted into an indie-rock musical.”
Oddly enough, though, that’s the exact concept behind Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, which just opened at Off Broadway’s Public Theater. You might find yourself tempted to ignore a friend (or a critic) who raves so enthusiastically about something so random as this manic somersault through early 19th-century American history. Please don’t. Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson is weird, all right, but it’s a weird little masterpiece.
Benjamin Walker is genuinely hilarious in the title role, presenting Jackson as a debonair dude with more than a little Ashton Kutcher in him. He’s the original White House “Rock Star,” to quote one memorable song. Walker’s supporting castmates draw as many or more laughs, particularly Michael Crane as a smirking, snobby Henry Clay and Lucas Near-Verbrugghe as a Twinkie-munching Martin Van Buren. This is history in the mode of Mel Brooks’ History of the World, Part I: Gleefully anachronistic, wildly slapstick, full of gratuitous swear words, stereotypes, and inaccuracies. Speaking of Brooks, if he ever decides to bring History of the World to the stage, he should give Michael Friedman a call. Friedman’s original emo/power-pop tunes for this show, performed on stage by a shaggy garage trio backing assorted cast members, are not only decently catchy (think Weezer) but also pretty funny in and of themselves.
It’s not easy to mine 90 minutes’ worth of laugh-out-loud lines from this comparatively unfamiliar stretch of history, a generation removed from the founders but decades before Abraham Lincoln. It’s harder still to do so while simultaneously giving due attention to the darker aspects of Jackson’s career. Alex Timbers’ script and Friedman’s lyrics walk that tightrope just about flawlessly. They have no qualms about repeatedly mentioning the fact that this president owned slaves and was responsible for the deaths of countless Native Americans. Again and again, we see Jackson swindling Creek leaders, massacring Seminoles, forcing Cherokees to abandon their lands for the Trail of Tears—original sins that our nation still has yet to fully reckon with. Timbers and Friedman also explore the nasty currents of bigotry running beneath the populist anger that powered Jackson’s rise. If you don’t think that’s a salient issue two centuries later, take a look at some of the signs at a Tea Party rally.
Yet spelling out these themes in a review risks ruining what makes this play so unique. The authors somehow deliver their pointed theses about Jackson without getting preachy or, more importantly, ever stepping on their jokes. Ultimately Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson is a complicated, contradictory tour-de-force whose true meaning could be debated for days. How Jacksonian. A