Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
October 17, 2010
Alex Timbers and Michael Friedman's new musical Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson is probably no less factual an account of history than, say, Shakespeare's Richard III. But where Shakespeare took a man who had been defeated in battle by his sovereign's own grandfather and turned him into a delectable villain (and supplied him with some great memorable poetry to speak in the process), I'm afraid I find no such clear motive in this show, which takes as its subject the seventh president of the United States of America, a man who for more than a century was one of our most highly regarded chief executives, but in recent times has come to be held in lesser esteem, mostly because the forced relocation of Native Americans that happened under his watch (and often directly under his command) is now rightly viewed as one of the great shameful acts upon which our nation was built.
This is certainly a subject of Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, but not the only one or even necessarily the main one. Oskar Eustis, artistic director of The Public Theater, where this production originated, says in a program note that the show uses "the immensely pleasurable tools of Populism to critique that most dangerous of American political phenomena." I can see his point, I guess; but I can just as easily argue that BBAJ employs a key technique of the contemporary Radical Right—misrepresenting historical fact—to try to create some kind of cautionary tale about celebrity and apathy.
These misrepresentations are so liberally applied, so to speak, that they kept getting in my way of making sense of the thing. Ok, the use of hyperbole and anachronism to make Jackson into a shoot-first-ask-questions-later sort of cowboy isn't all that far removed from the cherry tree story they used to tell about George Washington. But why do Timbers and Friedman feel compelled, throughout their show, to misstate simple provable facts? Andrew Jackson was not born in Tennessee; his father died before he was born; James Monroe was not president during the War of 1812; the Nullification Crisis was not about slavery. Why is lying about these and many many other events useful to the creators of this show? Wouldn't James Madison, who actually was president during the War of 1812, be a better candidate for the epithet "douchebag" than Monroe, his more robust and more popular successor, for example?
Timbers and Friedman prove to be narrators of the most unreliable kind, and by the time we reached the end of their tale—in which an Indian rebellion has supposedly broken out in Tennessee, resulting in the destruction of the Hermitage, Jackson's plantation—their reasons for inventing wacky historical events completely eluded me, especially when lots of actual historical events—the Eaton affair comes to mind immediately—might have served their purposes equally well. By removing, or shifting, context surrounding their protagonist's actions, Timbers and Friedman offer us a Jackson who can't be understood in any clear way, and whose life has little resonance for a contemporary audience. This did not need to be the case: the Nullification Crisis, to choose just one example, feels very pertinent in a political moment when governors threaten to ignore health care laws passed by the federal government.
Now, there's certainly another way to approach this show, and that is as pure entertainment. And BBAJ is reasonably entertaining as far as it goes—I liked Friedman's music, and a couple of performances (Maria Elena Ramirez as Jackson's wife Rachel and Kristine Nielsen as the story's narrator) impressed me. Benjamin Walker's portrayal of the title character felt underwhelming though: I think one of the ideas of BBAJ is that Jackson had the charisma and appeal of a modern-day rock star, but Walker isn't exactly Mick Jagger. The onstage musicians are great, and the sound by Bart Fasbender keeps the rock score from ever becoming ear-blasting in the (relatively) intimate Jacobs Theatre. Donyale Werle's set, which pours out into the auditorium (and includes a stuffed cow or horse overhanging center orchestra) is eye-popping but underutilized.
Timbers and Friedman remind us more than once that Jackson was a slaveholder. African Americans are otherwise absent from this story, but Native Americans, gays, and women are objectified and parodied throughout the show, proving, perhaps, that one doesn't need to be politically correct anymore when pointing out the politically incorrect attitudes of our forefathers.
Something in BBAJ is clearly striking a chord with people, but as this review has revealed, it has not done so for me. I disliked the show very much, principally for its deliberate, rampant, and random distortions of the historical record, which strike me as both dangerous and antithetical to the principles America is founded upon. "You can't shoot history in the neck," BBAJ's narrator reminds us at the end of the show, after Jackson has complained about something she's noted from the historical record. She's right; but Timbers and Friedman seem awfully determined to try to do just that here, and I can't figure out why.