“Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson” Is a Bloody Good Show

Culture Watch

Bruce Chadwick lectures on history and film at Rutgers University in New Jersey. He also teaches writing at New Jersey City University. He holds his PhD from Rutgers and was a former editor for the New York Daily News. This is the second in a series of theater reviews he will be writing for HNN.

"Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson"
Bernard Jacobs Theater
W. 45th St., New York City

The Andrew Jackson who high steps his way through as many bars as cabinet meetings in the new rock musical “Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson” in New York is definitely not your grandfather’s seventh president.

The gruff, square-jawed man who scowls up at us from the face of the twenty dollar bill gets a wild and wonderful makeover in the new musical that opens on October 13.  What we get on stage in “Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson” is a stylish young rocker in tight jeans and an historical swagger unapproached in theater history, a gun-toting president who is hip, rowdy, singing and dancing, the American Idol of American history.

“Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson” is not only a shocker to theater audiences and history buffs, but a loud and wonderful delight of a play, a high-powered, evocative ode to an American icon.  It is a gripping musical that not only changes our opinion of Jackson and his presidency, but does it while presenting the American hero warts and all.

The play is funny and satirical throughout, with Native Americans trying to shake ink out of their 1818 quills, men and women dropping dead on cue in musical numbers—with silent movie screams on their faces—and wife Rachel Jackson complaining about having to continually cut herself to prove her love to Andrew.

There are two strong storylines:  ruthless manifest destiny and the new people’s democracy.  Jackson is battered mercilessly for engineering the acquisition of the Florida territory and his wars on the Creek and Seminole Indians.  At one point, someone even sings that he “put the ‘man’ in manifest destiny.”  The rant against him for his battles against the Indians and, later, for the start of the sad “trail of tears” deportation of more than 50,000 Native Americans out of the southwest stretches for most of the play.  He is seen as an egomaniacal “King Andrew” manipulating Congress and as a lustful voyeur who watches young girls make out with each other in the White House and enjoys the shouts of young women in crowds that they want to have his babies.

But, at the same time, he is applauded endlessly for being the first president from the rapidly growing west, his military victory at New Orleans and the new, wide open, populist states’ rights look he gave the federal government in his two terms.  That theme connects him to Ronald Reagan (Reagan’s 1984 campaign theme “Morning in America” is mentioned several times), Barrack Obama (Jackson wants change) and now, this fall, the maverick Tea Party.  He plays Jackson not as Franklin Roosevelt would have played him, but as Bruce Springsteen.

You know you are at a bloody, bloody play as soon as you enter the theater.  There are hundreds of tiny red lights on the ceiling of the rear of the theater that resemble a bloody forest.  The seats are blood red, as are the curtains draped on the walls and ceiling of the theater.  A tied-up horse dangles upside down over the audience.

The play opens with the young Jackson, played by the marvelously gifted Benjamin Walker, strutting to the middle of the stage and asking the audience, “Are you ready?”  The people roar back that they are and then the cast, to thumping music, soars back to the start of the nineteenth century at one hundred miles per hour, bringing the audience with it.

It is a very good play and a treat for history lovers.  It is not a great play.  There are no moving scenes, emotional confrontations or classic lines.  Except for the chilling and provocative “Ten Little Indians,” the songs in the play are not memorable.  But what you do get, a rousing rock musical and splashy and informative history lesson about the fabled hero of the battle of New Orleans, is a gift from historical heaven.

The good thing about the play is the history.  Most playwrights capture the “spirit”of the story and pay little attention to facts.  Playwright and composer Alex Timbers, though, produced a very accurate story, from the death of Jackson’s entire family when he was a boy to his controversial marriage to his battles with the Native Americans to his eight years as a populist president.

The bad thing about the play is also the history.  Timbers assume that the audience not only knows a lot about President Jackson, but U.S. history in general.  The Nullification Crisis involving South Carolina’s bid to ignore federal law was blithely glossed over, as if everyone understood it.  The complex act is not only a mystery to the public, but to most historians.  The complicated election of 1824, that wound up in the House of Representatives, was also shortchanged.  Historical figures John Quincy Adams, Martin Van Buren, James Monroe, James Madison and Henry Clay are presented as cackling fools and the audience learns little about the brilliant politicians.

The play paid little attention to the fact that Jackson was a slaveholder; that enraged many Northerners.  It is never clear why his marriage to his wife Rachel, played nicely by Maria Elena Ramirez, that took place while she was technically married to another man, caused Jackson so much grief throughout his life.  He was so overwrought by criticism of his marriage that he fought several duels over the issue.  It is mentioned that he suffered from hepatitis, but his decades of extended sickness, a signature of his presidency, are not stressed.  Jackson is also showcased as a very young president, thanks to the portrayal by energetic twenty-something Benjamin Walker.  In fact, he was sixty-one when he was elected.

There are some historical miscues.  Jackson cavorts around the stage waving a revolver, but that weapon was not invented until 1838.  The participation of Jean Lafitte and his pirates in the much-heralded battle of New Orleans in 1815 is overlooked.  General Jackson is portrayed as simply seizing the Florida territory, but, in fact, the U.S. purchased it from Spain for $5 million.

These small historical gaffes are easily forgiven.  “Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson is a bloody good musical starring the dazzling Benjamin Walker.  I cannot wait until the opening night of “Millard Fillmore, Superstar,” “Rapping with Grover Cleveland” and “Hip Hop Herbert Hoover.”

Written and directed by Alex Timbers, music and lyrics by Michael Friedman, sets by Donyale Werle, costumes by Emily Rebholz, lighting by Justin Townsend, sound by Bart Fasbender, music director Justin Levine, choreography by Danny Mefford. Presented by the Public Theater, the Center Theater Group, in association with Les Freres Corbusier, Jeffrey Richards, Jerry Frankel, Scott Delman, Susan Gallin/Mary Lu Roffe, Stewart Lane & Bonnie Comely. Joey Parnes is executive producer. At the Bernard Jacobs Theater, W. 45th St. New York, N.Y. Running time: l hour, 30 minutes.

STARS:   Benjamin Walker (Andrew Jackson), Ben Steinfeld (Monroe), Kristine Nielsen (storyteller), Jeff Hiller (J.Q. Adams), James Barry (Clay), Darren Goldstein (Calhoun), Greg Hildreth (Red Eagle), Lucas Near-Verbrugghe (Van Buren), Maria Elena Ramirez (Rachel Jackson), Kate Cullen Roberts (Elizabeth), Cameron Ocasio (Lyncoya).

Related Links

comments powered by Disqus

More Comments:

Lawrence Brooks Hughes - 10/17/2010

Marvin Kalb said about 50% of the entering freshmen at Harvard believe Lyndon Johnson was complicit in the murder of Jack Kennedy. (They probably still think so four years later, too!)

bill farrell - 10/11/2010

My wife and I saw the show at the Public. Frankly, I thought that it was rotten history with few specifics.