Unlike other rock musicals in Midtown, including "American Idiot" and "Memphis," this one doesn't deliver big, clean, throbbing emotions. Irony is woven into its fabric, but it's not the easy irony of mock news shows on television. Mr. Friedman's songs, cast in the hip but anguished mode of bands like Dashboard Confessional, could be described as post-ironic. They're achingly sincere, even as they send up aching sincerity, hot and cool in one breath.
BLOODY BLOODY ANDREW JACKSON Broadway Reviews
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With their bloody-good "Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson," director-librettist Alex Timbers and composer-lyricist Michael Friedman have woven a scathing and topical satire on matters patriotic and political, and they've done it with the sound of emo rock, which might be hard to swallow for some traditional theatergoers. Downtown hit could prove a tough sell in a Broadway house, but the show's commercial producers have demonstrated keen marketing in the past, with diverse fare including "Spring Awakening" and "August: Osage County." Word of mouth will loom large with this one.
Tall, dark and very handsome Benjamin Walker is beyond charismatic as Jackson, portraying him more like a rock idol than a crusty Presidential icon. A dozen other youngsters depict a hundred other folks while singing the blazes out Friedman's pulsating emo-cratic score banged out by a three-man band. Dear Kristine Nielsen drolly rolls around as the show's cozy narrator until she is gunned down by — well, you'll have to see "BBAJ" to get the joke behind her murder. And to be reminded by the authors how the native population was systematically slaughtered during those glorious times by Jackson and other Americans expanding the nation's boundaries.
Aside from the change in venue and a few minor tweaks to the supporting cast and staging, though, Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson is presented more or less exactly as it was at the Public. That is not a complaint. Many of those who have already discovered this unique show will no doubt jump at the chance to experience it all over again. If you haven't seen it yet, what are you waiting for? Shows this weird and wonderful don't make it to Broadway every day.
There could not possibly be a more relevant time for "Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson" - a relentlessly silly rock musical about the first unofficial Tea Party candidate in American political history - to premiere on Broadway.
And yet "Bloody Bloody" never fails to entertain: It stays faithful to the people's president by making him a crowd-pleaser.
Songwriter Friedman has always had an uncanny knack for the catchy hook and the clever lyric that rises to philosophical wistfulness. And here, he works in the surly emo-rock mode, finding exhilaration in the pent-up rage and nihilism that both demands center stage and shrinks from scrutiny. Not since Stephen Sondheim played bitter variations on “Hail to the Chief” for Assassins (1991) has a Broadway musical so starkly and brutally examined the underside of the American Dream. Particularly in the subdued penultimate number “Second Nature,” Friedman moves past the Sontag and Foucault namechecking to offer a hushed, plangent elegy for this land of strip malls over killing fields.
In its transfer to Broadway, "Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson" has gotten even wilder since its incarnations at Off-Broadway's Public Theater last season. This raucous combination political cartoon, rock concert, and extended "Saturday Night Live" sketch now fills the Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre with irreverent wit, in-your-face satire, and lots of sweaty sex appeal. Alex Timbers' off-the-wall book and direction and Michael Friedman's pulse-pounding score provide the first two elements, and Benjamin Walker in the lead delivers the third.
And this unabashedly anachronistic musical doesn't just aim to mock Jackson's proto-libertarian views and followers — or, by implication, their generally right-leaning successors. True, leading man Benjamin Walker's Jackson is introduced as a crude, if charismatic, blowhard, his crowd as similarly rowdy and lowbrow. In the post-punk diatribe Populism Yea Yea, they vow to take "a stand against the elite," not to mention a laundry list of foreigners.
How important is charisma in the selection of American leaders? Who decided who got to claim what for whose manifest destiny? What is populism, and why would anyone trust the people with it? And while we're asking, what is "Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson" doing on Broadway, anyway? My answer to the last question is easy. It's doing plenty, just not in the usual ways.
But this is still one of those shows that capture a moment, an old moment, a new moment. The young cast looks atypical and, at times, as if its members can't believe their luck. Jackson probably thought much the same.
If you're looking for a tidy and traditional show, or an irony-free slice of history, this new take on Old Hickory isn't it. But for something lightweight, fresh and fun, "Andrew Jackson" is worth the Benjamins.
"Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson" is a not-exactly-history play in which the life of America's seventh president is given what might be called the Jon Stewart treatment (i.e., lots and lots of Irony Lite) and set to the style of rock known as "emo" (i.e., unabashed emotion accompanied by a just-kidding wink that draws the deadly sting of sincerity). And what are the results? Mixed—but also, if a middle-age critic may dare to say so, hugely encouraging.
The whole thing is just plain odd: This show walks a fine line between parody and sincerity, between mocking musicals and yet embracing them, between promoting stereotypes and yet laughing at them, between respect for history and having none at all, and between making fun of rock stars and yet producing one. It sometimes falters, yet never loses it's swagger - unlike that hogtied horse dangling from the balcony.
But it's a messy matter, the business of governing: Jackson's expansionist agenda, the musical tells us, mandated the brutal booting of Indian tribes from their ancestral lands. So, too, does "Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson" feel at times sort of scattered. Though the magnetic Benjamin Walker is an exhilarating force in the title role, some ensemble members come across as a bit green on an imposing Broadway stage. And intermittently, Michael Friedman's score and Alex Timbers's book can seem better suited to a night of college skits. Slickness is not a desirable attribute on this occasion, but a consistent polish is.
While today’s lack of historical sensitivity is part of the point here, the dim background illumination of Native Americans at the end is a wan homage to the multitudes killed. This production suggests that it might be best not to think too hard about such things; better to have a blast and revel in the glory of the coolest guy at the party.
Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson is 90 minutes long, and around minute 70, I began to despair of it. I started to wonder: Surely the whole play couldn't be about just that-facile, glib language mirroring a facile, racist political movement. Or maybe it was simply suffering from the move to Broadway, another show that originated in a small space dying in a big house.
The clueless public is relevant here, since Bloody/Jackson is, or at least wants to be, political in substance. It presents its title character (Benjamin Walker) as a schmuck-hero, leading a populist movement to "take this country back," with guns if necessary, from the "elite," who think about things but never get anything done. As presented in Alex Timbers's script and Michael Friedman's songs, Jackson's populism looks a lot like the Tea Party: angry, greedy ignoramuses, petty and vicious toward anyone different, who view any attempt to deal with democracy's complex realities as an elitist conspiracy against the ordinary folk for whom they mistake themselves.
Between the buffoonish antics (Jackson foes like John Quincy Adams and Henry Clay played as cartoon twits) and almost total lack of dramatic fluidity (key events like Jackson's loss of the 1924 presidential election through backroom Senate dealing are simply announced by a narrator), the revisionism just looks like a lame high school prank.
I must confess that the folks around me seemed to find most of it hilarious. Much as I wished to, I couldn't join them.
Bottom Line: Snarky rock musical about "Old Hickory" is more sophomoric than satiric.
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.