Andrew Jackson Rocks Generic Theater
By Montague Gammon III
Hampton Roads audiences get a most unusual lesson in somewhat skewed American history – and perhaps the loudest and most harshly spoken such lesson anywhere – in Generic Theater’s production of the satirical and comic rock musical Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson.
Opera News, the Metropolitan Opera Guild house magazine rarely given to commentary on rock and roll, called the doubly Tony nominated, Drama Desk and Outer Critics Circle Award winning New York production “A rollicking vaudeville show … an engagingly untidy affair.”
The subject of “Bloody Bloody” is, of course, Andrew Jackson, the military hero of The War of 1812 who became the 7th President of the United States. The play draws implicit parallels between Jackson’s political career and events in recent American politics.
The costumes, and the raucously coarse vocabulary, are straight out of 20th Century rock and punk.
The Generic Theater’s production will look like a classic rock concert played in an 18th Century saloon, according to stage director Brendan Hoyle. “Good and loud,” he calls it.
Hoyle terms Jackson America’s “first big celebrity,” adding that “General citizens did not love any of the previous presidents like they did Jackson.”
In Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, “Old Hickory” is presented as “a bad ass rock star,” he says.
Surrounded by explicitly inviting groupies, throwing a football at Martin Van Buren, wielding a couple of switchblades and the f-word with abandon, the stage version of Jackson belts out songs with titles such as “I’m So That Guy,” “Crisis Averted,” and “Rock Star,” accompanied by a center-stage, four-piece rock band.
As for those parallels between Jackson’s time and ours, compare to the disputed Bush-Gore contest in 2000 how Jackson lost the 1824 election.
Jackson had won a plurality of both the popular vote and of the votes in the electoral college. Since none of the four candidates had a majority of electoral votes, the election was decided by the House of Representatives.
House Speaker and candidate Henry Clay threw his support behind former rival John Quincy Adams. Newly chosen President Adams then appointed Clay his Secretary of State.
The popular perception that corrupt politicians stole the election from Jackson, the rightful winner, turned to a “feeling of hope,” says Hoyle, when Jackson did win the Presidency in 1828. Hoyle likens that “kind of hopefulness” to the widespread optimism that accompanied President Obama’s election and inauguration.
Jackson’s support for the working class against what he saw as an entrenched aristocracy won him acclaim, and in fact he did face down Southerners who claimed that states had the right to nullify Federal laws and even to secede from the Union (This some 30 years before the Civil War.)
For all his popularity, Jackson was anything but benign or unfailingly admirable. The play sees him as very much the anti-hero – an “a**hole” with lots of “charisma,” says Hoyle – whose ego, ambition and anti-Indian prejudice fueled a particularly terrible and racist policy during the administration of Jackson and that of Van Buren, his successor in the White House.
“Indian Removal,” as the ghastly expulsion of Eastern Native American tribes to lands in the American West was called, caused the death of thousands of Native Americans along “The Trail of Tears.” Contemporary perception often considers Indian Removal as the American equivalent of ethnic cleansing.
Hoyle quotes, as emblematic of one facet of American history, one of Jackson’s lines from the play. To Native American leader Black Fox, who had joined Jackson’s duplicity against other Indians. Jackson says “we” knew that the land belonged to the Native Americans, but “we took it anyways and told ourselves we deserved it.”
Ironically, General Jackson adopted an Indian boy who was orphaned during the 1813 battle of Talladega (Alabama) between Red Stick Creek Indians on one side, and the Tennessee Militia under Jackson’s command and their Creek Indian allies on the other.
That boy, named Lyncoya, is a minor character in Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson. The script suggests that because Jackson was orphaned at an early age, he felt particular sympathy for a toddler found in his dead (Native American) mother’s arms on the battlefield.
The Indian fighter’s affection for that child and his devotion to his beloved wife Rachel are positive elements of his character in the play.
However, sentiment is very much in the background for most of Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson.
“Loud, fast and out of control,” is Hoyle’s description of the play, which he says “feels like a fast paced, high energy rock show.” Ninety minutes long, with no intermission, it “comes out of the gate and never stops.”
“Once it starts it doesn’t let go,” he says.
Opera News Editor in Chief F. Paul Driscoll might have the last word on the play: “Whatever your politics, you’ll never look at a twenty-dollar bill in quite the same way after a trip to Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson.”
Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson
Music and lyrics by Michael Friedman, book by Alex Timbers
Generic Theater downunder Chrysler Hall
215 St Pauls. Blvd., Norfolk
Aug 23- Sept. 15