Andrew Jackson of Tennessee was either a great president, a true man of the people, or a genocidal murderer, an American Hitler, because of his brutal relocation of American Indians on the Trail of Tears.
That, basically, is the theme of Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, a new musical with the unlikely subject of the seventh president. With a propulsive emo-rock score, it's a rowdy piece of satirical theater that captures American populism in all its weirdness, drawing clever parallels between Jackson and today's tea party crowd and celebrity politicians like Sarah Palin.
"This presidency is about the people, and what the people want is pizza,'' declares Jackson, portrayed in a powerful — and powerfully absurd — performance by Benjamin Walker as "the fella who put the 'man' in manifest destiny.''
But Bloody Bloody, which previously played Los Angeles and off-Broadway, won't survive the perennial tide of bloodletting that takes place after the holidays on Broadway. Because of humdrum ticket sales, it will close in January, joining the unhappy roll call of shows that opened this season and failed to find an audience, including The Scottsboro Boys, La Bete, Elling and A Life in the Theatre. A trio of star vehicles, The Tempest with Al Pacino, Driving Miss Daisy with James Earl Jones and Vanessa Redgrave, and The Pee-wee Herman Show, are doing fine at the box office, but they have limited runs. The only new play so far this season that will be sticking around awhile is Lombardi, with Dan Lauria playing the legendary Green Bay Packers coach.
The announced closing of Bloody Bloody came as a bit of a surprise. The show got mostly terrific reviews, and its score by Michael Friedman is loaded with deft, brainy touches, from the rousing opener Populism Yea Yea to ballads with lyrics that manage to work in references to Susan Sontag, Michel Foucault and Alexis de Tocqueville. It's very much in the tradition of other punk rock musicals like Spring Awakening and American Idiot, and maybe they're not able to weather the recession as well as glitzier shows like the '80s head-banger homage Rock of Ages, which is still going strong.
American Idiot plans to get through the slow period of January and February by putting Green Day's Billie Joe Armstrong in the cast for 50 performances, a strategy that boosted sales by 200 percent in September.
I'll admit to being slightly disappointed by Bloody Bloody, given its cachet with reviewers and my fondness for Friedman's previous work with the Civilians, a guerrilla theater group more accustomed to downtown venues than Broadway. The musical was written and directed by Alex Timbers, whose credits include A Very Merry Unauthorized Children's Scientology Pageant, another show better in theory than in practice, at least in my experience.
If a musical's stock in trade is brilliance and wit, then it really has to soar as a kind of intellectual high-wire act that never loses its grip on the audience, and too often I found my attention wandering in Bloody Bloody. Walker, a marvelous singer, is a charismatic performer, but the rest of the cast is not particularly compelling, relying more on high energy and sophomoric shtick (i.e., the Twinkie-munching Martin Van Buren of Lucas Near-Verbrugghe) than fresh, surprising characterizations.
A lot of the dialogue and lyrics are deliberately dumb ("Life sucks/My life sucks in particular,'' Jackson sings), and I get that, but the whiny snark wore thin. Friedman's music rocks hard, and several songs are fantastic, such as the antiwar The Saddest Song, but I felt there wasn't enough variety to the score, or perhaps just not enough, period. The cast album (on Ghostlight Records) is like a pell-mell set by the Ramones, 13 tracks running less than half an hour.
Still, the politics of Bloody Bloody are remarkably sharp and relevant. Walker's Jackson is a narcissistic, violent schemer who played the populism card in ways that are all too familiar today, no matter which side of the political aisle you occupy. "He's the candidate I'd most like to have a beer with,'' a voice in the crowd says during Jackson's first campaign for president in 1824. The electorate is shown in the most craven, self-serving, knuckleheaded way imaginable, as in an exchange between a pair of Floridians condemning Jackson's expulsion of the Indians, but conceding that, well, it is nice to be able to live someplace where it doesn't snow.
One of the coolest things about the production is the environmental set designed by Donyale Werle, who has stuffed the Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre with all manner of Americana, including 19th century portraits and landscape paintings, political slogans ("End the Fed'') and mounted animal heads and antlers. Hanging over my seat in the orchestra section was the foam and neoprene corpse of a horse.
John Fleming can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8716. He blogs on Critics Circle at tampabay.com/blogs/critics.