We're laughing now about Carl Paladino's horse porn and Christine O'Donnell's denial of Wiccan affiliation, but let's get serious for a sec: Aren't we just a teensy bit afraid that one day electoral idiocy will foist on us a truly dangerous demagogue? Sarah Palin "aw shucks"--ing in the Oval Office is impossible to conceive—until you realize that millions of voting adults can't tell the difference between a bronco rider and a rodeo clown; they lack the critical tools to see through bad acting and cheap theatrics. In Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, composer-lyricist Michael Friedman has the chorus sing, "All you educated people, / You can talk of liberty. / But do you really want the American people / Running their own country?" In this midterm election cycle, you may check yourself from shouting, "Hell no!"
Just remember that Friedman and book writer--director Alex Timbers are not offering a position paper on American democracy—present-day or 1830s. Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson is, instead, equal-opportunity satire, a 21st-century presidential lark, Of Thee I Sing by way of South Park, Schoolhouse Rock and The Colbert Report. This loose-limbed mix of emo rock, sketch comedy and undergrad snark pokes fun at wicked Native Americans, effete Washingtonians, dumbass rednecks and equally vapid hipsters. Bloody Bloody isn't equating Andrew Jackson's divisive and violent presidency (1829--1837) with the illiterate, inchoate spasms of the Tea Party, but it does suggest that populism is born of ignorant, adolescent rage.
The populist paradox—we want our leaders to be like us, but if they were as weak and limited as us, they could never lead—is the joke that keeps giving in Timbers's adroit and unexpectedly dark book. Timbers and his cast of supremely funny and adept performers sketch the life and times of America's seventh President (played with total rock-star hotness by Benjamin Walker) as a frontier youth orphaned due to "Injun" murders, who takes up the expansionist cause in the West and eventually rides popular anger against Washington insiders to victory. In office, Jackson finds his will thwarted by an obstructionist Congress and Supreme Court, and his fickle, star-struck supporters are no help. Eventually, personal demons drive Jackson to find a solution to the "Indian Question." That comes in the form of genocidal military campaigns and mass relocation. All this is insanely funny—until it becomes a national tragedy.
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.
For all the ecstatic beauty of the score, the book has its weak spots. Timbers might have deepened the friendship between Jackson and Black Fox (Bryce Pinkham) so that the latter's betrayal would bite harder. The logical if horrifying rationale for suppressing Native Americans—their cultural irrelevance to Western Europeans—might have been underscored to harsher effect. Still, for a book as ambitious and multilayered as this, Timbers juggles a lot: sight gags, social critique, topical references, metatheatrical winks, transhistorical disruptions and even earnest family drama. To the small-minded Broadway traditionalist, this will be taken as a sign that Timbers couldn't decide what show he wanted to make. Others will understand that pastiche is at the heart of this project. Sure, portraying 19th-century Washington power brokers as queeny goons in Elizabethan ruffs is silly, but the juxtaposition also says something about how the disempowered critique the powerful using stereotypes that denigrate other social groups: in this case, gay men.
Lest this make the production sound academic or PC, it's not. The show has a dark, angry heart as well as a kicky score. From the hilarious comic mugging onstage to the way that set designer Donyale Werle has extended the cabinet-of-curiosities set into the house and around the audience, Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson embraces you with its wit and verve, making a bid for the smartest, sharpest new musical in years. I would definitely have a beer with these guys.