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The Dude on the $20 Bill

The Public’s new alt-rock musical about Andrew Jackson mistakes a hipster-slacker viewpoint for actual, thoughtful irreverence.

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Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson is the rock-musical equivalent of those allegedly yummy home-baked treats that mom has secretly stuffed with spinach. It’s entertainment that’s supposed to be good and good for you, and it isn’t quite enough of either. Ambitious, rambunctious, and overbearing, this hyperactive kid of a musical—which first surfaced here last spring as part of the Public Theater’s Public LAB season—applies the Schoolhouse Rock formula to the life and career of our seventh president and the father of the Democratic Party, a charismatic figure who galvanized the nation. He was also largely responsible for driving Native Americans out of their homelands and into new settlements west of the Mississippi, which caused thousands to die from exposure, starvation, and disease.

Jackson was a complicated guy, which helps account for—but doesn’t excuse—the show’s ADD approach. Written and directed by Alex Timbers, Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson is non sequitur history, in which factual oddities like Jackson and his wife Rachel’s penchant for mutual blood-letting (they believed it promoted self-healing) get juxtaposed with rushed, hard-to-follow dramatizations of complicated policy decisions. Did I mention that all of this zigzaggy madness is set to an emo-rock score? Some of the numbers are catchy enough in a Green Day sort of way, even if they force the show’s young, energetic cast members to work exceptionally hard. Swinging their hips, pumping their fists in the air, belting out lyrics like “Populism, yeah yeah”: There isn’t a minute when they’re not busy advertising the cleverness of the show around them.

The performers’ conviction does count for something, though. Benjamin Walker, as Jackson, somewhat resembles the White Stripes’ Jack White, and he seems to relish all the bodacious strutting that the role requires of him. But despite its glaring, aggressive obviousness, there’s something maddeningly indistinct about the musical. Its dramatic conflicts are too often resolved with a figurative (or literal) rolling of the eyes and somebody’s saying, “Whatever.” At one point a saucy young miss twirls around in a black cape emblazoned with Jackson’s visage and the legend DEMOCRATS GIVE BETTER HEAD. What does that have to do with the Trail of Tears? Nothing that I can see. It’s just someone’s idea of an anachronistic funny-ha-ha. Somewhere, Jackson is going “Whatever” as he rolls over in his grave.


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