Utah theater • Historical musical theater with dark humor strikes a chord for our notorious seventh president.
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Those who cannot remember the past, or never sat up straight in history class, are condemned to sing and dance about it.
Salt Lake Acting Company's cast for "Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson" learned that early on.
Mere weeks into memorizing lines, both spoken and sung, everyone involved sat down to watch "Andrew Jackson: Good, Evil & The Presidency." No one could resist the two-hour PBS documentary narrated by Martin Sheen, nor Jackson's fiery words that "I was born for a storm, and a calm does not suit me."
A good part of the cast went on to crack a book or two. American Lion: Andrew Jackson in the White House, by Jon Meacham, was an instant favorite. Everyone involved in the regional premiere of this rollicking rock musical, winner of the Drama Desk and Outer Circle Awards, was so rapt by the real-life story of "Old Hickory" that they attacked the production with full focus and gusto.
Even so, two weeks before the show's Oct. 10 opening, it's easy to get lost in discussions comparing and contrasting the nation's current politics with early 19th-century events between rehearsal takes.
That's not to say that this raucous show depicting our nation's seventh president as a rock star bedecked in thick black eyeliner, tight black pants and gun holster isn't loads of fun. It's all that, plus a stage of beer kegs where the White House rocks to all-night parties.
But Michael Friedman and Alex Timbers' 2008 work, developed by the experimental theater company Les Freres Corbusier in New York City, is also a thinking person's musical. The gravitational pull of historic consequences and personal legacy never lurks far behind. In fact, it's never forgotten.
"I still haven't gotten tired of finding real humanity strewn among all the gags and truths based on real history," said J.C. Ernst, who plays President Jackson. "The honest moments really make the show worth it."
Founding figure, not father • Andrew Jackson's reputation, rich in paradox but also straightforward ambition, is well known to U.S. history scholars.
A slaveholder who spared few, if any, mercies in forcing American Indians off their land, he nevertheless billed himself as a champion of the common man and critic of aristocracy, becoming perhaps the nation's first populist president.
Nobody's fool when it came to conflict, he was a 13-year-old militia member during the Revolutionary War, and as prisoner of war suffered gashes on his head after refusing to shine the boots of a British officer. He became a national hero for defeating the British in the War of 1812's Battle of New Orleans.
We wouldn't have Florida without him. He invaded the Spanish territory outright, letting President John Quincy Adams mop up the fallout. The Seminoles called him "Sharp Knife," a mild moniker considering the tens of thousands of American Indians he killed or relocated. He threatened anyone who dare question his wife Rachel's reputation, although she never quite finalized the divorce of a prior marriage before marrying him. Addicted to dueling, he carried a bullet in his ribs until his dying day.
Adding to his fierce demeanor, he either vanquished or successfully diminished political enemies. He was first to wield the office of president as a total power and founded the Democratic Party in the processall while mowing a path through the French, Spanish and American Indians who stood in the way of the young nation's expanding borders.
"He was a democratic autocrat, an urbane savage, an atrocious saint," wrote Jackson's first biographer, James Parton.
"Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson" puts it differently. Jackson, the play's script states, "puts the 'man' in manifest destiny."
Political satire, served to order • Keven Myhre and Cynthia Fleming, SLAC's director and choreographer behind the regional premiere, said they were amazed by how deftly Timbers' book for the musical distilled Jackson's every element into a cohesive, entertaining whole that still managed to leave room for the man's dark side.
"It's bawdy. It's full of great, full-throttle song. But it's about how truth and power live with each other in the world of politics," Myhre said. "John F. Kennedy maintained the façade of Camelot through his years in power, and this musical shows us how Jackson built and maintained his own façade."
With its own political satire franchise in "Saturday's Voyeur," this is a place Salt Lake Acting Company has found itself in many times before, Fleming said.
"It's a very flashy show, with lots going on," she said. "But all that aside, it's a very effective story."
With its open comparisons to rock-star and celebrity power to the office of U.S. president, "Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson" piles on hyperbole in proportion to the speed in which it moves through history. It's never done for effect alone, however.
The stage set full of beer kegs may seem over the top until you remember that Jackson opened up the White House to all of Washington, D.C.'s riff-raff with his inauguration party. Cabinet meetings take on the flavor of a fan club. Jackson's criticsHenry Clay and John Quincy Adams, to name a fewseem vicious back-stabbers. The juxtaposition between then and now do things ever change? speaks to painful and eternal truths about power and U.S. politics.
The script doesn't blink from Jackson's ruthless nature, either. During the "negotiation" scenes with American Indian Chief Black Fox an amalgam of Cherokee and other tribes Jackson killed and dispossessed we sense that Jackson does his best, even as he's doing his worst.
"The day we arrived, we saw it, we wanted it, and frankly it was easier to believe it was ours,"Jackson tells the native leader he's about to cheat. "As so we're stuck. And what I promise you is that this is the least bad solution."
Jessica Kennedy, who play Jackson's wife, Rachel, said the musical has allowed her a measure of sympathy for not just Jackson, but anyone who holds power. "Every time I'm onstage I'm thinking, 'That sucks for Andrew,' " Kennedy said. "If he didn't stick it to the Native Americans, you know another leader of our country would have been happy to oblige."
Ernst said he's learned through his role that part of holding power means mistakes, deliberate or accidental, are not just inevitable, but maybe even necessary. If we laugh during "Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson," it's the laughter of the damned, the dark laughter of ambition and power that copes with its tragic limitations, but keeps the party rolling.
"You start tripping over your promises, and people stop seeing you as a person, but instead a face that's making all these promises," Ernst said. "I'd no idea of all that was in store when I took this role, but I don't think Andrew knew what he was getting into, either."
'Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson'
When • Oct. 10-Nov. 4, Wednesday-Saturday, 7:30 p.m., Sunday, 1 and 6 p.m.
Where • 168 W. 500 North, Salt Lake City
Info • $23-$42. Call 801-363-SLAC or visit www.saltlakeactingcompany.org for more information.