More American History Musicals, Please!

by Rob Weinert-Kendt

in Critics & Reviews,Watch & Listen

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The ecstatic reception for the musical Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson at New York’s Public Theatre, which depicts our 7th president as a tight-jean-wearing “emo” rock star, made me realize that it represents a vastly under-explored genre: the American history musical. Apart from the Founding Fathers tuner 1776, the field is pretty clear of shows that portray iconic American figures, at least on the national stage (Fiorello!’s about a New York mayor). You can make a case for mostly fictionalized but history-minded shows like Ragtime or Rags, or for more fact-based takes on American history like Guettel’s Floyd Collins or Brown’s Parade or Sondheim’s Assassins (which I actually first saw in a college production in Whittier, Calif., in its West Coast premiere—it was actually pretty good, and it made the case for musicals as teaching tools). Or for an entirely fictionalized take on the office, written decades before the movie Dave or the series The West Wing, there’s Irving Berlin’s famed flop Mr. President. (For the record, I’m pretty wary of Hope—The Obama Musical, now improbably rocking Germany.) We can’t really count Frank Wildhorn’s song-cycle The Civil War, and though the Benjamin Franklin is a major character in the shlocky Straight Up Vampire, I’m not sure that counts, either.

So where, it seems worth asking, is the American Evita or Les Miz? Part of the reason for the paucity of historical musicals is that, for all their vaunted dissatisfaction with government, Americans remain pretty reverent about their icons and institutions, but the last thing they go to a musical for is an evening of sober, reverential hagiography. So a musical comedy about a beloved historical icon, say, is likely either to bore audiences if it’s too reverent, or offend them if it’s too irreverent. That’s where Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, the brainchild of Les Freres Corbusier’s Alex Timbers and the versatile composer (and veteran Civilian) Michael Friedman, points a way forward: By turning Old Hickory into a charismatic but needy male heartthrob, it examines the presidency as a pop-cultural artifact beloved of a perpetually adolescent nation—a nation that looks for heroes as avidly as it casts them aside. This approach lets audiences have all the satire and dish and drama they crave, while still having a fist-pumping good time. They get a critique with a beat. And this have-your-fun-and-subversion-in-one deal seems perfectly suited to the rock musical—rock music is an ideal vehicle for rebellion as entertainment.

So I say bring on Abe Lincoln’s Big Gay Dance Party!

-Rob

P.S. Ben Brantley has some related thoughts about politics and musical theatre here.

Rob Weinert-Kendt is associate editor of American Theatre magazine. He also co-runs the site StageGrade.com and is father to a strapping infant named Oliver.

Watch video from Bloody, Bloody Andrew Jackson (4mins)

Audience reactions to Bloody, Bloody Andrew Jackson (2mins 49sec)

Your Two Cents: What historical figure or era do you think deserves its own rock musical? (And as a bonus, tell us who should write it.)