Features & Columns

Summer Theater in Silicon Valley: San Jose Stage Company's
Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson

San Jose Stage Company reanimates American history with ambitious emo-rock musical Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson—and kicks off a strong summer theater season in the valley
Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson RALLYING THE TROOPS: Andrew Jackson (center), played by Jonathan Rhys Williams, rallies a populist posse of supporting players in 'Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson.' Photograph by Dave Lepori

The warm months see many local theater companies on hiatus, in a kind of reverse hibernation. Even so, summer in the South Bay is still a theatrical smorgasbord, offering drama and musicals, time-honored classics and world premieres, and, of course, plenty of Shakespeare.

The wildest of the bunch promises to be San Jose Stage Company's West Coast premiere of Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, the Tony-nominated rock musical that transforms Old Hickory into a skinny-jeaned emo heartthrob.

"It's quite a bit anachronistic," says Randall King, artistic director at San Jose Stage Company, where the show will run June 6–July 29. King is referring to the play's early-1800s setting, conjured up through a musical style popularized by bands like Dashboard Confessional and My Chemical Romance. It seems crazy, but considering the qualities of emo music (wild, angst-ridden and immature), the play might be the perfect representation of young, "teenage" America.

The characterization of Andrew Jackson as the "rock star" of his time isn't far off the mark either. Jackson was America's first populist president, swept into office as more states extended suffrage to common people. His rugged frontier image was what men aspired to and women swooned over, and it set the stage for two centuries of down-home demagogues.

Popularity notwithstanding, there was a very dark side to Jackson. His administration was thoroughly corrupt, with a system of cronyism that prefigured the modern political machine, and a policy of Indian removal that led to widespread atrocities against Native American peoples.

Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, which follows this contradictory man from his hard-knock childhood in Tennessee through his days in the White House, makes a clear connection between Jacksonian democracy and today's political environment, where people cast their votes based on who they'd like to have a beer with or (as Bloody Bloody seems to suggest) who they'd like to have sex with. A New York Times review summarized it thus: "Ladies and gentlemen, the seventh president of the United States is here to take a firsthand look at you the people, and he thinks you're really hot. You feel the same way about him, right?"

Later, upon the play's Broadway premiere, the paper wrote, "There's not a show in town that more astutely reflects the state of this nation." Another critic called it "a smart, informed look at America's bottomless appetite for pandering leaders."

Nevertheless, Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson appears to have been a little too strange for Broadway, with middling results at the box office despite overwhelming critical accolades. Perhaps it will be better suited to San Jose Stage, coming as it does at the tail end of a politically charged season that has already taken viewers to Germany during the rise of the Nazis (Cabaret), the ruins of the American Dream (Buried Child) and the Philippines in the aftermath of the Spanish-American War (Buffalo'ed).

"It kind of fell into place in terms of the argot of our season," observes King, noting the connection between the Manifest Destiny expansionism of Andrew Jackson and the later imperial scramble portrayed in Buffalo'ed and how the seeds planted by Jackson have grown to affect government policy even today. "Jackson furthered America's eternal sense of entitlement," says King. "A man of his times, [he was] founder of the Democratic Party that became the engine that drove Manifest Destiny."

If that sounds a trifle academic, King is quick to add, "Bloody Bloody is the most fun you'll ever have in history class."

Page: 1 | 2 | 3