This was yet one more odd off-Broadway transfer, this time with perhaps the weirdest one-sentence description up to that point—Andrew Jackson as an Emo rock star. No-one really took much notice of this show, except as a minor theatrical curiosity, until Lin-Manuel Miranda’s mammoth hit Hamilton was released. Suddenly, this relatively unimportant quick-closing flop has become fascinating for its striking similarities to a world-conquering smash hit from four years later.
This has happened before, by the way. For those of who unfamiliar with the obscure Broadway flop Sophie, it was a bio-musical about Sophie Tucker that is remembered mostly for its uncanny similarity to the classic hit that played the same theater a year later, Funny Girl. Seriously, it was almost exactly the same show as Funny Girl, down to the last detail, except not any good. This show doesn’t have quite as much in common with Hamilton as Sophie did with Funny Girl, but it’s still kind of amazing, looking back, how much this half-forgotten flop shares with the biggest hit of the current decade. Both are about major figures in American history re-imagined through the lens of a modern musical and cultural idiom (Hip-Hop in one case, Emo in another), and in both cases, the analogy oddly seems to fit.
Of course, this show isn’t the modern masterpiece that Hamilton was, but I’ll give it this much…it completely changed my mind about its subject. Before my acquaintance with this particular musical, I was not an admirer of the historical Andrew Jackson…I was of the school of thought that tended to be rather unforgiving of his more ruthless actions, particularly toward the Native American population. But while this show doesn’t sugarcoat the more unsavory qualities of its subject, approaching the material in an ambiguous, let-the-audience-decide manner rather reminiscent of Evita, it does makes one very deliberate point…given that we in America today owe the entire system that makes our current lives possible to Jackson’s supposed atrocities, who the Hell are we to condemn his acts while we’re still reaping the benefits of them? To be ultimately glad he did what he did (which, if we’re honest with ourselves, we all are) and still try to disassociate ourselves from his actions just makes us look like hypocrites. Frankly, this applies further than just Jackson as an individual—part of the show’s point is how we vainly try to distance ourselves from the darker side of our national legacy via empty words and gestures to show we don’t ‘condone’ the atrocities from which we’re profiting (like taking people’s faces off currency, for example).
Despite the unconventional approach to the material, the show is surprisingly historically accurate…the authors clearly did their homework, which is admirable. And much like Hamilton, the show made an oddly convincing case for the parallels between the historical Andrew Jackson and the idea of an Emo Rock star. After all, Jackson’s entire appeal as a political candidate hinged on convincing the disenfranchised common people that he understood their problems because he was one of them and had been there himself…exactly the way Emo and the associated musical and cultural movements appealed to the disaffected youth who formed their primary target audience. And the musical acknowledges that, while there are definitely dangers inherent in enshrining that kind of leader, the alternative (government by a privileged intellectual oligarchy) has some pretty serious drawbacks of its own. It also makes some very sharp observations about how populist leaders usually seem to appeal primarily to the disaffected adolescent in all of us, an idea that actually has more obvious resonance in current events now than it did at the time.
Of course, both shows were essentially using an idea originally conceived by Jesus Christ Superstar, just applied to American historical figures and using the musical and cultural idioms of a younger generation. But the basic idea of viewing historical legends through a contemporary cultural lens is still as resonant now as it was then, and each new examination of it brings new truths to light, which is presumably why it keeps getting reinvented.
The real difference in quality between this show and Hamilton lies in the score. Put simply, if Hamilton had been a Rap concept album rather than a musical, it would still have been some of the best Rap music of all time. But this score, while it has the necessary anger and defiance down perfectly and suits the dramatic content and approach extremely well, just isn’t up to the level of the best real Emo-Rock acts as pure music. There are a few standout numbers, including the stirring opener “Populism, Yea, Yea”, the bittersweet ballad “Second Nature”, and a disturbingly ironic variation on the old nursery tune “Ten Little Indians”, but even these items don’t measure up to the best of Weezer or Jimmy Eat World or My Chemical Romance. Granted, there’s certainly plenty of vastly worse Emo music than this out there (this is the genre that gave us Simple Plan, after all), but frankly, you could hear better examples of the style than anything in this score on the early Fall Out Boy albums, and they aren’t even one of the most legit acts in the genre.
What really sets this show apart is its genuine Indie-culture sensibility. Hamilton, for all its daring and ambition, was very much a high-class, uptown project (it was, after all, the work of one of Stephen Sondheim’s hand-picked protégés). This show, on the other hand, is unmistakably in the vein of off-Broadway weirdness that brought us such unlikely crossover hits as Urinetown, Avenue Q, 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, and Hedwig and the Angry Inch. Everything about it, from its overall tone to its sense of humor to its performing style, bears the stamp of the particular quirky sensibility that dominated experimental Off-Broadway fare in the 2000s. Combine this with its influences from the Indie Rock subculture, and you have a show that wears its counterculturalism on its sleeve, which seems fitting enough given its subject matter.
Performed by a strong cast of newcomers led by the charismatic Benjamin Walker as Jackson, this was easily the most interesting Broadway show of the 2010-2011 season that wasn’t Book of Mormon (not that there was much competition for that particular runner-up spot, but still). And while it never found success on Broadway, and seems to have mostly been forgotten at this point except as the Sophie to Hamilton‘s Funny Girl, it was a genuinely interesting little show that had a unique vision and made several very smart points. And given that the difference between the success of Hamilton and this show’s failure ultimately came down to the music, it seems just a little unfair to know that if this show had just been able to field a Hamilton-level score, Andrew Jackson would probably still have his face on the twenty dollar bill.