On the World Stage

In the new ‘Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson,’ our seventh president gets the rock-star treatment

July 26, 2012

Heath Calvert is a violent yet likable emo-rock president in “Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson,” the brainchild of two history nerds.

While in the White House, Andrew Jackson briefly possessed a block of cheese that weighed nearly 1,400 pounds. It was sent to him in the 1830s as a gift from a dairy farmer in upstate New York. To ensure the cheddar did not go to waste, Jackson hosted a public reception at the White House, where it was promptly consumed.

This story has been used by everyone from “The West Wing” writers to wiseguy Hill staffers quoting “The West Wing” to illustrate that Andrew Jackson was, above all, a populist.

That identity is a large part of the point of “Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson,” a rock musical that premiered off-Broadway in 2010 and is currently running at Studio Theatre’s 2ndStage. Composer Michael Friedman and book writer Alex Timbers take the story of our seventh president and punch it up with jokes about Michel Foucault and power ballads expressing the angst and neglect of Jackson’s wife, Rachel.

“He invented the way politics works, he invented campaigning and the idea of the frontier and the candidate you’d love to get a beer with,” Friedman says. “Everything in politics seemed to spring from Andrew Jackson — everything that is appalling about American politics. The way we participate in the political process started in his time.”

The show follows Jackson (Heath Calvert) from his childhood in Tennessee through his conquest over Native Americans and his election in 1828 as the first Democratic president. Jackson used the idea of the common man, the “regular guy,” to win votes, appealing to the people as a peer rather than as part of the political elite. It’s a campaign tactic that’s still popular, as Friedman and Timbers are well aware.

“Jackson is every president,” Friedman says. “When we started working on it, he was clearly W. Working backwards, he clearly was in some ways Clinton and Carter and Reagan, and moving forward he’s clearly Obama and Sarah Palin and the tea party. And now Occupy.”

We imagine the Occupy movement would have welcomed the gift of a 1,400-pound block of cheese.

Studio Theatre, 1501 14th St. NW; through Aug. 19; $40-$45; 202-332-3300. (Dupont Circle)

Backstory

In “Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson,” our seventh president rises from rural poverty to relative comfort through a career in the military, during which he meets his future wife, Rachel (Rachel Zampelli). The catch? She’s already married to somebody else. Not that this stymies Jackson’s ardor or his political career. He forges on to win Rachel’s heart, displace Native Americans and eventually win the presidency (as he did in real life).

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