The counterpoint to slick, big-budget musicals, like the recent imports Addams Family and Legally Blonde, are smaller, scrappier musicals that are subversive, funny, and innovative. Squabbalogic is devoted to giving that other kind of musical a showing in Sydney, and Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson is a welcome departure from slickness and artifice.
Trading the usual musical theatre hotspots of the Lyric and the Capitol, Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson has landed in the Factory in Marrickville. Or, Occupied, to keep it grassroots and brashly political. It’s surprising how well it works. It almost feels like immersive theatre within Sean Minahan’s design: cast sprawled over chairs as you walk in, hanging out on stage, playing cards. Crumpled up caution tape – and underwear – hangs overhead. When this rag-tag bunch of possibly unwashed drunks start telling the tale of Andrew Jackson, though – Jackson, the seventh President of the United States, kind of like Pete Wentz in this show but with a way bigger chip on his shoulder – you’re hooked.
The show is wildly funny and there are a lot of reasons for that. The actors indulge in great physical comedy; the book is incredibly clever (full of snark and cynicism, so rarely seen in a musical that just a dash of it feels immediately revolutionary). It’s quickfire; it feels like comic vignettes, sketches of a central theme, have been stitched together loosely and underlined by dark smudged eyeliner. It feels like the players are playing at anarchic petulance (they’re going to do what they want, to hell with whatever you expected when you walked in!) and that’s so exciting, because it’s so refreshing to not have to like everyone on stage, and it’s so refreshing to not feel like we’re walking a straight line. This is going to deviate, and we’re going to have to let it. It’s a storytelling adventure.
The story is Andrew Jackson, maverick fighter, becoming the seventh President of the United States, and how he was just a divisive figure then as he is now. He might have beat back the British and Spanish from what are now US states, but he also was responsible for the infamous, devastating 'Trail of Tears' that killed thousands of Native Americans, among other atrocities.
Basically, the story of Andrew Jackson, told chronologically as it is here on stage (for the most part) is like watching a powder keg that is about to explode. And then it explodes twice.
It’s hot as blazes, this Squabbalogic production, and that all begins with the scorching performance given by Peter Meredith as Old Hickory himself, as Jackson was known. With a serious rock voice and a perfected smoulder, he gives a dedicated, energetic, and compelling performance. He’s not a bad figure to follow around through this story – and yes, there are the promised tight pants.
The ensemble all give standout performances too, while playing multiple roles; Phil McIntosh is more than a little funny as a juvenile John Quincy Adams and as a tour guide in Jackson’s White House; Louise Kelly injects a little sanity into the story onstage as Jackson’s true love, Rachel; and Jay James-Moody steals laughs left and right as Martin van Buren, among others. These actors will only get sharper and bolder as with every performance; indeed, they get sharper and bolder from scene to scene.
It might seem like a strange programming choice, this show all about an American president that Australian audiences might not know much about. But it’s very apt. Jackson might have been a frontiersman but his obsession with protecting America’s early borders was very “stop the boats”, and his supporters’ (and his own) attitude towards the native population is sort of chillingly familiar. There’s a dash of Pauline Hanson, of Sarah Palin, even a little Latham – and yes, plenty of Abbott and Rudd.
There are a lot of parallels to draw in this election season between Jackson’s enemies in Washington and Australia’s own “faceless men”, too. Australia and the United States are both young countries, and both countries trade easily and earnestly on ‘likability’ when trying to win votes. Jackson is liked, we learn, because he’s a bit of a rebel and because he seems to care; but this show never says that’s the right way to go about running a country. The left and the right, the people’s president and the office’s president – it's all here, and no one side looks better than the other; rather, this show likes to point out that both sides can be equally ridiculous. It’s about change, it’s about contradictory expectations, it’s about how much the highest office can actually, feasibly, achieve.
But more than that, what makes Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson an inspired programming choice is that it lifts Australian musical theatre not only into recent works – Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson closed on Broadway in 2011 – but also shows the versatility of musical theatre. We don’t need a two million dollar expense to tell good stories, and we don’t need to pay a hundred dollars to see good stories. What we get to see is something that is representative of musical theatre’s ability to be boutique, offbeat, irreverent. It’s rough around the edges but that’s part of the appeal – this feels relevant.
It feels like you’re watching a still-evolving performance piece come to life and learn itself and its limits right in front of you, and that’s a breathtaking moment of music theatre. Elphaba rising off the floor hitting that note in Defying Gravity has nothing on this.
It's new, it's different, it's exciting, and it is not your grandmother's music theatre.
Sydney, this is just what we needed.
Go and see Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson. See what music theatre is capable of, and support its experimentation and growth. You’ll be so glad you did.