Before "American Idiot" sucks all the rock-musical energy to Broadway, let me draw your attention downtown to the Public Theater.
There, in the building where "Hair" got its start in 1967, is a most unlikely and irresistible new twist on the rock-theater story. It is called "Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson" and, for 90 thoroughly audacious, politically savvy, politically incorrect minutes, it toggles between a 19th century American history lesson and up-to-the-minute 21st century sensibilities.
The show is sophomoric and sophisticated, earnest and irreverent, as goofy as it is educational. In spirit, if not in subject, its closest relative may be "Urinetown," the delightfully impolite satire that began at the New York International Fringe Festival and ended up with three Tony Awards and a 2 1/2-year run on Broadway.
Does "Bloody" belong on Broadway? I'm never good at this guessing game. I loved "Spring Awakening," but if its producers had asked me about a commercial transfer, I would have told them to sober up.
What I can say is that "Bloody," which has been extended several times, deserves to run - somewhere - after its scheduled closing May 9.
The subject is populism, a word that has recently regained its luster in fascinating and unsettling ways. Or, as the opening song puts it,
"Populism Yea Yea." We are seated in a theater so red that it feels like the inside of a rotting, romantic old candy box. Portraits line the walls down to the small stage, decorated in neo-junkyard fashion with chandeliers, a terrific band and dead stuffed animals, some in plastic Bubble Wrap.
Jackson, who would become our seventh president, is inhabited by Benjamin Walker, a man too casting-call handsome to be this funny and too gifted to be unknown for long. (Walker is never mentioned without a word about his fiancée, Mamie Gummer, who is also the daughter of Meryl Streep. This is interesting, but incidental to his breakthrough performance.)
This Jackson is delighted with the fit of his tight jeans and the readiness of his large gun, which he immediately uses to shoot the prissy narrator of his story, who happens to be in a wheelchair.
The show, which had a workshop production last year at the Public LAB, is written and directed by Alex Timbers, artistic director of Les Freres Corbusier (the adventurous Off-Broadway troupe notorious for its award-winning "A Very Merry Unauthorized Scientology Christmas"). The style is part Monty Python, part self-referential overview of the importance of charisma in the expansion of America by brute force.
Michael Friedman's music and lyrics both satirize and exploit emo-rock, which stands for emotional hard-core music and began as a reaction against the violence of punk. In other words, Jackson gets to enjoy confessing that someone "hurt my feelings," then tells his wife, Rachel (Maria Elena Ramirez), "I love you, but I have to kill the entire native population." They say she died, in 19th century fashion, of a broken heart.
I don't know how I missed this in school, but Jackson never seemed this strange and hilarious before. "It is the early 19th century," he announces early on, "And we are going to take this country back . . . take the land back from the Indians and from the other countries, too." He asks: "Where are all the Spaniards? I killed them. Oops."
A proud "commoner," the frontiersman was the first president not born in Virginia or Massachusetts. He loved celebrating himself as a maverick, an egalitarian, rallying people around suspicion of Eastern elites and Washington.
At first, he declares "I am not 'that guy,' who could be a hero and run the country." Soon, of course, he decides, "I am so 'that guy.' " As he asks the amusingly craven chorus of famous American leaders, "Do you really want the American people to run the country?"
The whole thing is anarchic, but with tremendous discipline. It's as if we're watching a play by bright children who happen to know enough about Susan Sontag and French philosopher Paul-Michel Foucault to make throwaway jokes at their expense.
Ultimately, we are left with the timely reminder that Americans want their leaders to have charisma. They will pick the guy with whom they'd like to have a beer, or the one who can be the hottest person in the room. Or, as one follower says, he's "like, the coolest president ever."
For all the foolery, this is serious equal-opportunity political subversion. It made me think about a little book by Arthur Miller called "On Politics and the Art of Acting," in which he scathingly analyzed the acting styles of presidents and worried about a society whose voters have a "glandular reaction to a leader's personality."
I hope some crazy-smart producer moves this show.