I was surprised to read in American Theatre that Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson is to be one of the most performed plays in the U.S. during the 2012-2013 season. This musical played on Broadway three years ago, but did not do so well. The economy has been given as the main reason for this show’s relative lack of success, but this explanation ignores the heart of the problem.
This work is violent in subject matter. It deals with the dark side of President Andrew Jackson’s legacy, mainly in his brutal treatment of black slaves and Native Americans. Small wonder it is that this play failed to gain a foothold with large Broadway audiences.
While the American musical is an art form of vast potential, the very size of its audience seems to place considerable limitations on its subject matter. The celebrated conductor Lehman Engel said in his book Words and Music that romance must necessarily be the heart of a musical’s story.
Many famous plays, of course, deal with matters not involving romance. As George Bernard Shaw pointed out, King Lear has nothing to do with sex. Comedy is another matter. It is descended from Athenian fertility rituals, and the choral routines of Athenian comedy usually involved the pairing up of men and women.
As seen with Shakespeare, comedy has ever since involved romance. And although it has been a long time since musicals have been called musical comedies, they are by nature connected with comedy. Hence do musical theatre audiences expect their characters to fall in love. Even the great The King and I, involving cultural conflict, features a deeply-felt, if unfulfilled, romance between the Englishwoman Anna and the King of Siam.
Opera ran before the modern musical in celebrating romance. It differed from most musicals, of course, in that it gloried in the dark side of romantic love. The protagonists of Tristan and Carmen come to disaster through their passions.
But theatre history also shows us that plays can explore serious nonromantic themes through song. Greek tragedy did it as much. The modern theatre has not seemed so hospitable to such plays, but they nonetheless have a strong champion in Bertolt Brecht. Much attention is paid to the musicals, operas and cantatas Brecht wrote with Kurt Weill, but almost all of his other plays contain songs. And most of them deal with problems of politics, history and economic injustice. Brecht called his 1933 play The Mother a “moving cantata” as it contained songs calling for a revolt of the proletariat.
Recently the songwriter Lin –Manuel Miranda created The Hamilton Mixtape, a rap musical on the life of Alexander Hamilton. Presented recently at Lincoln Center, this work features raps by George III, George Washington and the assassin-Vice President Aaron Burr, among other notables. A meeting of President Washington’s cabinet descends into a heated argument between Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson.
Miranda showed his brilliance as a lyricist with In the Heights. Beneath his New York rapper’s exterior, this artist is erudite in both literature and history. Despite In the Height’s success, Miranda has yet kept The Hamilton Mixtape from the Great White Way, insisting that it is a rap CD rather than a Broadway musical. He is probably right, at least in part.
Too little flexibility toward dramatic forms has been shown by critics, audiences and, most sadly, theatrical practitioners. If our forms of theatre are to continue evolving, a general openness is needed. Both The Hamilton Mixtape and Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson point the way to a music theatre that will explore subjects traditionally the province of straight plays.