I come from a very musical family (buy my sister’s band’s EP: The Prime Minister of Cool Chicks) and musical theatre has always been a big part of my life. One of my earliest memories is seeing a production of Brigadoon at the high school my father taught music at. In high school I performed in Jesus Christ Superstar, You’re A Good Man Charlie Brown and Les Miserables, and at U of T I helped produce (and appeared in) my favourite musical of all time, Stephen Sondheim’s Into the Woods.
With my other obsession being politics I have been wanting to write about how two specific musicals, Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson & Urinetown, should be watched by anyone trying to understand the Tea Party and Occupy movements in the United States. This evening I read an article on Fox News online that compared Newt Gingrich to President Andrew Jackson in a non-ironic, complimentary manner (whitewashing the fact that Newt Gingrich has never fought for his country and Andrew Jackson’s legacy of supporting slavery and wholesale slaughter of Native Americans.)
This article immediately made me think of ‘ Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson’, a musical released in 2008 that made its Broadway premiere in 2010 that was written, in part, in response to The Tea Party.
In 2004, three years after ‘Urinetown’ premiered on Broadway, I saw a production at Canstage in Toronto. As I listen and re-listen to the soundtrack of Urinetown I am surprised by how well it presaged the Occupy Wall Street movement, not their methods but their critique of corporate control of politics, the disparity between the 99% and 1%, the societal divisions created by the politics of austerity and police reaction to large protest movements.
While BBAJ seems as manichean as the movement it comments on, Urinetown does an excellent job addressing the naivety/short-sightedness that mass movements predicated on distrust of all establishment entities sometimes suffer from.
“Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson” and the Tea Party:
The style of this musical is as important as its subject matter. BBAJ is an “emo rock” musical. This is perfect for portraying the petulance and perpetual adolescence of the Tea Party. The show opens with “Populism Ya, Ya” which sets the stage for the political mindset in the U.S. at during “the age of Jackson” and in the Republican Party of today.
The most striking lyrics are:
“Take a stand against the elite
They don’t care anything for us
And we will eat sweet democracy
And let them eat our dust,
Eat our dust, eat our dust
Cause it’s the early 19th century
We’ll take the land back from the indians
We’ll take the land back from the French and Spanish
And other people in other European countries
And other countries too
And also other places
I’m pretty sure it’s our land anyway.“
The same faux-anger at a vague class of elites that is currently fueling New Gingrich’s campaign is what swept Andrew Jackson into power. Another parallel to the world of the musical and the TP is the underlying layer of racism and xenophobia that manifests itself in calls to “take America back” to a time that was as mythical in the 1820s as it is in 2012. With his constant usage of the term “food stamps President to describe Barack Obama and his anti-”European” rhetoric, Gingrich is playing the same kind of politics of fear as Andrew Jackson (though obviously less overtly racist.)
After “Populism, Ya Ya” the musical goes on to profile Andrew Jack’s frontier adolescence, a brief meeting with George Washington, his marriage to his wife Rachel and his frustration with the American governments failure, in his eyes, to defend the frontier and his rise as a military hero. Jackson’s time as Governor of Florida is hauntingly portrayed in the song “Ten Little Indians.” The 1824 election is wonderfully summarized by the song “The Corrupt Bargain.” This song is what initially attracted me to the musical. As a musical/history nerd, the fact that a comedic summary of the backroom deal that denied Jackson the Presidency on his first run existed in musical form seemed like it was written for me.
During the 1828, Jackson is seen as a Rock Star. When Jackson finally wins the Presidency he discovers, like the Tea Party Republicans elected in 2010, that governing is harder than he naively believed. The lyrics that most eloquently summarize the Tea Party after 2010:
“So we’ll ruin the bank, and we’ll trample the courts,
And we’ll take on the world for America’s sake.
And we’ll take all the land, and we’ll take back the country,
And we’ll take, and we’ll take, and we’ll take and we’ll take.
And this country I’m making cannot be divided,
The will of the people won’t stand in my way.
How can I tell you how deeply I’ll make them all bleed. “
As Gingrich has made “taking on activist judges” a cornerstone of his anti-elite narrative, the parallel to Jackson is an obvious one. The more subtle element in this song, is how, just like the TP, once Jackson gained power he turned against democracy. Republicans took over a large number of state governments in 2010 and have been passing vote suppression laws all over the United States. This song does an excellent job portraying the selfish nature of the TP movement. Instead of saying “how can we expand pensions and strengthen workers’ rights?” the Tea Party has engaged in the politics of envy by pitting non-union workers against union members. Another parallel between Newt and Jackson, both the real and fictional, is their neoconservative foreign policy. When Gingrich goes after Ron Paul on Iran, he might as well say “We’ll take on the world for America’s sake.” The largest delusion of the Tea Party is that, though they are statistically white and wealthy, they speak for all Americans. When Andrew Jackson says “the band plays on” he means that America isn’t for everyone.
Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson does a superb job showing how the rage of a narrow group of individuals can propel a candidate into office and how the impossible, misguided and self-contradicting expectations of his supporters lead to a more divide and unequal America.
Unlike the Tea Party, the musical Urinetown is extremely self-aware. The musical seamlessly transitions between various musical styles and parodies. The show takes place in an unnamed American town in a postapocalyptic type future. There has been a 20 year drought and water is severely rationed. Private toilets have been outlawed and there is extreme punishment for those who don’t pay to use the privately owned toilet every day, “Urinetown.” It is revealed in the second act that, though the myth is that you are exiled to a fictitious place called Urinetown, the police simply murder you. All of the toilets are owned by a single megacorporation called “Urine Good Company.” One of the first numbers of the show takes place in one of the poorest and filthiest public urinals.
Bobby Strong works at “Public Amenity #9.” His father, Joseph, asks the manager for a freebie and is rebuffed by her and everyone in line. This song illustrates, in a hilarious manner, how in times of austerity social solidarity breaks down. The idea that in a time of extreme, extended drought the government would give control of a precious natural resource isn’t that absurd. There are African countries that have privatized water, with prohibition being placed on collect water off of your roof. Similarly, it was private contractors that have swept in to Afghanistan and Iraq to profit off of war.
After Joseph Strong is arrested for public urination, the scene shifts to “Urine Good Company.” The owner, Caldwell B. Cladwell, explains, in song, to his daughter Hope, why his massive wealth is a good thing.
The whole song could be an ad for Mitt Romney’s campaign. Romney has made his time at Bain Capital the central reason for his why he is qualified to be President. This song does a spectacular job pointing out the nonsenscial arguements that corporations use to justify massive tax cuts, a complete lack of ethical business practice and the continuation of massive CEO bonousess during a time of recession.
The most salient lyrics:
“Gosh Daddy, I never realized large, monopolizing corporations could be such a force for good in the world.”
“All those coins
That we take from the throng
End up here
Where those coins all belong
Lots of coins
Make our company strong!
As we please
Is our right – it’s not wrong!
We’re not greedy as some make us seem
We need funds for our big research team
Men in labcoats and test tubes with steam!
What it shows
No one knows
But, hey, still we can dream!”
Bobby Strong ends up falling in love with Hope Cladwell. The next day he takes over (occupies) the urinal where he works and opens the doors for everyone for free (starting the “pee-for-free rebellion.” Hope is still not convinced that her father is right about the “positive” affect his business has on society, he argues that the poor are animals and if they can’t pay it is their fault. Hope begins to doubt her father.
The first act ends with the Bobby publicly debating Mr. Cladwell on the system they all live in and Mr. Cladwell ordering the police to violently suppress the protestors. The police/corporatist side call Bobby/the rebels short-sighted and label them “socialistic scum.” Hope pretends that Bobby is kidnapping her so she can join the revolution without her father knowing.
Act 2 begins with the rebels on the run. While Bobby is away, they contemplate killing Hope before the police find them. Bobby returns and reminds them what they are fighting for. Mrs. Pennywise bursts into the secret hideout telling Bobby that Cladwell wants him to come to the UGC headquarters. Cladwell tries to bribe Bobby and when Bobby refuses he is “sent to Urinetown.” Then Cladwell bribes a Senator to let his company raise the urinal fees. The Senator and Mrs. Pennywise lament being part of such a corrupt system while the police officers relish the opportunity to execute Bobby. Hope takes over the rebellion and executes her father. She declares the water rationing over.
The musical ends with a complete subversion of expectations. The narrator, Officer Lockstock reveals that “As cruel as Caldwell B. Cladwell was, his measures effectively regulated water consumption, sparing the town the same fate as the phantom Urinetown. Hope chose to ignore the warning signs, however, preferring to bask in the people’s love for as long as it lasted.” The town in the musical becomes “what is always was waiting to be”, Urinetown!
Urinetown, not the place, the musical, is as complex as the Occupy movement. The difficulty for me, or anyone, critiquing the OWS movement is that they are not as monolithic as the Tea Party, so bear with me.
The disagreement I have with OWS is also one of their greatest strengths. Though I believe that capitalism is flawed and needs reform, those Occupying public spaces around North America were arguing for a complete rejection of the traditional power structures that lead to the global financial collapse. This is the complete opposite of the Tea Party who called for more deregulation and more power to corporations.
To many on the outside, Occupy may seem like the pee-for-free rebellion. They are demanding such drastic change, in some instances, that it is impossible to comprehend such a paradigm shift.
The revolution in Urinetown is not similar to the OWS protests of the summer of 2011, but it does have parallels to the causes of those protests. The revolving door between the United States Congress and Wall Street, as personified by the deals between Cladwell and the government, are too real. With private contractors giving corporate entities the ability to raise their own armies, the idea that a CEO could violently suppress a protest isn’t out of the realm of reality.
Some concluding thoughts:
The end of Urinetown provides a similar critique of populism to the one Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson does. Both musicals explore what happens when the mob/99% take over. In BBAJ, the fact that the mob is not the real majority drives their leader into an incoherent attack once that incongruity is revealed. In Urinetown, the goals of the revolutionaries, like those of the Tea Party, ignored the reality of their scarce resources.
The lesson that I take from both musicals is that the temptation of the populist narrative is strong but should be resisted. The term “revolution’ means a complete change in all aspects of society. I believe that there are some power structures that have positive potential but are corrupted by money and corporate interests.
Musicals, like many movements, are driven by emotion. They are propelled forward by emotions that are so potent that they can only be expressed through song. Like the characters in both musicals, members of the Tea Party and Occupy are driven by some undercurrents that they fail to acknowledge.
Go see/listen to Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson and Urinetown and tell me what you think. Also, see Into the Woods, it’s really great.