"Sometimes you have to make your own story." So sings the ensemble of the new rock musical Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, now on Broadway at the Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre after a record-breaking run at the Public Theater.
History for this musical began in 2005, when composer Michael Friedman and librettist and director Alex Timbers decided to reinvent the founder of the modern Democratic party and seventh U.S. president as an impertinent, skinny jean–wearing rock star whose raging political hormones led America's adolescence.
Greeted by a set that combines taxidermy, blood-red damask, beer cans and a dart board, audiences entering the Jacobs Theatre can quickly tell this isn't 1776 or anything akin to the "John Adams" mini-series. Friedman and Timbers play fast and loose with history as they compare the burgeoning politics of 19th-century America with the current American political climate.
"It's a re-creation of an experience as opposed to a literal representation of a time. Through his [Jackson's] eyes, we go [on] the ride with him," says actor Benjamin Walker, who imbues "Old Hickory" with matinee-idol looks and rock-star swagger. "A lot of the comedy in theatre doesn't dialogue with the comedy that's happening in popular culture," Timbers notes. "I feel like Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson has more of a relationship to the kind of stuff that's happening at Upright Citizens Brigade, or in a Will Ferrell movie."
"The show is so interactive that [Jackson] is a different man every night," adds Walker. And while the president was a wily figure who left behind a checkered legacy, Walker says his role is to imagine "that kind of badass attitude — what would that look like today?"
"The style-shifts in the show mirror the arc of growing up," Timbers explains. "[It's designed to be] a little fuzzy in retrospect as to what really happened. As Jackson gets in his teens, the show gets hipper and flashier."
The writers describe Jackson as "the ultimate emo president," referring to the emo rock genre of the score. An outsider born to Irish parents, Jackson also practiced bloodletting and led the brutal removal of Native Americans from their ancestral lands. The repeated use of "bloody" in the title is earned.
According to Friedman, "Andrew Jackson rewrote the history of America as he was going. That's one of the weird things about taking control of a country; you get to rewrite narrative entirely."
"You can't judge who you play," Walker says. "You don't necessarily have to like them, but you can't say they're bad or they're wrong. That's not your job. Love of his wife and love of his country is pretty much what propelled him throughout his life."
Like so many U.S. presidents at the end of their term in office, Jackson doesn't send his audience off with a neatly packaged resolution tied with a musical bow. According to Walker, "Jackson was such a complicated American figure, why oversimplify it? Why not trust that the audience has the wherewithal to make their own decision?"
And if you think BBAJ is taking aim at Bush-era policies or the Obama administration, think again. The real focus is the American people and their fascination with dynamic political figures.
"What's been funny is, I think, to discover over 300 years, how few things change in American politics," says Friedman. "The weirdest part is that the most Tea Party-esque lyrics, like 'We'll take back the land and we'll take back the country and we'll take and we'll take,' were written in 2006."
"The goal at the end is more of an intellectual-emotional response, which is, 'Wow, it's really complicated to be an American,'" Timbers says. Friedman adds, "The best theatrical experiences I've had are the ones where you come back blinking into the world sort of clear-eyed."
(This feature appears in the November 2010 Playbill distributed in Broadway theatres.)