An "Emo" President on the Marquee

Special Features   An "Emo" President on the Marquee
 
Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson makes a rock star out of the most unlikely of subjects — a U.S. president swept up in (and responsible for) a nation's growing pains.
Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson star Benjamin Walker
Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson star Benjamin Walker Photo by Joan Marcus

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America is a young country, not only historically, but emotionally. In Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, writer/director Alex Timbers and composer/lyricist Michael Friedman take that sentiment to the next level. The ambitious, off-the-wall rock show, which surveys the life of our seventh president, has returned to the Public Theater after a sold-out run at the annual Public LAB series.

"[America is still] coming into our adulthood," says Friedman. "That's why rock 'n' roll felt so right to talk about 1820s America. We're still so much an angry teenager, whining and hormonal and confused and constantly angry about other people trying to tell us what to do with ourselves, bucking authority."

To bring their subject into the 21st century, the duo decided to make Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson an emo musical. Yes, emo — the genre of pop music marked by introspective, emotive lyrics, made popular in the last decade by such bands as Dashboard Confessional and often associated with teen angst.

First set up on an artistic "blind date" by actor/director/record producer Kurt Deutsch, Friedman and Timbers found themselves connecting on the subject of Andrew Jackson: Friedman took a course on the president while at Harvard, and Timbers' theatre group, Les Frères Corbusier, has tackled historical figures in irreverent ways (President Harding is a Rock Star and the Robert Moses and Le Corbusier-centered Boozy). Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson shirks conventional musical wisdom with songs that Friedman says are often obliquely related to the story. The opening line from the first song, "Populism Yea Yea," cries, "Why wouldn't you ever go out with me in school?" (which ties in with their notion that Jackson was one of those guys who got stuffed into lockers in high school). "Somehow Jackson was the first person to channel that energy, that kind of left-out populist furor, into something," explains Freidman.

Timbers believes that modern Americans crave charismatic leaders who reflect them, regardless of their governing abilities. "I think that Andrew Jackson was really the first president who wasn't part of the aristocracy, who wasn't part of the Washington in-crowd, who reflected the values and the background of the average American citizen."

Some view Jackson as a bold leader who railed against big government and loved his country. Others see him as a genocidal precipitator of the decimation of the Native American population. He was a polarizing figure who transformed American politics, and Friedman and Timbers choose to let the audience decide how they feel about him. "In a funny way, you can reinterpret what he is, depending upon the political moment," observes Friedman. That reinterpretation has kept the show fresh, allowing the basic core to remain the same through its different iterations since it began in early 2008. "What we're really excited about now," says Timbers, "is that it felt like this was a show about Obama, and now it's about what happens after you elect this great hero and nothing can still get done."

"We are a nation of revolutionaries, in a way, and Andrew Jackson was of the second wave of revolutionaries," declares Timbers. "He was a revolutionary who stuck it to the revolutionaries."

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