Lionel Barrymore and Charlton Heston both played Andrew Jackson twice on the screen — benevolently gruff and crusty portrayals — but neither mercifully came to mind Oct. 13 when a gyrating, tight-jeaned Benjamin Walker boldly commandeered the stage of the Bernard B. Jacobs as Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson.
Not to say Old Hickory was an unmitigated blackguard, but he is the only U.S. President ever played by Jack Palance — in NET's 1971 "Trail of Tears," which lit into Jackson's Indian injustices. This new emo-musical takes that stance and makes it dance — St. Vitus' Dance, you could say, given emo's overwrought nature.
This is not your grandfather's Andrew Jackson — or his grandfather's Andrew Jackson. When all is sung and done, our seventh President weighs in as something akin to "an American Hitler" because of the genocide conducted against Native Americans during his administration. Alex Timbers, who wrote and directed the piece, and Michael Friedman, who contributed the songs, present The President as a contemporary, out-of-control rock icon.
Off stage, at the second Jeffrey Richards show in a row to have its after-party at Brasserie 8½ on West 57th, Walker was received not just as a star, but, more hysterically, as a rock star. "I feel fantastic," he admitted after a quick pulse reading. "It's such an honor to be embraced by the theatre community like this, but I'm afraid this is going to ruin me. The response from audiences is going to spoil me for future shows." Walker walked the sprawling expanse of the restaurant, looking very much like the man of the moment, pulled on and glad-handed at every turn, with a beautiful white goddess on his arm, fit for sacrifice — Mamie Gummer, stunningly tressed out and dressed up. "Well, I had to dress up for my man! Apparently, he's kind of a big deal."
She wasn't exactly in the neighborhood, either — having just winged in from Hawaii where she is filming "Off the Map," a 2011 series for ABC from "Grey's Anatomy" creator Shonda Rhimes. "I play an infectious disease specialist at a clinic in the Amazon. We've shot the first five episodes. I got off for good behavior. Well, they knew if they didn't let me go . . ."
She and Walker met two years ago doing Les Liaisons Dangereuses for Roundabout. At the time, she had no idea a rock idol lurked under those 18th-century French frills and ruffles. "I didn't even know he sang when we first started seeing each other," she admitted. "I thought he was just a really sweet, strapping guy from Georgia. Lo and behold! Here we are! Omigod, he was over the moon tonight."
Walker's director was of a similar opinion. "He's a Juilliard-trained actor, but he's got this great musical-theatre voice, and he also does standup comedy — so he's a great synthesis of all the things that we need for the role," relayed Timbers, who has not only this show going this season but also The Pee Wee Herman Show and a third one on the back-burner at New York Theatre Workshop.
Timbers' book for BBAJ underscores its factual tragedy with a highly advanced sense of humor. "I feel, like, theatre so often doesn't have a dialogue with popular comedy — the kind of comedy that's happening in film and TV — so that's really interesting to me. What The Pee Wee Herman Show and Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson both share is a sort of alternative-comedy sensibility, something that grew up in improv and sketch-comedy groups, and I think that sort of spirit of comedy on Broadway is really refreshing."
The genesis of this musical reassessment of Jackson's legacy came from an off-hand remark from a record exec, said Timbers. "Kurt Deutsch, who runs Sh-K-Boom Records, put Michael Friedman and me together on a creative blind-date, and he said, 'You guys should create something together.' I said, 'Well, you know, I'm interested in this style of music called emo music,' and he said, 'I know you like historical figures' — because I have a company that does work about historical figures — 'isn't Andrew Jackson the ultimate emo-President?' I was, like, 'Well, that's a fantastic idea for a show,' so six years later, that's where we are.
"The thing that I think is coolest about this show is that Andrew Jackson unwittingly has grown to reflect and refract all the political leaders that we elect, so this play in some ways is like Obama in Year Two and how difficult it is to govern. It also feels like Sarah Palin and The Tea Party. And we added in a Christine O'Donnell joke this week: the woman with the cape is now 'dabbling in witchcraft.' It's just been amazing that Jackson is this sort of great fun-house mirror for us but also draws out these different political leaders that we love.
"He was a very complicated guy, just as it's complicated to be an American. We are the product of Andrew Jackson. I think that's what makes the show interesting. It's not a straight hierography, but it's also not a takedown. I have very complicated feelings about Andrew Jackson. I think Michael Friedman does as well."
Friedman's most compelling number is "I'm Not That Guy," a soaring four-note theme that Walker declares throughout the show. "That little theme sorta overrides the whole show," said the composer, "a leitmotif, as Wagner would call it."
He has been working on the show for five years and has 13 songs to show for it in the finished product. "There are songs that didn't make it and songs that have undergone massive transformations since they were first written. Alex has been a dream collaborator for me. The two of us tend to work most happily where he'll write something and I'll write something, and we'll try to figure how it can work together, and actually in that putting stuff together is where the best part of the collaboration happens."
Rest assured, there are more collaborations ahead. "We're talking about something I'm not allowed to talk about." For the present, Friedman said, "I'm working on a musical about the adult film industry — Porn, and that's hopefully premiering next year. And I'm also working on an adaptation of a novel by Jonathan Lethem called 'The Fortress of Solitude.' It'd be a huge, very ambitious show."
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Seasoned comedienne Kristine Nielsen, who was also in Les Liaisons Dangereuses with Walker, is one of a handful in the mostly young cast not making a Broadway debut. Her cameo of a wheel-chaired storyteller consists almost entirely of some screamingly funny entrances and exits, and she says she's having the time of her life: "I like the irreverence and the relevance it has right now. I look around, and I wonder what the next generation of theatregoers will be — and this gives me a lot of hope. I look out there, and I see young people flocking to this. It just makes me so happy. We need to have that, or what will happen to theatre? It needs to be relevant."
Another riotous turn is delivered by Jeff Hiller as an acutely quirky John Quincy Adams. Having done his homework, he attempted to clarify his hilarious handiwork: "Of course, the real John Quincy Adams was a brilliant statesman, but I get to play him like he was kicked in the head by a horse. So I really love that." If there was one word for his performance, he said that that word would be "Stupid."
Maria Elena Ramirez, who plays Jackson's wife, Rachel, did her research but spared herself from seeing how others played the role — a bizarre gamut that runs from Susan Hayward to Beulah Bondi. That gives her a lot of leeway.
Her favorite scene is the blood-bonding with her husband. "I have to say, although I'm not fond of the blood, I do enjoy that moment. There's a sense of abandon in pouring blood on one's self and on Ben Walker. That's a pretty fun moment. He's a sweet guy. He's a great leader in terms of taking this ensemble and really pulling everyone together. You don't know he's doing that. He's a wonderful guy that way."
Nadia Quinn, who plays a variety of roles, likes that job: "I like that from each character to each character — even if it's so quick — you change moods so dramatically. One time you're being sexy and scary, and the next moment you're being coy and demur." Kate Cullen Roberts endures her share of slings and arrows — arrows, mostly — during the course of the evening. There is, she said, an art to falling down: "Make it look like it hurts, and make it not hurt." She credited fight director Jacob Grigolia-Rosenbaum with most of the success of her performance.
Another member of the ensemble, Emily Young, is fueled by the response the show has been getting. "The audience's reactions make it fun. All ages love the show. What's so neat is we get a lot of people like my grandparents' age who come up to us afterward and say, 'It moved me. I really loved it so much.' That's unexpected, but that's what's so great about the show, I think."
Justin Levine, who not only doubles on piano and guitar but also conducts the other boys in the band (Charlie Rosen on bass and Kevin Garcia on drums), admitted that he hits the same musical zenith every performance — a number called "Rock Star." "It's a chance for everyone to sorta rock out and really bring it to the table. Everyone's got something to bring to it."
Same with Rosen: "It's a chance to really be a band — just kick-ass on Broadway."
The show is a particularly good fit for Levine. "I actually have a theatre background. I studied at NYU, and it's a great opportunity for me both to do music, which is a big part of my life, and to do theatre as well."
Andrew Hamingson, who is (after Oskar Eustis) No. 2 man at The Public where BBAJ began, was positively beaming with paternal pride. "What meant a lot to us," he said, "was the fact that it started at a 99-seat house, then went to a 299 and now a thousand-seat — and it looks beautiful. It really fills the space. We couldn't be happier with Alex and Michael's work. It's all the same team that started way back when. They went the whole way."
Essentially, it's the same show they started out with, he said — with a noted exception. "Because Alex and Michael try and have it be very current to what's happening, there are always tweaks that go on, but virtually it's the same show."
The Post's Cindy Adams, The Met's Renee Fleming and the month-old marrieds, Celia Keenan-Bolger of Spelling Bee and John Ellison Conlee of The Full Monty, all put in their first Broadway appearance of the season.
Pianist extraordinaire Michael Feinstein had circles coming out of his eyes from a radio newbie's red-carpet question: What's your favorite note? "Do people really listen to your program?" Feinstein shot back.
Twice-Tonyed Katie Finneran, two days out of Promises, Promises and six months pregnant, came — radiant with pride and child — as Mrs. Goldstein (as in Darren Goldstein, who plays Calhoun in the show). "Alex Timbers introduced us two years ago when he cast us in Beyond Therapy in Williamstown, so we owe him everything, including our first-born child."
Also drawn by the new noise in town: The Half-Brothers Schreiber, Pablo and Liev, the latter with wife Naomi Watts; another Meryl Streep-spawned actress, Grace Gummer; South Pacific's Kelli O'Hara, bound for Feinstein's on Oct. 19 with a show called Beyond the Ingenue; Walker's co-star from Les Liaisons Dangereuses, Jessica Collins, now filming the AMC "Rubicon" series in New York; Pia Lindstrom with hubby Jack Carley; Andrew McCarthy with wife Dolores Rice; Tony winner Kelly Bishop of "Gossip Girl"; Tony nominee Eve Best of "Nurse Jackie"; Emily Bergl; director David Cromer; Margaret Colin; Milena Govich; Alison Pill; puppeteer Basil Twist, who snagged a Drama Desk Award for The Addams Family and is now toiling over The Pee Wee Herman Show ; Zoe Lister-Jones and Daryl Wein from the film, "Breaking Upwards"; Bob Stillman; Newsweek critic Jeremy McCarter; and Christian Campbell.