By Harry Haun
14 Oct 2010
|Photo by Joseph Marzullo/WENN|
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.
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."