About 170 years separate Andrew Jackson's heyday from that of emo rock. But Jackson once killed a man in a duel for insulting his wife, so you might start to imagine how the former president's penchant for the dramatic could fit within a 21st-century musical. At least one like Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, which TheatreWorks will stage as its yearly student production (instead of its usual practice of mostly using professional actors).
After seeing the play during its Broadway run, production director Kevin Landis knew it was perfect for his students. "Not that all college students are disaffected emo rockers," he says, "but they get it. They totally get it."
Plus, says Solveig Olsen, the show's musical director, it's well-suited musically for young singers who may want to perform Next to Normal or Wicked, but whose voices haven't matured enough to do so: "This is written for their voices. It's not that they can just pull it off, they can actually do it perfectly."
The ensemble musical takes place during a Midwestern garage band's practice in the 2000s and, simultaneously, in Andrew Jackson's era. A taxidermy-laden set shares space with cell phones and twinkling lights. More than 20 performers seamlessly blend it all together to tell the story of Jackson's early life, his rise to the presidency via a populist message, political challenges, and how his legacy is viewed today.
"Over the course of an hour and a half, we realize that this goofy little conceit is actually making the grandest statements about nationalism, imperialism and the way we treat minorities," Landis says. "It's a pretty sophisticated play about politics and American ideals.
"It's wonderful because you're laughing through it, then you realize, 'Oh my goodness, I've been laughing through this.'"
The musical's humor broadsides most everyone at some point: Democrat, Republican, gay, straight, whatever. And, as in all good theater, it holds a mirror up to nature, Landis says: "If it offends you, well, then think about that a little bit."
All that makes the production ripe for discussion, and audiences here may go straight to the source. Prior to the March 17 performance, Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson's lyricist, Michael Friedman, and Oskar Eustis, its Broadway producer, will be interviewed by Landis for about 45 minutes, then take audience questions. Friedman, a member of the investigative theater company The Civilians, is notable in these parts for having composed the music and lyrics for This Beautiful City, which focused on the tension of evangelicalism in Colorado Springs.
But in Bloody Bloody, it's Jackson's policies designed to remove Native Americans that bring the musical to its essential crisis: the conflict of a presumably good man caught up in imperialistic tendencies that created what some have called an American genocide.
"Of course, [the musical] was written in the midst of controversial American wars in the Middle East, and I think Michael and Oskar are grappling with that in this play," Landis says. "It's drawing comparisons between the politics of the 1830s and the politics of the 2000s. How you want to take it in the audience is up to you."