I don’t remember U.S. history sounding like this.
In recent years, the folks who make musicals (and you know who you are) have developed a pattern of turning 18th- and 19th-century American presidents into rock stars — literally. “Hamilton,” currently burning up Broadway, turns the dude on the ten-dollar bill into a hip-hop sensation. Meanwhile, “Bloody, Bloody Andrew Jackson,” opening at IU Theater this week, re-imagines the fellow on the twenty as an emo-punk star. One can only imagine that “Ulysses S. Grant — Ska Superstar” is not far off.
I suppose it’s like getting kids to eat their vegetables; if these shows make American history more palatable to the general public, more power to ’em. “Bloody” uses biographical information about Jackson, taking dramatic liberties to focus on political hot buttons of his time such as populism and the Indian Removal Act. But don’t go in expecting “Schoolhouse Rock.” This show pulls no punches in its material. Jackson is portrayed warts and all. (I hark you back to the “Bloody, Bloody” part.)
During the course of the play, we watch him make unpopular decisions in the interest of getting the job done, even before he becomes president. His victory at the Battle of New Orleans makes him into a hero, and it’s here we see the parallel to modern-day rock stars. We also see the divided popular opinion of him at the time, with some people viewing him as the savior of the nation, while others judge him harshly for his actions.
And don’t forget, all of this is set to a contemporary rock score, moving the action along with memorable music that somehow feels right amid the backdrop of pre-Civil War America. The musical won a 2010 Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Book and an Outer Critics Circle Award for Outstanding New Musical.
As director George Pinney sees it, the musical is an opportunity for education as well. “The students performing in the play have truly taken possession of this musical, because they see the issues of Andrew Jackson’s presidency emerging in their lives today. The rise of Donald Trump, the whole idea of American populism, questions of assimilation, deportation and the threat of violence are all entwined in our contemporary politics.”
As such, Pinney’s design concept for the show melds current technology into the historical setting, including digital projection, improv, and a three-piece house band. A thrust stage bridges the gap between the performers and the audience.
Pinney adds, “It’s a challenging play to work on as a choreographer, because it’s really mosh-pit choreography, so there are no jazz slides, no pirouettes. I’ve learned that I need to give the actors the framework, but they really have to run with it. The performers are deeply involved in the creation of this show from start to finish.”
IU’s production of “Bloody, Bloody Andrew Jackson” continues their ongoing embrace of contemporary, cutting-edge theater and promises to be a wild ride for those who dare to climb aboard.
Contact Joel by sending an email to firstname.lastname@example.org with “Pierson” in the subject line.
If you go
WHO: Indiana University Department of Theater, Drama, and Contemporary Dance
WHAT: “Bloody, Bloody Andrew Jackson” by Michael Friedman and Alex Timbers
WHEN: 7:30 p.m. April 15, 16, 19-23; 2 p.m. April 23
WHERE: Ruth N. Halls Theater, 275 N. Jordan Ave.
TICKETS: $15-$25 for adults. Visit theatre.indiana.edu, Ticketmaster, or call 812-855-1103.