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They've put a new spin on Old Hickory

A pair of experimental theater expats mix an Andrew Jackson storyline with Bush-era barbs and buzzing guitars.

January 20, 2008|Sean Mitchell | Special to The Times

The next offering at the Kirk Douglas Theatre, the world premiere of the musical "Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson," can be traced to a cafe in New York's East Village, where director Alex Timbers and composer Michael Friedman met a couple of years ago on a "professional blind date," as Friedman puts it. Both were rising stars in small, experimental theater companies, and Timbers had staged the irreverent "A Very Merry Unauthorized Scientology Pageant," a one-hour musical by fellow Yale classmate Kyle Jarrow that won an Obie Award in 2004 and was later mounted at Santa Monica's Powerhouse Theater.

Friedman had taken a course devoted to Jackson at Harvard, and near the end of his get-acquainted meeting with Timbers, the two happened upon the idea for a show about Jackson, the seventh president, first populist, war hero and famous despoiler of Native Americans. Promisingly, they also saw in the bumptious and belligerent "Old Hickory" some linkage to the current occupant of the White House and a way to dramatize major issues involved in America's coming of age.

"He was considered by many to be a hero," says Timbers, "and by others to be a genocidal murderer" for his role in driving whole tribes of Native Americans from their ancestral homes and relocating them west of the Mississippi. "His treatment of the Indians and his personal character are reflected in our current misfit president. He's the first incarnation of this incredibly charming idiot, the backwoods guy that you think, 'Why is this guy our president? But I'd really like to have a beer with him' that is represented by Bush and Huckabee, a little bit Obama and Edwards."

"And Bill Clinton," Friedman adds.

The authors take some dramatic license in having Jackson's parents both killed by Indian arrows, contrary to how they really died, but they also rely on the historical record in illustrating Jackson's contempt for such establishment rivals as John C. Calhoun and John Quincy Adams.

The election of 1824 that Jackson lost to Adams after winning the popular vote, Timbers says, "was totally Gore versus Bush -- the clinically cold but absolutely right mathematician versus the strong but wrong cowboy outsider."

Although Friedman maintains that they did not set out to draw a "one-to-one" match-up of Jackson with any modern presidents, a note to the actors in the script states, "The character of Andrew Jackson is a cross between George W. Bush and Owen Wilson. He's a good-looking, immensely charismatic moron." (The role of Jackson will be played by Benjamin Walker, who appeared in the recent Broadway revival of "Inherit the Wind" and also in Clint Eastwood's film "Flags of Our Fathers.")

As Timbers, 29, and Friedman, 32, speak at a rapid cerebral pace about their show in a rehearsal room at the Douglas in Culver City, it becomes apparent that their concept for "Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson" is both heady and hard to describe. In the script they use the word "metatheatricality" to define its style. It's not satire exactly, nor sketch comedy, though it has elements of both. Anachronisms abound in speech and costumes. Jarring juxtapositions unfold. Jackson, says Timbers, "talks like a contemporary teenager one moment, then in the next sentence speaks in a very complicated way." And of course, there are the electric guitars and sneakers.

A schoolmarmy narrator in a wheelchair (Taylor Wilcox) lays out many of the facts of Jackson's life, dramatized initially by a cast of 18 in the manner of "a terrible PBS documentary," according to the script. At one point Jackson, tiring of listening to her, whips out a pistol and shoots the narrator in the throat, adding, "I'll take it from here."

If this sounds like a "Talladega Nights" moment, Timbers acknowledges the influence. "Will Ferrell humor is not seen as much in the theater," he says. "In a Will Ferrell movie you're not bothered by the fact there are winks to the fact that he's in a movie or that he's saying something completely ridiculous but totally believes it."

Emo rock meets Old Hickory

For music to complement the teenage agony experienced both by Jackson and his young republic, the two thought of emo rock, the sometimes atonal clanging style with raw chest-wound lyrics made popular by bands such as Dashboard Confessional, Weezer and My Chemical Romance. "It was guys in their 20s singing about the girl who broke their heart when they were 14," Timbers says.

"People ask, 'Why a musical?' " Friedman says. "But what's great about doing a musical dealing with a historical subject is that musicals are anachronistic no matter what. The moment you have a rock band onstage, it makes it clear that Andrew Jackson is going to sing rock songs, and that's OK."

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