Reach into your wallet and pull out a $20 bill. Do you know anything about the dashing guy portrayed there? Andrew Jackson, a military hero, was our seventh president, serving from 1829 to 1837. But he was a rock star back in his day, a rabble-rouser. For the past year or two, we’ve heard a lot of rowdy talk about taking back the country — from the wealthy, from the politicians, from big business. But that notion entered the American psyche in the 19th century, when “Old Hickory” ran for office as a man of the people. His enthusiastic followers created the Democratic Party.
Jackson did some controversial things during his presidency, including forcing hundreds of thousands of Native Americans off their homelands. But he’s best remembered as an icon of rebellious, populist democracy. Now he’s the subject of an unusual musical, Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, a Rock show getting its first professional regional premiere at Know Theatre starting this weekend.
The show got its start in 2006, well before the Tea Party or the Occupy Wall Street movements made national headlines. Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson has a crazy, in-the-moment vibe that might make you think of Barack Obama’s grassroots 2008 campaign or even Sarah Palin’s plain-talking, no-nonsense (or was it no-sense?) run for the vice presidency.
Playwright Alex Timbers translated Jackson’s larger-than-life historical persona into a contemporary rock star for this show. He wrote the tale that blends 1820s politics with modern attitudes, played out to tunes by composer and lyricist Michael Friedman. (Timbers and his New York-based theater company created the wildly unorthodox A Very Merry Unauthorized Children’s Scientology Pageant, produced by Know back in 2008.)
Bloody Bloody moved from New York’s renowned Public Theater to Broadway for a brief run in 2010.
New York Times theater critic Ben Brantley admired the show’s “hit-and-run pace” and its “shrug-of-the-shoulders cool.” The music is Emo Rock, a mix of hardcore Rock and Punk with angsty (that is, “emo”tional) lyrics. People who know more about this corner of contemporary music tell me the score might remind you of the work of My Chemical Romance, Green Day or Modest Mouse. (For a taste of a very Pop Punk number from Bloody Bloody, search “Populism, Yea, Yea!” on YouTube.)
Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson is full of historic anachronisms that keep it lively and make it feel thoroughly relevant to right now. (After Jackson’s family is slaughtered, the young frontiersman sings, “Life sucks. My life sucks in particular.”)
Eric Vosmeier, Know’s producing artistic director, has lots of reasons for picking this show for his theater’s 2011-2012 season. “First,” he says, “it shines a light on the general ridiculousness of our political systems. It also points out how many similarities there are between the America of the early 19th century and the America of today. Second, it points out and pokes fun at the dangerous parts of us as individuals and as a nation, those things that allow us to make allowances for events like the Trail of Tears to become a reality and then be practically forgotten from our collective memory.” Another reason, however, is that Vosmeier, who will stage the show personally, says Bloody Bloody is “a kick-ass score with a great book.”
He’s assembled a cast of performers, many of whom are new to Know’s stage to perform this energetic, vibrant show. In particular, Vosmeier says, “I wanted an actual existing band, instead of throwing together a group of disparate musicians hired individually.” But local bands have commitments, so he thought it would be tough to find one.
Then he met Randy Proctor, bassist for The Dukes Are Dead. “I mentioned that I was looking for a band; he mentioned that he was in one,” Vosmeier recalls. “They were about to take a break to focus on some songwriting and recording an album — so their schedule was already clear.” Accordingly, Vosmeier landed a set of musicians he calls “a huge asset to the production.”
The raucous results take over Know’s 200-seat upstairs theater on Jackson Street in Over-the Rhine for a six-week run, through May 12. If you want tickets, go to knowtheatre.com, and if you still have that $20 bill in your hand, turn it over to Know and join the “Club of Jacksons,” Cincinnati’s first-ever community-sourced production sponsorship. The theater has been recruiting donors to provide 1,120 “Jacksons” — that is, $20 bills — to fund production expenses of $22,400 for the show.
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