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Theater: ‘Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson’—populism through a post-punk prism

by Anita K. Kantrowitz

January 17, 2007 | 7:00 pm

"Populism, yea, yea!
Populism, yea, yea!"
Sung to an urgent pop beat, this rousing refrain from "Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson" is bound to stick in your head. Not just because it's so catchy, but because the show gets you thinking about populism -- what it meant to early 19th century America, and what it means to us today. Written and directed by Alex Timbers, with music and lyrics by Michael Friedman, "Bloody Bloody" is a rollicking, irreverent new bio-musical about Andrew Jackson's life and leadership -- viewed through the lens of "emo" music and 20th century pop culture.

The first American president from humble origins, Jackson pitted himself against authority and privilege. Scarred by early violent encounters, one of which left a bullet in his chest for life, Jackson bled himself in vain attempts to ease his pain. And long before Bill Clinton "felt our pain," Jackson fashioned his wounds, youthful disappointments and family tragedy into an empathetic persona that appealed to those who felt powerless.

Although this is their first collaboration, Friedman and Timbers each bring impressive credentials to the production. Timbers, 29, is artistic director of the New York-based, Obie Award-winning avant-garde company Les Freres Corbusier, for which he has conceived and directed shows including "Manifest Destiny: A Historical Rock Spectacular" (2004) and the now-annual "A Very Merry Unauthorized Scientology Pageant," combining performance art and children's theater in a look at L. Ron Hubbard's controversial church.

The 2007 Obie Award-winner for sustained excellence in music, 32-year-old Friedman is a founding associate artist of The Civilians, a New York-based off-Broadway company that conducts extensive interviews to create theater that raises questions about contemporary cultural phenomena. Friedman, composer and lyricist for numerous Civilians productions, most recently penned pop music for the upcoming "This Beautiful City," an inside look at evangelical Christian churches that probes the intersection of religion and civic life in America, premiering this March at Louisville's Humana Festival of New American Plays.

Perhaps, then, it's no surprise that Friedman and Timbers share the conviction that emo -- which they describe as hyper-emotional, post-punk rock that's "so sincere it's ridiculous, and so ridiculous, it's heartbreaking" -- is an ideal aesthetic to apply to Jackson and his era.

"There's an entire language of the American presidency that's invented during Jackson's presidency," Friedman said. And the invention of populism, he added, can be seen as "disenfranchised boys who didn't think they were popular in high school getting their revenge."

By using contemporary teenage idioms and post-punk music alongside 19th century speech and period details, Friedman believes "Bloody Bloody" highlights qualities of each period that might not otherwise be apparent.

"Often, the most simplistic things we come up with -- like introducing Monroe's cabinet to the strains of a Spice Girls song -- are really helpful at focusing in on what the thing itself is," Friedman said.

These pop culture motifs also add lightness and humor to what is -- beneath a gloss of irony and absurdity -- a serious subject.

A classically trained pianist who didn't write his first song until he was 24, Friedman thrives on intensive research -- whether it's the hundreds of interviews that form the basis of The Civilians' plays, or historical research for "Bloody Bloody" -- and draws musical inspiration from a seemingly limitless range of styles.

"I approach my work anthropologically," Friedman said.

For one project, he immersed himself in Senegalese rap -- not expecting to actually write a Senegalese rap song, but instead to absorb the sounds in order to pick up a new trick or two.

"It might be about structure, or rhythm, or the way a melody works," Friedman said.

Listening to other music also helps him concentrate while composing, and anything he hears might suggest an idea for works in progress: "I'll be listening to my iPod and finally figure out what I want to do on a song ... often it's not even a direct correlation -- I'll hear a Mahler symphony and I'll think, 'Oh, "Trail of Tears" [from "Bloody Bloody"] should have a key change right here.'"

With his wide-ranging forays into musical style and his flair for eclecticism, Friedman has created a style that's not easy to categorize.

"I'm kind of chameleon-like," he said. For The Civilians' "Gone Missing," which recently completed a six-month run at New York's Barrow Street Theater, Friedman called his score a "pastiche ... there's a Noel-Coward-esque song, a Mariachi number in Spanish, a big rock ballad...."

Friedman's upbringing may have planted the seeds for his interest in, and facile navigation of, disparate cultural sources.

Raised in Philadelphia by a Jewish father of German descent and a non-Jewish, "Yankee, New England" mother, Friedman attended a Quaker school until college at Harvard. His father is from a family of "fiercely proud" German Jews who identified culturally, but not religiously, with Judaism.

"I was half-Jewish, half-Christian in a confusing way, both sides a little bit nonobservant, went to a Quaker school in the '70s, when everything like that was very much up in the air," Friedman said. This gave him a "sense of religious -- and nonreligious -- possibility" for his own identity.

Although he doesn't believe that any particular "faith background" influences his work, Friedman believes he's got his father's German Jewish sense of "intellectual questioning, of learning for learning's sake."

That said, no one in his father's family has any connection with their European roots, so they are, more than anything else, "Americans first," he added.

"At this point -- after so many generations -- what else are you?" Friedman asked.

A very contemporary question, but one that also harkens back to the Jacksonian era, when the presence of Native Americans, Spaniards and African slaves within our borders challenged our ideals of democracy and raised issues of race and ethnicity in America.

What did we then, and what do we now, make of these "foreigners" on our soil?

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