BWW Interviews: The Cast & Crew of Generations: A Theatre Company Dish on BLOODY BLOODY ANDREW JACKSON
Andrew Jackson, that guy on the twenty dollar bill and the United States' infamous seventh president, is alive and well in Houston. Remembered for the Indian Removal Act and initiating what would later be called Jacksonian Populism, this iconic badass president is the central character in Michael Friedman's comedic Wild West rock musical BLOODY BLOODY Andrew Jackson, which is being produced this month by Houston's Generations: A Theatre Company. George Brock, founding Artistic Director for Generations and Director of BLOODY BLOODY Andrew Jackson, assembled a panel of his cast, crew, and creative team to discuss the rip-roaringly raucous show and why you MUST see it!
Generations: A Theatre Company is producing the Houston Regional Premiere of the acclaimed musical BLOODY BLOODY Andrew Jackson as part of their season this summer. What research did you do to prepare for the show?
George Brock (GB): First, I went to my "go to" text for American History, A People's History of the United States by Howard Zinn and read up on the Jackson years. Then I researched Populism and various Populist movements and finally a revisited the early years of G. W. Bush's Presidency. I let all that stew around in my brain for awhile and then did some research on the development of the show itself. Finally, I read the script several times and set a framework for all that-then opened up conversation with the other director's and designers. This all took about 6 months. Then I threw it all out and started working with the cast.
JayTee Barbour (JTB) – apprentice company member who plays several roles in the show: I was lucky to have just studied AP US History this last year, so I was able to just crack open my Princeton Review and look over the Jacksonion Era and Populism and Progressive Movements. But, it was also really important for me to look into not only what happened then but how history has repeated itself in modern times, such as parallels between the Corrupt Bargain and Presidential election of 2000.
Kristen Warren (KW) – the show's Choreographer: I read the entire Wikipedia page on Andrew Jackson, as well as the detailed links on the Petticoat Affair, Battle of New Orleans, Trail of Tears, etc. I also did some research on The Populist Movement in general, its basis, goals, etc. I also watched some YouTube video clips of the Broadway show to see what that production looked like.
Tyce Greene (TG) – an actor in the company playing John Calhoun and various other roles in the show: The history from around 1824 and what Jackson did to really try to create his version of what he thought the American people wanted and needed was very interesting. As our director, George Brock, points out vividly, this play is a farce-a story and history with a heightened sense of absurdity that comes from a real place. So, researching the facts of the election history of Jackson and his colleagues helped in finding the realism, and the humor of the piece was able to be added on top of that.
Matt Schief (MS) – the show's Lighting and Projection Designer: I initially started with flags. I wanted to know how many states there were blended with the aesthetic sparseness of the stars we have come to know in our current flag. Then I moved on to rock concert lighting looks, and finally some historic imaginatives, picturing life without electricity.
While being performed in New York, the show garnered a lot of attention for reinventing Andrew Jackson as a sexy, Emo rockstar complete with guyliner. In your opinion, what challenges does this add to accurately portraying the birth of the Democratic Party, the Populist Movement, the Indian Removal Act, and Jackson's relationship with his wife Rachel?
GB: I don't think that the show is trying to accurately portray anything historical. There is a lot of solid information in the show, but the history is being used more as a mirror to reflect our current situation. Populism has reared its head again in the US. There's a lot of shouting and yelling and not much of anything getting done. People in and out of government are trying to score points and win rather than accomplish anything. Much of the electorate is completely ignorant of the actual issues that we face as a country and anytime someone comes up with a workable solution they are labeled as a socialist, Nazi, communist or a right wing radical selfish rich bastard or...well...you get the idea. It's hard to sit and reflect on this reality because it doesn't line up with our idealism about America. It's much easier to tune out and watch The Bachelor or go see Coldplay or The Amazing Spiderman or whatever. Here's what the show does very well and what initially attracted me to it when I saw it, during the great snowstorm of '10 by the way. It uses the rockstar/comedy show motif as a way to disarm the audience and then-when we are all open and receptive-makes its points very clearly and precisely.
JTB: The only problem with including modern elements into a historical story is the audience not taking the messages as seriously because it makes it more difficult to identify the truth from hyperbole, or the entire play coming off as false all together by the modern twist being a distraction. It's tricky to add that into a play about a period of history most Americans skip over. However, these elements, when done correctly, like I believe our production has, can instead make the history more approachable and easier to understand those parallels in our country's history by making it easier to go, "oh, this isn't just something that happened it's still going on."
TG: Honestly, it's just plain hilarious, and very truthful, too. If Jackson were a politician in today's society, he would completely be the rockstar, tight jeans, microphone in hand badass, and being able to be a part of a play that exhibits those qualities in the actual timeframe of the 1800's with the added rock music and punk style allows the audience to really relate to the political movement of the time and compare it to what is happening in the world right now.
KW: I think the Emo Rockstar approach puts the history into a form that keeps modern day audiences' attention and helps them relate to the subject matter and the people involved. The role of the Storyteller I think is a comment on how spouting off historical facts is an ineffective way to teach history if you want people to actually relate to and more importantly LEARN from it. I actually think it is an advantage, not a challenge. I think the audience is smart enough to decipher the facts from the fiction. If we don't truly learn from our nation's history, we're doomed to repeat its mistakes over and over again.
MS: In my mind it's not really about being historically accurate as much as it is about capturing the emotive conundrum that Andrew Jackson is in. "Is what I'm doing right? If I don't then someone else is gonna step in and do the same thing anyway." If he hadn't been him and done the things he did, we would not be enjoying the lives we know today.
Anne Cape (AC) – actress in the show: The Emo rockstar aspect makes the story of Andrew Jackson slightly more relatable because this music is something we encounter almost every day of our lives, and, well, we all didn't get to grow up during his rise to presidency. The play isn't exactly accurate when it comes to his parents and his actions. I would assume he didn't have cheerleaders in his office at all times. Rock music has a nature of being earthy, naturalistic and passionate, which is what I believe stays true to Andrew Jackson's desire to transform the government to be something that thought about what the people wanted. The music of the people ends up representing the Populist Party in this show and in turn the party of the people. His presidency and life was gritty, rough, true, and controversial, which is perfectly represented by the rough and honest music.
Without giving away too much about the show, what moment from BLOODY BLOODY Andrew Jackson is your favorite? Why?
GB: What has had me giggling the past couple of days is when Lyncoya (7 year old Dylan Hunt), Jackson's adopted Indian son, runs onstage, punches Van Buren in the crotch and then yells "Kill white people!" Something about this precious little kid yelling, "kill white people" cracks me up every time.
JTB: My favorite moment in the show by far is the Florida couple in "Crisis Averted." It so perfectly pin points how we as humans rationalize awful things like the trail of tears if it personally benefits us while still maintaining that comedy to save the message from becoming too preachy.
TG: Well, I can't give away too much, but I will say there is a sort of fashion show involving the presidents at one point in the show. It's a moment you certainly won't forget.
KW: My favorite moment at this point in the process is "The Saddest Song."
MS: A song called "The Great Compromise." It the struggle of relationships and the choices we make.
Billy Cohen (BC) – apprentice company member who plays James Monroe and various other roles in the show and Tommy Tune Award winner for Best Actor this year: My favorite moment in the show is when Monroe, Calhoun, Clay, and Van Buren do a vogue runway walk.
AC: My favorite moment is the first number, "Populism, Yea, Yea!" because we get to really get in the audiences' face about what it was that the people wanted. Also, it is my favorite song in the show.
What message do you think BLOODY BLOODY Andrew Jackson will leave with the Houston audiences that come out to see the show?
GB: Populism-while bright and shiny and lots of fun to be part of-is very dangerous and can eventually lead to genocide or a Civil War.
TG: For me, it shows a real truth to politics and how difficult it is for a single man in charge of an entire country to try to please everyone. Mistakes and progress are made in tandem, and it really portrays a realism to the presidency. It's a realism that is effective today and has carried over since the beginning of the United States' independency. The president-man-in-charge-has a family, a child, obligations to his cabinet members, expectations of handling second-to-second correspondence, and I think audiences will come out of the show realizing that, as individual citizens, we expect change from our government, but that change takes time and sometimes trial and error is necessary to achieve the best goal possible for the masses.
KW: I think the message will be different for each audience member. Some may only enjoy it at face value for the Rock & Roll, others will feel like they actually learned some history, and still others will make the comparisons to today's political atmosphere. I think it's a show that makes you think and want to talk about this Nation, it's history and future.
AC: I think it will leave a message of humanity, that you can never end up pleasing everyone including yourself, and that sometimes you have to sacrifice something you love for something you believe in.
Generations: A Theatre Company strays from the traditionally well-known blockbuster shows, providing Houston audiences with more experimental pieces of genre-defying theatre. In your opinion, how or why does BLOODY BLOODY Andrew Jackson fit this mold?
GB: In every aspect of the show. The music director is not onstage or conducting-no one is conducting! That's unnerving. The score has been praised and criticized for being simplistic. The book is-on the surface-a miasma of various styles that seems to have no coherent center (spoiler alert-it does). You can't do this show in a high school. Ever.
JTB: Emo Andrew Jackson. It's brilliant. This show takes this infamous president that I know at least my generation really knows nothing about, but have been taught to hate because of the Trail of Tears, puts him in tight jeans and guyliner, and then to top it all of it uses the simplicity of Emo rock music and not only does it right (it doesn't make fun of the music) but uses that simplicity to further make points on populism. It does nothing that you think should be found in musical theater, and then meanwhile maintains everything you want in entertainment. It's smart, it breaks down boundaries, and challenges popular opinions, especially the opinions found in such a conservative city, and makes you laugh all the way through.
TG: George Brock, our brilliant-and that is an excessive understatement-artistic director chooses musicals that are book-driven. It's a choice that many theaters do not make. Instead of doing ANNIE or BYE BYE BIRDIE, he chooses material that can stand alone as a play, should the music not be there. Additionally, his approach mirrors that. The material and substance of the text come first and the music is an additional part of the puzzle that then allows the entire piece (show) to come together. The shows Generations choose are meaty, thought-provoking, challenging for the actors, and leave audiences with an important message to think about. That message varies, but there is always one, and in many cases, several messages that are successfully conveyed through the hard work and dedication of both the creative and technical team.
KW: I think the answer to this question is apparent. "BLOODY BLOODY Andrew Jackson? [Pause] What the heck show is that?!" The title alone should intrigue many, many people from all walks of life!
BC: I think BLOODY BLOODY Andrew Jackson fits the Generations mold because it sounds like one thing to audience members before they see it, and afterwards they are shocked to realize it wasn't anything like they thought it would be. There is the important element of shock value present in this show like the previous ones.
Keeping in the vein of thought-provoking and experimental theatre, which pieces would you like to produce or be cast in?
GB: PETER AND THE STARCATCHER, ONCE, ELIZABETH I to name three right off the bat. I can also assure you that we approach any show as a thought provoking experimental piece. There are theatres in town that revive older shows and then remount the Broadway Production. We don't approach theatre that way. So, if we choose to tackle one of the oldies-say COMPANY or A CHORUS LINE for example-we will be looking to find the core of the piece that made them experimental and exciting when they first appeared.
JTB: AMERICAN IDIOT. I've never been a huge Green Day fan, but the story of AMERICAN IDIOT so perfectly depicts the chaotic world of America's youth living in post 9-11 America paired with the new arrangements that will bring you to tears or make you want to start a riot.
TG: Duncan Sheik, composer of SPRING AWAKENING, has been workshopping versions of a new show called NIGHTINGALE. I would love to see that produced.
KW: Oooohhh, good question. There are actually some shows that some may consider more mainstream that I would love to get my hands on, as a choreographer and actress. I'm pretty sure Generations' approach to anything, even "mainstream," would not be typical in any way. I think we could do some interesting things with Lippa's WILD PARTY, CABARET, and URINETOWN to name a few. However, to really answer this question, I need time to do more research!
AC: I would love to either produce or be cast in, way later in my life, the musical BARE, which is actually opening Off Broadway later this year. It was my first experimental show that I had ever heard of or experienced, and I fell in love with the uniqueness of the show and the controversial characters and subject.
BLOODY BLOODY Andrew Jackson closes this year's season for Generations: A Theatre Company. What can you tell me about next season?
GB: We'll have to wait and see what happens after December 21 this year... then we can plan accordingly.
Generations: A Theatre Company will perform BLOODY BLOODY Andrew Jackson at Rice University's Hamman Hall from July 12, 2012 until July 29, 2012. For tickets or more information, please visit http://www.generationsatc.org/ or call (832) 326 – 1045.
Photos are courtesy of George Brock and Generations: A Theatre Company.
Three Tommy Tune Award Winners: Morgan Best Supporting Actress 2012, Billy Best Actor 2012, Stephanie Best Actress 2010 [Left to Right: Morgan Starr (Ten Little Indians Soloist); Billy Cohen (James Monroe); Stephanie Styles (Rachel Jackson)]