If Andrew Jackson were alive and campaigning today, he would definitely have a Twitter account, according to actor Ben Walker, who portrays America's seventh president in the new Broadway musical Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson (BBAJ). "He would do all of that social networking," says Walker. "He was one of the first people to campaign in the way that we think of now, trying to get the word out by using pamphlets and the printing press."
Just as Jackson challenged traditions in Washington, BBAJ, which played a sold-out run at The Public Theater in downtown Manhattan last spring, is opening the door for new traditions on Broadway. The musical follows the story of Jackson's rise from orphaned frontiersman to the people's president with a heaping dose of sardonic humor, featuring a cast outfitted in supertight pants, a band playing a mix of emo and punk and, of course, plenty of angular haircuts and eyeliner. However absurd that might sound, the show not only stays faithful to Jackson's biography, it also mirrors today's political landscape. The fandom element of Jackson's campaign recalls the youth-driven optimism of President Barack Obama's win in 2008; and, even more topical, the show includes jokes about "tea bagging," "witchcraft" and Washington insiders. BBAJ is not your typical tap-dance-and-romance Broadway show.
"I think a lot of people can't believe that [BBAJ] is happening on Broadway—for good and bad reasons," says the show's writer and director, Alex Timbers. At 32, Timbers is the youngest director working on the Great White Way. "But as soon as you start showing that there's a place for Will Ferrell on Broadway or experimental shows, more will start being produced. You can have a dialogue with the popular culture that way."
Before this year, Timbers, a Manhattan native and Yale grad, was known mostly in off-off-Broadway circles as the founder of the experimental downtown theater troupe Les Freres Corbusier. Now, he's become a fixture on Broadway not only as the creator of BBAJ but also as the director of the nostalgic reincarnation of The Pee-wee Herman Show that opened on November 11. "The shows I love are completely theatrical and really visceral, with strong comedy and strong music," Timbers explains. "I'm someone who loves to go to concerts and watch TV. I like shows that can compete with that. That is part of my mission."
At the heart of BBAJ is Jackson's Populism platform, complete with a rousing opening number called "Populism, Yeah, Yeah!" "Populism is a very easy idea to convey when there's 1,100 people in the audience," says Walker. "Every performance feels like a rock concert and a political rally all at the same time." In true populist form, Timbers opens the dialogue to those 1,100 people as BBAJ pokes fun at itself for being a musical, a genre that many in Timbers' generation are skeptical of. Along with the snark, though, there must still be sincerity. And in BBAJ, that comes when the play confronts Jackson's confusing legacy: was he a great president responsible for the biggest land grab in US history, or was he a genocidal maniac who murdered thousands of Native Americans? "The show is supposed to make the audience ask the question 'How complicated is it to be an American?'" says Timbers. "It's a challenging question that leaves you a little unsettled."
Walker, a Georgia native, expertly portrays Jackson's complexities with a nuanced performance that he's been perfecting since he starred in the concert version of the show three years ago at The Public Theater. When he learned the show would be going to Broadway this past summer, he turned down a role in the Hollywood star–making machine X-Men to continue to play Jackson, a decision he explains by saying, "We've worked so hard, and to jump out before it finally comes to fruition? That didn't make sense. I'm emotionally connected to the people in this cast. We've all grown together as a family and as a family of artists, and if I were to have missed out on this, I would have regretted it for the rest of my life."
For Timbers, Walker embodies everything he wanted in his Old Hickory. "Ben is classically trained, which is important for Jackson's emotional journey. He's got this great voice, and he's a stand-up comedian. Those three things combined make him the perfect Andrew Jackson. And," Timbers adds, "he's, like, superhot."
Together, the two are determined to stay true to their downtown rock 'n' roll roots in their new Times Square home. "We moved uptown, and they're expecting us to act like adults," says Walker. "We're not going to do it." That sounds like something Jackson definitely would have tweeted.