Interview: Benjamin Walker and the cast of Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson
Fri Nov 5 2010
From left: James Barry, Emily Young, Bryce Pinkham, Benjamin Walker and Kate Cullen Roberts of Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson at Union Hall
Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson's arrival on Broadway is like The Social Network's premiere at the New York Film Festival on September 24: entirely of the moment. At once extroverted and navel-gazing, the musical is led by Benjamin Walker as our nation's seventh President, who's styled like a Brooklyn-buzz-band frontman. Sung in the raw, angsty style that typifies emo and indie rock, the show is cut with a kind of subversive humor, like politicians publicly calling each other out on being assholes in plain, often obscene, language. While Rent and Spring Awakening and, more recently, American Idiot have attempted to bring a gutsier, more aggressive tone to the Theater District, BBAJ sets itself apart: Through Jackson's obsession with populism and frequent discourse—raising the common man above the wealthy elite—the musical draws timely parallels to the Obama administration, the tea party and our current widespread sense of national insecurity. In the heat of the midterm elections, Walker and his costars Emily Young and Kate Cullen Roberts discussed the nervousness of the electorate, not to mention dressing-room moonshine and the power of one pair of ridiculously tight pants.
Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson has hit Broadway at an interesting time. Four years ago, when you opened at the Public, did you sense that the show would be so prescient?
Benjamin Walker: At first, it was about Bush—Jackson felt like he had an election stolen from him, which was very poignant at the time. Then we thought it was about [Hillary] Clinton, and then we thought it was about Sarah Palin, then Obama.
Emily Young: Obama and populism.
Walker: Exactly. The populism idea can resonate with the [grassroots] Obama campaign or with the tea-party movement. That's the American dilemma, it can go either way.
Kate Cullen Roberts: The script hasn't really changed that much. It's been around for years.
Walker: We were way ahead of the tea party. I actually think the tea party is trying to rip off our play.
How do you think the play reflects what we're experiencing at this moment, with the midterm elections, Obama's waxing and waning popularity, and Jon Stewart's Rally to Restore Sanity?
Walker: It's in those moments where Jackson and the country grow up. Girls are fun, but there's a point where relationships are serious. Campaigning is fun, and then when you're in the White House, what do you do? I think the play does that well.
Young: Actually, we're seeing that now. In these midterm elections, there's been a lot of talk about that tag phrase "Change you can believe in" and where that has gone.
BBAJ has its way with history—it's self-referential, ironic, anachronistic, mashed-up with contemporary references.
Young: I look forward to surprising the audience with treating history in a flippant or shocking way. We take history seriously enough to mention Alexis de Tocqueville, or that James Madison said something prescient but he was kind of... a bad word. [The show calls him a "dick."] I feel like it wakes up a latent thing for everyone.
Walker: You learn history in school, and you have a reverential feeling toward it. But by being irreverent, it feels current.
Cullen Roberts: And very modern in its humor.
Walker: Dirty, and unapologetic too. You think of George Washington, this man who was larger than life, and in some ways he was. But at the same time, he's just a person. Politicians today are just as fallible as they were then.
Ben, you have more swagger than the average indie-rocker. Which is cool, given that the style of this play is rooted in self-loathing emo.
Walker: The play traces Jackson through his entire life. You watch him learn swagger, and learn how to be a leader. The diverse nature of emo lets us have both—the whiny child and the rocker.
Right, because the main thrust of emo is the idea that becoming an adult is unbearable.
Walker: This show is about the coming-of-age of Andrew Jackson and the country. And emo is about self-awareness; that point in your life when you become old enough to be self-aware. We're trying to re-create what it felt like back then—the experience of being young, in a young country, telling off our parents and doing what we want to do. A few years later, we woke up and realized we killed an entire race of people.
The play is relentless—it's 90 minutes with no intermission, and the dialogue is packed with rapid-fire jokes about James Monroe's douche-baggery, murdering Native Americans and "wealthy New England Congress fucks." Have you ever just lost it and laughed on stage?
Walker: All the time. Fighting it just makes it worse. We're not doing Molire or Shakespeare here.