'Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson' Rocks Broadway President Andrew Jackson, author of the policies that lead to the Trail of Tears, may seem an unlikely subject for a Broadway musical -- but Michael Friedman, co-creator of Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, feels differently.
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'Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson' Rocks Broadway

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'Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson' Rocks Broadway

'Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson' Rocks Broadway

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NEAL CONAN, host:

Andrew Jackson, Indian fighter, victor of the Battle of New Orleans, seventh president of the United States, first Westerner in the White House, author of the policies that lead to the Trail of Tears, and you might think an unlikely subject for a Broadway musical until you hear the phrase he puts the man in Manifest Destiny.

(Soundbite of song, "Populism, yeah")

Mr. BENJAMIN WALKER (Actor): (As Andrew Jackson) (Singing) Why wouldn't you ever go out with me in school? You always went out with those guys who thought they were so cool. And I was just nobody to you, nobody to you, nobody to you. But it's the early 19th century. And we're gonna make this country back for people like us who don't just think about things. People who make things happen. Sometimes with guns, sometimes with speeches, too, and also other things. One, two, three, four. Populism, yeah, yeah. Populism, yeah, yeah. Populism, yeah, yeah. Populism, yeah, yeah. This is the age of, this is the age of, this is the age of Jackson.

CONAN: That tune opened a show called "Bloody, Bloody Andrew Jackson" that opened originally at the public theater in New York City. It's now making the transition to Broadway. The man responsible for that music joins us in just a moment. If you have question about how a musical development - develops, grows and evolves, give us a call. 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org. You can join the conversation on our website, too, that's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Michael Friedman wrote the music and lyrics to "Bloody, Bloody Andrew Jackson." He and writer/director Alex Timbers created the show. Michael Friedman joins us here at the NPR bureau. First of all, congratulations on your transition to Broadway.

Mr. MICHAEL FRIEDMAN (Composer, Lyricist): Thank you so much.

CONAN: And you are in previews. What does that mean? You're rehearsing all day and performing at night?

Mr. FRIEDMAN: They are rehearsing, as we speak, putting in new light cues, changing things, fixing things for the audience tonight. And we continue for a couple more weeks in previews till we open.

CONAN: And this must be - well, you're moving from one theater to another. You're moving from one audience to another as well.

Mr. FRIEDMAN: Yeah, it's from - as if it were a downtown audience at the Public Theater to what we call an uptown audience on Broadway, though, I think it's just exciting for Alex and me that we got an opportunity to reach a bigger and broader audience. So it's exciting.

CONAN: I saw the show on Tuesday night. I guess that was your second preview or something like that.

Mr. FRIEDMAN: That was our second preview.

CONAN: And the number of young people in that audience, remarkable for a Broadway crowd.

Mr. FRIEDMAN: It's exciting. We had a really great experience at the Public. Even for down there, the audience was surprisingly young and varied. And I think we're looking towards that uptown as well. So that's an exciting thing for us.

CONAN: And tell us a little bit about the genesis of this show. Why did you decide to do the Trail of Tears as a musical comedy?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. FRIEDMAN: Well, Alex and I were set up in what we like to call a professional blind date by a mutual friend who suggested we should really work together. And we got together for coffee. And literally, after about an hour, we were - we sort of turned to each and said, what about an emo-rock musical about Andrew Jackson? And from there...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. FRIEDMAN: ...who knew that that idea would blossom into a Broadway show? So the idea, Alex and I had both been interested in historical figures and in ways of looking through a contemporary lens at history. And I think we found that Andrew Jackson - and this was five years ago - really spoke to the moment that we were living in and planted the seeds of so much of what we see now. And I think in recent politics, we've seen even more of that. So...

CONAN: Take this country back, that phrase in that song suddenly resonating again, throughout America. But five years...

Mr. FRIEDMAN: Yeah.

CONAN: ...five years between an idea and you finally made it a Broadway.

Mr. FRIEDMAN: Yeah. And that's quicker than some shows. So we feel very lucky. But it's a long development process for any musical. You write it and then you workshop it, then shop it and then you premier it and they rewrite it and then you fix it. And finally, here we are and we're still fixing it.

CONAN: And you're still fixing it.

Mr. FRIEDMAN: Exactly.

CONAN: The show uses - well, as you could hear, obviously anachronism.

Mr. FRIEDMAN: Mm-hmm.

CONAN: There's a teacher who appears in a wheelchair and lectures us from time to time until she's eliminated. But it also uses a lot of sarcasm and a lot of jokes, including musical jokes.

Mr. FRIEDMAN: Mm-hmm. And I think that's something Alex and I found, that using comedy and different kinds of comedy, and especially a very contemporary feeling comedy to illustrate the history, actually allowed the historical figures and the historical actions to seem more resonant and to feel - realize how contemporary the politics of the early 19th century are to us.

CONAN: How contemporary the - it's interesting. Let's see if can hear another tune from the show. This is another American history lesson, Emo rock.

(Soundbite of song, "Oh, Andrew Jackson")

Mr. WALKER (Actor): (as Andrew Jackson) (singing) Watching from the Delaware River, watching and (unintelligible) rock star. (Inaudible) and deciding to being a rock star. Put it on the faces (unintelligible). Until the people decided to carry him. Rock, rock, rock. (Inaudible). Why don't you just shoot me in the head because you know (unintelligible). If it's really your place in your America where (inaudible). Go Andrew Jackson.

CONAN: A celebrity of the first rank and a rock star, that's Andrew Jackson.

Mr. FRIEDMAN: Exactly.

CONAN: And you need a rock star to play a rock star.

Mr. FRIEDMAN: Yes. And we have one in Benjamin Walker, who has been with us since we first did the show the Los Angeles a few years ago and he has been an extraordinary lead in our show throughout, thick and thin. And now, it's very exciting for us to have him on Broadway in his fabulousness.

CONAN: The audience needs to care about this character who is, at some points, a very comedic character. Later in the show, we need to care about his - who he is. That's a tough transition to make because he's playing dumb...

Mr. FRIEDMAN: Mm-hmm.

CONAN: ...a fair amount of the time. And then he's got to play, well, something different.

Mr. FRIEDMAN: Yeah. I think that we think of the show as a bit of a - about the adolescence of America and the coming of age of America. And I think watching Andrew Jackson try to bring America into adulthood and bring himself into adulthood is kind of the emotional journey. It ends up, you know, killing his wife and taking its toll on him and on his legacy. And in the end, his legacy as a president is, at best, a complicated one. And at worst, many people really hate his presidency and what it resulted in.

CONAN: And you say musical comedy. It doesn't end funny.

Mr. FRIEDMAN: No, it doesn't end funny. It ends - I think it ends trying to force the audience of having - giving them, I think, a lot of laughs along the way, something to really think about, which is, for me, how much responsibility we take for the people we elect, and how much responsibility we take for what the people we elect end up doing.

CONAN: We're talking with Michael Friedman, who is the composer and lyricist for "Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson," now in previews on Broadway. Let's get a caller on the line. 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org.

Mike(ph) is with us from Lawrence, Kansas.

MIKE (Caller): Thank you for taking my call. I read a review of this on Indianz.com, on a Native American news website about a couple of weeks ago, maybe a month ago. I'm Choctaw and Biloxi. My people fought alongside and then he removed us and darn near everyone else, so that they could all move in.

And the review I saw on indianz.com said that a lot of the coarse language, a lot of the stuff that's kind of racist was all left in. Is that without any - I mean, is that to kind of keep the historical context of how they were back then or was that just because it was left in without any research? I mean, that's my question.

Mr. FRIEDMAN: I think the - certainly the racism that existed in America in the 19th century and some of which exists with us today is something we very much wanted to leave intact. Andrew Jackson, you know, owned slaves and certainly was incredibly racist towards a lot of Native American tribes. And that's something I think we wanted to leave very explicit of making the reasons that Americans were compelled by him and wanted to vote for him, while also showing, I think, a lot of the dark underbelly of what that means.

MIKE: Thank you.

Mr. FRIEDMAN: Thank you.

CONAN: Thanks very much for the call. You mentioned, of course, Andrew Jackson owns slaves. That is not focused on in this show.

Mr. FRIEDMAN: No. We make it clear. It's brought up a few times, and it's something that we - the more we'd - we had actually looked at ways to bring it in more. And it was - it became something that ended up, I think, burdening the show in a funny way. That it's important that the audience understand that he was a slave owner. And I think he and his wife both think of that as very normal. But I think we wanted to make that - it clear how normal that was to an early 19th century person. And we now know, obviously, what we know about slavery. For Jackson, that was part of being from the South.

CONAN: Also a military officer.

Mr. FRIEDMAN: Mm-hmm.

CONAN: This is - the Battle of New Orleans, where he did beat a professional British army in the field at great odds, barely gets a mention.

Mr. FRIEDMAN: Well, you know, they run in and then he goes and beats the British and we say it was one of the great military victories. So I think we certainly go through it and give it its good mention, and certainly to show what an amazing general he was on the field. But in the end, I think we were more interested in focusing on his presidency itself rather than his legacy as a general.

CONAN: Let's get another caller in. This is Nancy(ph), Nancy with us from Naples, Florida.

NANCY (Caller): Hello. Thank you for taking my call. (Unintelligible)

CONAN: Nancy, I'm afraid your phone is breaking up. I apologize. We're going to - see if you can call back and if you can get a better - get some more bars on your phone. Thanks very much.

Let's see if we can go instead - we'll go to Luke(ph) and Luke is with us from Churchill. Churchill, where?

LUKE (Caller): Churchill, Tennessee.

CONAN: Go ahead.

LUKE: I am northeast Tennessee. Yeah, I actually had a question. If the composer actually like Andrew Jacksons presidency, do you think he did a good job? I actually teach high school, and my classroom neighbor - I'm an English teacher, he's a history teacher - and he says that Andrew Jackson is his first president. And I made the comment - I said, yeah, he was pretty good except, you know, killing all the Native Americans. And he got angry at me because I insulted Andrew Jackson's presidency. So I want to know what kind of job you think he actually did.

Mr. FRIEDMAN: I think that we, Alex and I, feel that a lot of his legacy is profoundly problematic for America, both the populist impulse that I think now we're finding is a very complicated thing in our society and especially with his legacy regarding the Native Americans and to - and slavery, as well.

That said, I think both Alex and I are more interested in the show of portraying him as honestly and as - in the full complexity of who he was and what his presidency was and allowing the audience to place judgment. I think it's pretty clear for the audience what they can think and more - and hope that people will actually come to the show and want to learn more and become more knowledgeable about the subject.

CONAN: The argument is presented in the play that some consider himself - him very problematical, others say he was the greatest American president of the 19th century.

Mr. FRIEDMAN: And I think you'll hear that - and if we had enough callers, you'd probably hear both points of view said. He certainly, in my mind, is not the greatest president of the 19th century.

CONAN: There was a fellow named Lincoln.

Mr. FRIEDMAN: Yes. There was a fellow named...

LUKE: We hear Lincoln a lot.

Mr. FRIEDMAN: There's a few fellows in the 19th century, but certainly, yeah, there's a fellow named Lincoln who I think most people would agree trumps Jackson.

CONAN: Luke, thanks very much for the phone call. Appreciate it.

LUKE Well, I do appreciate the man in manifest destiny comment. I thought that was pretty funny.

Mr. FRIEDMAN: Thank you.

CONAN: That - I stole that from show.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: But anyway...

LUKE: Yeah. Bye.

CONAN: We're talking with Michael Friedman. "Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson" is the name of the show. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News.

As you make the transition from one theater to another, one audience to another, the number of people involved escalates. You're going from a small operation at the public theater to now an entity in and of itself. This is something that has taken on a life and is now staggering out, Frankenstein-like, on the world.

Mr. FRIEDMAN: It's amazing and a little frightening. One of the favorite things that anyone's - I've ever heard anyone say was Hal Prince. I...

CONAN: The great producer.

Mr. FRIEDMAN: And - and director. And I heard him say once, somebody asked him what are you most proud of. And he actually said I'm most proud of the fact that "Phantom of the Opera," which he directed, has run for so long and has employed so many people, that he had created - in a show that he had created with the artists involved, a show that actually had become a major economic force in the world. And that, I thought, was sort of an amazing thought of -and it is something you realize when you move to Broadway, how much - how many people are being employed and what - as you say, it becomes its own living, breathing entity.

CONAN: And it's not just the company of actors. It's everybody backstage, it's the marketing people, it's the people who sell the merchandise out in the lobby.

Mr. FRIEDMAN: Exactly. The street team, of which is something I never even realized there was.

CONAN: You have a street team?

Mr. FRIEDMAN: We have a street team. It's exciting.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: A street team puts up posters and creates buzz around the show.

Mr. FRIEDMAN: They kind of - they - they help, you know, they're around 42nd Street and around, trying, you know, buzzing up interest and helping sell the show. And they're wonderful. And, as you say, yeah, the marketing people, the wonderful people backstage...

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Mr. FRIEDMAN: ...everywhere. It's really - that's been fun, that feeling like the family of the show grows as we move on.

CONAN: Mike(ph) is on the line, Mike calling us from Iowa.

MIKE (Caller): Hi. Thanks for taking my call. I'm a retired history teacher, taught high school history for 36 years. Most of the textbooks focus an awful lot on the Trail of Tears and Jackson's career as a general. But they give a little bit of short shrift to his economic policy, which brought about one of the worst recessions of the 19th century. I wonder if you'd want to comment on that.

Mr. FRIEDMAN: Yeah. Well, I mean, the - his experiences with the National Bank are another - we have - we talk about the National Bank and his sort of fight with it and his ending up trying - shutting it down, in the show. I - in a 90-minute show, there are all these issues that I wish we could treat with, you know, in all the depth they deserve. But that's been an exciting moment, especially over the last five years, is I think even now we're dealing with the legacy of his economic reforms. So, yeah.

CONAN: Mike, thanks.

MIKE: Thank you.

CONAN: All right. Bye-bye. And let's see if we can get another caller in. This is Jim(ph), and Jim's with us from Anchorage.

JIM (Caller): Hello. Thanks. I read once that Andrew Jackson claimed - or maybe he was born in a log cabin, which for the next 60 or 80 years, was the standard for all presidential candidates.

CONAN: And the joke was born in a log cabin he built himself.

JIM: Yeah. Well that might be the joke, yeah.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. FRIEDMAN: I...

JIM: Is that true or...

Mr. FRIEDMAN: It's a little - a lot of the claims he made are a little bit questionable...

JIM: Uh-huh.

Mr. FRIEDMAN: ...including that one, though it is true. I think what's more interesting is he created some of the ways in which campaigns are made which is now the idea of I was born in a log cabin is one of those great - you know, claiming your most humble origins, that you made yourself out of nothing is one of the great ways to, you know, run for president.

JIM: The previous presidents were all from privileged, wealthy families.

Mr. FRIEDMAN: Yes.

CONAN: Oh, and much is made of that, too.

Mr. FRIEDMAN: Yes.

JIM: Yeah.

CONAN: Thanks very much for the call, Jim.

JIM: Sure.

CONAN: And Michael Friedman, good luck with the show.

Mr. FRIEDMAN: Thank you so much.

CONAN: Michael Friedman wrote music and lyrics to "Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson." He and writer-director Alex Timbers created the show, and he joined us here in the bureau in New York.

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