If there's not enough political theater in the run-up to the November elections, the Unicorn Theatre is offering a bit more with its production of Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, the emo rock musical biography of America's seventh President.
Now that it's popping up at regional theaters across the country, the composer and the Kansas City show's lead actor and director all hint that the current political climate makes it more relevant than ever.
Upon entering the Midtown theater at a recent rehearsal of the show opening its 2012 season, one is taken aback by the enormity of the set. A 55-foot mélange of red draping and fabric is festooned with items like cartoonishly enlarged currency, Native American artifacts, and animal skulls. At stage right sits the facade of a log cabin while stage left is the familiar portico of the White House, representing the arc of Jackson's life.
Playing the president is Shea Coffman who, surrounded by his co-stars, is running through a number about a decision on Indian affairs called "The Saddest Song."
The show's composer, Michael Friedman, says the idea for musicalizing Jackson's life arose within the first hour of a set-up professional blind date with theater artist Alex Timbers, who wrote the book and directed the New York production.
"Alex's company, Les Freres Cobusier, was interested in almost comic ways of approaching American history, particularly presidents," Friedman says. "And I was a history and literature major and took an entire course about Jacksonian America, so I have a bookshelf full of books about Jackson.
"We were interested in the contemporary resonance and thought a contemporary score would be important. The more we looked at Jackson, the more he came off as a historical rock star."
Man for All Seasons
Friedman adds that he and Timbers began writing it during George W. Bush's presidency. But as the project developed, their Andrew Jackson began to morph into someone more complex.
"What’s funny is that we began to realize Jackson is a whole lot like Reagan, a lot like Jimmy Carter, and hugely like Bill Clinton, with his whole 'I feel your pain' schtick," he says.
"And then as time moved forward, he seemed like Barack Obama, the Tea Party (and) Sarah Palin. As history moves forward, some of those parallels and resonances we wrote to mean one thing seems to resonate with other things."
Time is of the Essence
Cynthia Levin, who's directing the Unicorn production, says she was compelled by the show's irreverence and how staging it this fall heightens its timeliness.
"When I decided I wanted to do this play, I wanted to do it at one time only - this fall, before November 6th," she says. "Everyone's head is in this race right now; everybody's thinking of about it.
And so here we are doing a play about a man running for president who won the popular vote yet they said, 'Well, you didn't get the electoral vote, so we're going to pick our own president.' So all of these things that have happened in the last ten years and in our life time were happening then."
Playing a president as fond of tight pants as he is himself is Shea Coffman, who says he agrees with Michael Friedman's assessment that Jackson contributed to ideas of how campaigns are run today.
"It makes you think, Do you want a man running for office who will change who they are? Or make you believe they are something else? Or do you want someone who will stick to what they are but maybe doesn't have the drive to keep going?" Coffman says.
"Throughout the show, you evaluate what kind of man do you want. There's a line at the end of the show (where) he's talking to one of the Indians, and he says, 'Well, this is the least bad solution. I know that it's wrong. And it's never going to be right. And we're never going to be able to fix it because we started out so messed up. But this - what I'm offering you right now - is the least bad solution.'"
From the Unicorn's press materials, it's clear the theater is shrewdly marketing the show to a wide swath of people, including history buffs, rock fans, and political junkies.
"Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson," October 10-November 4, 2012. Unicorn Theatre, 3828 Main, Kansas City, MO, 816-531-7529.