Some Serious, Serious Shit

Within the first few lines of Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, Jackson says, "I'm wearing some tight, tight jeans and tonight we're delving into some serious, serious shit." It sounds like a joke when he says it, but this line tells us more than we realize about the show we're about to see. And as we rehearse, we're starting to understand just how serious it really is.

We finished blocking last night. The next part of the process is my favorite. The playing and the tinkering.

Every once in a while (I try not to do it too often), I cast a show by invitation, no public auditions. Usually it's the more unusual shows -- Bat Boy, Assassins, High Fidelity, BBAJ. We have such an amazing pool of truly brilliant character actors (several with improv backgrounds), some who work with us all the time, some who work with us only occasionally, when they just can't resist a role. But sometimes I just know who will be perfect. These particular New Liners bring so much to a show. John Sparger (in the title role this time) has become the Ann Reinking to my Bob Fosse. Not sure what he'll think about that...

My rehearsal process has evolved over time, borrowing from lots of famous directors over the years. I learned a lot from a wonderful book called The Show Makers, and all of Anne Bogart's books, and lots of others. When we work on a New Line show, I first build the skeleton -- basic staging, basic mood, style, etc. -- and we work pretty quickly. Then we spend a lot of time just running the show (first in pieces, then altogether) and experimenting. Playing. I don't like committing to too many small choices too early. I'm constantly telling the actors, "We've got time!" Over several weeks, we shape the show, slowly tuning in to each other, blending the performances together, finding little truthful moments, sharpening the style, trying to bring as much clarity as we possibly can to the story we're telling. A show like BBAJ is tough because it's very wacky and it's also very serious, so it requires actors who are funny and imaginative and fearless, but also very skillful.

Case in point. Nick Kelly has been working with New Line since 2002. He plays mostly funny characters for us (notably, William Barfée in Spelling Bee), and he never seems to run out of funny ideas, but he's also a strong serious actor (he also played Valentin in Kiss of the Spider Woman for us). Nick's Barfée was a master class in restraint, less sketch comedy than the original, more heartfelt -- and it really paid off for the audience. This time Nick is playing quite a few characters, but most importantly Henry Clay and Chief Black Fox. Near the end of BBAJ, there's a conversation between Jackson and the (fictional) Native American chief. And it's intense. And it's complicated. Check out this monologue that President Jackson delvers to Black Fox about Indian relocation --
Because I'm the will of the People and I know what's right! (horrible silence) And that's what populism is, bro. And I'm sorry about that. But we both know in our hearts that we can't have Indian ghettos scattered throughout the East Coast! And I wish you'd built symphonies in cities, man, and put on plays and showed yourselves to be a little more essential. You know, to the culture? And yeah, you totally were here first, absolutely, but we don't give a shit, and we never will. Because the day we arrived, we saw it, we wanted it, and frankly it was easier to believe it was ours. And so we're stuck. And what I promise you is that this is the least bad solution... And what I also promise you? Is you sign this treaty here tonight and, in thirty years, you and I are gonna look like fucking heroes. For uniting this country.

That is some fierce fucking writing! There's so much going on there for a really intelligent actor like Sparger to mine -- betrayal, the end of a friendship, racism, power, manifest destiny.

And Black Fox spends the whole monologue just listening, processing the pompous bullshit and the barely hidden threat being thrown at him, realizing what his "friend" is telling him -- if the Indians had acted more White they wouldn't have been slaughtered. Jackson hints at the subject of the song that follows (which I've blogged about), "Second Nature," about the questionable morality at the heart of Manifest Destiny and American expansionism.

But Black Fox also carries the weight of knowing he has betrayed -- and also murdered -- his own people. In this same scene, Nick has a line that is heartbreaking. Black Fox says, "Andrew, I have handed you the lands of at least eleven tribes. I did this with you, together as friends, behind their backs, because you promised -- I have killed my own people for you!" Black Fox has made this deal with the devil, choosing to betray his people and his land, to live in the White world. But he only had a place there as long as he was needed. Now he's become a problem, so he's being discarded.

This is some serious, serious shit.

And Nick and Sparger are already nailing it. They are both so on the right road.

It's only now as we put all the pieces together that we see just how serious this show is. When you see it as an audience member, you tend to remember the laughs, because there are a lot of them, and the songs, which are both amazing and freakishly catchy. But this is a show about a very complicated man, in the world's most complicated job, in really complicated times. This is a story about life and death, power and corruption, compromise and betrayal, and lots of moral ambiguity. The brilliant Alex Timbers has written a script that employs the Spoonful of Sugar trick -- he makes you laugh all night and then leaves your brain full of very difficult questions to grapple with on the way home.

Like Brecht, Timbers and Friedman do everything in their power to remind you of the artificiality of theatre, to distance you emotionally, to engage you only intellectually. But like Brecht, they essentially "fail" because they do connect to their audience very powerfully on an emotional level. Our audiences are going to feel conflicted about Jackson. That's the point. He's both hero and villain. And I guess so is Black Fox.

Last night, even though it was the first time they've ever done it, Nick and Sparger were thrilling in that final scene between Black Fox and Jackson. Sure, they'll find even more there over time, but the writing is so incredible and their instincts are so solid, that the scene already works. It's really powerful.

We know, watching this show in 2012, that America wouldn't be here today if we hadn't taken all this land from the Native Americans, slaughtering many of them in the process. Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson makes us face that.

Like I said, this is some serious, serious shit. And I love it.

Long Live the Musical!