Audiences are lingering in the Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre after performances of Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson. Part of it is shock.
The magnetic Benjamin Walker, clad in too-tight black jeans and whipping the nation into a frenzy with his rallying anthem “Populism, Yea Yea!” is not, to say the least, your grandmother’s Old Hickory. This slashing musical satire from New York’s ever-irreverent Les Freres Corbusier presents a portrait of our seventh president as a rampaging racist, a six-shootin’ emo rock star who struts heedlessly through history—his own, with its expansion of American democracy and suppression of Native Americans, and by parodying extension, ours, with a sputtering two-party system susceptible to demagogues.
Most of the post-show gawking is, however, directed at the frame for this musical portrait. With a book by Les Freres’ founder and artistic director Alex Timbers and music and lyrics by Michael Friedman of theatrical troupe The Civilians, this travesty of history is many things—a downtown cabaret, a rowdy burlesque, a lowbrow sketch comedy with frat-house humor, a rock show. By the time the piece, which had been kicking around in workshops and Los Angeles since 2006, made its Off Broadway debut at the Public Theatre last season, the stage could no longer contain it. So set designer Donyale Werle brought it into the interior of the Public’s Newman Theatre, draping the theatre in crimson velour fabric and filling it with Southern-fried bric-a-brac and other Americana: KFC boxes, stuffed animals, pictures of “dead white guys” that Werle had printed, pill bottles, etc., all overhung with red holiday lights that gave it the look of a coronation in a madcap brothel.
Critics were won over by its not-terribly-literal depiction of “King Mob,” with the Drama Desk awarding Timbers best book of a musical and the Outer Critics Circle voting it best Off Broadway musical. Werle won this year’s Henry Hewes Design Award for her scenic design, while LD Justin Townsend and costume designer Emily Rebholz received nominations. Joined by sound designer Bart Fasbender, the design quartet is making its Broadway debut with the show, which, at the Jacobs, has reached its manifest destiny.
“We tried to keep it the same as much as we could,” says Werle of the Broadway version, which opened October 13 after three months of preparation and rehearsal, “but we had to expand the concept quite a bit. The height is so much greater; it’s such a compressed show, and we’ve always been able to surround the audience. At the Newman, we slightly dropped these pipes with red fluorescents on them; at the Jacobs, we had to drop them 20', and the house had no support system for anything like that. A lot of time, energy, and money went into creating the overhead grid system, a complicated [Tomcat] Swing Wing truss system with more interesting, color-changing [Element Labs] Versa® Tubes attached to schedule 40 pipes. The Shuberts allowed us to bust through the Jacobs’ ceiling, and we were lucky enough to find steel to connect to. The show is about populism, and Alex wanted people in the balcony to have the same kind of experience as those in the orchestra, so they don’t feel quite so distant.”
A particularly dominant element that extends into the balconies is the presence of faux chandeliers, including one made from 500 cat-food cans covered in porn and outfitted with flicker candle lights and a ring of can-shaped galvanized steel found in the ceiling and fitted with a flicker light. There are 52 in all, including one made from pills, condoms, and radio tubes, and another from bike parts and fraternity paddles. These and numerous other sculptures were sketched out and then created by Werle and artists at Paper Mache Monkey from salvaged material scavenged throughout New York. The designer is part of the Broadway Green Alliance, and this Bloody show is very green, in that much of it was fabricated with sustainable materials or outfitted through donations. Not the least of them are the two horses “ransacked” from the Public production of Sam Shepard’s Kicking a Dead Horse, one of which hangs over the orchestra seats. “Animals, beer, porn—there is a lot of that in this design,” Werle laughs.
A historical throughline, one also apparent in the costumes, is the Gothic and Victorian influence on punk and hipster culture. “This allows us to bridge the historical gap and feel modern simultaneously,” Werle says. The onstage ambiance is also a “piles of stuff” romp through the ages, where a Wild West saloon/men’s club with a Washingtonian air meets a teenage boy’s basement and a hipster dive bar.
And then there is the red. “The ‘bloody’ aspect has been there from the smallest production,” says Werle. “We increased that feel at the Newman by covering the walls with red fabric from the Public’s old drapes. At the Jacobs, we multiplied the red drapes from a large donation by The Producers tour. We were very lucky here to find the red seats.”
Stay tuned for additional parts of this story.
Robert Cashill, a former editor of the former Lighting Dimensions, has been part of the LD universe since 1994. Cashill, a member of the New York-based Drama Desk and the Online Film Critics Society, is the film editor of Popdose.com. He says you know you’re a design writer when you’re happy to have been seated in the mezzanine for a show like Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, allowing a fuller view of the production.