This fall, the UNH Theater and Dance Department has decided to reenact “Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson,” a contemporary rock musical about the seventh president of the U.S. Theater & Dance Department Chair and director of the play David Kaye said it’s just about the most relevant musical they could have chosen, even despite the fact that it’s set in 1824.
When deciding on a play, Kaye almost chose “American Idiot,” a musical based on Green Day’s 2004 album. “Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson,” written 10 years ago by Alex Timbers and Michael Friedman, was Kaye’s final choice, however.
In the 20 years that he has worked here, Kaye has never directed a musical. However, he admitted that this is similar to the edgy plays he has directed in the past. “It’s important for me to do things that are relevant and that are challenging. I also love to do things that not everybody has seen,” he said.
The deciding factor between the two musicals, as Kaye put it, was how the underlying themes could be applied to contemporary society. Kaye said he believes that this political rock musical perfectly complements the 2016 presidential election.
“Even though it’s about Andrew Jackson, it’s completely contemporary. It’s really, in some ways, much more about us and, as a matter of fact, it’s uncanny the parallels between the campaigns of 1824 and 2016,” he said.
Kaye said that he thinks it’s fascinating to see how the elements of history sometimes repeat themselves. “It’s like they had a premonition,” he said, referring to the writers.
Kaye said he likes that a rock musical about Andrew Jackson is completely unexpected. He speculated that when people think of a big musical production about a founding father, they automatically think of “Hamilton,” Lin-Manuel Miranda’s recent Broadway hit about Alexander Hamilton. However, Kaye is adamant about the fact that “Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson” was in the works about six years prior to “Hamilton.”
This rock musical explores the inner workings of Andrew Jackson’s set of ethics. “We don’t really know that much about him, yet he’s responsible for so much of the shape of what this country ultimately became—for good or bad,” Kaye said. “That’s kind of one of the things that the play really wrestles with: was Andrew Jackson a great guy or was he not? And like anything else it’s a mixture of the two.”
The play puts a strong emphasis on the political ideology of populism. Kaye connects the dots between populism and Andrew Jackson’s struggle with morals, specifically in relation to the eradication of the native population. Kaye points out that populism has two faces: the ugly and the good.
“Populism is a very tricky term. I don’t know if anybody knows exactly what we mean by it. I have my own sense of what populism means, like when popular ideas or ideals run ahead of the reality of what’s in front of us,” Kaye said.
He said that he believes populism is full of optimism and hope. On the other hand, Kaye references Nazi Germany as a result of populism, which speaks volumes about the negative effects of the concept, as with the eradication of the native population.
For a contemporary example, Kaye turns to the idea of debt-free college. It’s a popular notion, but he wonders whether or not it could ultimately succeed.
Critiquing populism, Kaye said, “It’s all the things we want, but without an understanding of ‘We just don’t get everything we want.’ There’s some give to this; there’s sacrifice to this…and do we really want to sacrifice? That’s when populism falls apart.”
This tension is woven into the plotline of the play or, as Kaye put it, “a very loose telling of the history of Andrew Jackson.” Furthermore, he said that most people assume a play about an American president would have to be a period piece with characters parading around in 18th century costumes, but not “Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson.”
The opening scene is full of raw energy. Loud stomping noises accompany an aggressive and humorous song. This, coupled with the copious amounts of profanities being shouted across the stage, shatters any image of a carefully thought out period piece.
“It’s like a rock band shows up,” Kaye said as he made a sweeping, explosive gesture, “and a play breaks out…I wanted to keep that sense of it, that sense of not knowing what’s going to happen because it’s all being thrown together right in front of you.”
At the beginning of rehearsal, Kaye works closely and dynamically with the students on stage, showing them exactly where to move and making sure the props are sturdy. Later on, he runs down the aisle and finds a seat in the center of the audience, waiting patiently for the students to get set up. Rehearsal is being done at 50 percent speed so that the cast can discuss improvements with Kaye and music director John Berst.
“They went in 100 percent from the get-go,” Kaye said about the cast. “It speaks to them.”
In that sense, “Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson” was an easy decision. Musically however, it proved to be more of a challenge. The UNH cast is made up of half men and half women, but the original band was all male. Because of this, most of the songs don’t fit the female range very well.
Kaye, despite this obstacle, only got more excited. “It’s a challenge, but at the same time [the women] get to sing really aggressive songs that they otherwise wouldn’t get the chance to,” he said.
This speaks to the raw energy that Kaye mentioned. The show is intense with violence, even early on in the script. It’s interactive, with the cast jumping down off the stage and the narrator addressing the audience directly. “It’s rock,” Kaye said. “It’s unique rock.”
The musical runs Oct. 5–8 at 7 p.m, and again as a matinee on Sunday, Oct. 9 at 2 p.m. Tickets are on sale in the Paul Creative Arts Center (PCAC) Box Office for $18 for the general public, $15 with UNH student identification or as a senior citizen and $8 for children.