Steven Meerdink, artistic director of Minneapolis Musical Theatre, knew the basics about Andrew Jackson: He was the seventh U.S. president, took some controversial actions and was considered the first populist president.
Well, and he’s on the $20 bill, right?
“Yes, I did know that,” Meerdink said.
Meerdink’s troupe on Friday opens the musical “Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson” at Hennepin Theatre Trust’s New Century Theatre. The production will be Meerdink’s last with a troupe he helped to found more than 20 years ago.
The show bears the traits of musicals that have been successful for MMT. It depicts a modern Andrew Jackson as an emo, rock-star president and condenses about 60 years of history into a 90-minute rush. Written by Alex Timbers, with lyrics and music by Michael Friedman, the musical bears the mark of creators who travel in the scratchy and flippant humor of downtown New York theater.
“It’s kind of a ‘Family Guy’ viewpoint of history that is offensive in a way that makes you say, ‘I can’t believe you just did that,’ ” Meerdink said. “It makes fun of everyone.”
That satire doesn’t sit well with American Indians, who suffered cruelty under Jackson’s policies and his warfare.
“I don’t know of any other play that makes the depth of these racial slurs without them being checked or answered,” said playwright Rhiana Yazzie of New Native Theatre. “If Minneapolis Music Theatre had more contact with native people and had more information, they would have looked at this story and said, ‘Let’s bring in the native community and talk about how ridiculous Jackson is.’ ”
Yazzie has written an open letter criticizing the play and the decision to produce the work in Minneapolis. She said in an interview that she “absolutely” wants to see the play to consider what MMT did to mitigate the script.
“I’m not an artist who enjoys keeping other artists from doing their work,” she said. “But how do you do this musical in Minneapolis, the home of the American Indian Movement? How does that work?”
Meerdink, who has corresponded with Yazzie through e-mail, said he believes the play does point out the horrific things Jackson did.
“I know that doesn’t make it easier for a population that was horribly treated,” he said.
Jackson, president from 1829 to 1837, is considered a founder of the Democratic Party (Democrats like to twin him with the more prestigious Thomas Jefferson). Populists on both right and left claim him, as Jackson supported limited government (even as he strengthened the president’s power) and railed against the aristocracy (even though he was a wealthy slave owner).
Old Hickory fought the British in two wars and as president shut down the National Bank because he felt it was controlled by industrialists who wouldn’t fund expansion into frontier territories.
Of course, much of that territory was home to native tribes. Jackson’s most infamous legacy is the Indian Removal Act of 1830, which forced tribes into new land thousands of miles west in what is now Oklahoma. Many Indians on the Trail of Tears died from exhaustion, disease and starvation.
“Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson” had its New York debut at the Public Theater and became a runaway hit. A move uptown to Broadway was less successful. Good reviews could not overcome the show’s jaundiced satire, and it closed after only 120 performances at a substantial loss.
Meerdink said he was first attracted by Friedman’s music, a modern rock score that he called “immediately accessible.” He also was taken by the show’s ironic skewing of history and the comment on populism.
“The authors try to point out how this president was so popular and listened to the people, but that isn’t how it works,” he said. “Sometimes you have to make unpopular decisions.”
Philip C. Matthews plays Andrew Jackson in MMT’s production, which will be his fourth time around with the group — most recently in last season’s “Sunset Boulevard.” Ally Westberg plays Jackson’s wife, Rachel.
Late in a phone conversation, Meerdink was asked if there was anything more he wanted to say about “Bloody Bloody.”
“Well, just that it’s my last show at MMT,” he said.
In the news business, we call this “burying the lede.” Meerdink started the company with Kevin Hansen and has directed nearly every production — when he wasn’t acting on stage. Hansen left as executive director in 2012.
Meerdink, who recently got married, said his husband may have a career opportunity in Sacramento, Calif., so he anticipates a move. Christian Unser will serve as interim artistic director next season. A veteran of many MMT shows, Unser serves on the board of directors.
“It’s kind of like sending a kid off to college,” Meerdink said of his departure. “It used to be that when something needed to be done, Kevin or I would just do it. Now other people will have to step in, and that’s good.”
That, of course, is the issue that confronts any founder-driven arts organization. Does it have the infrastructure to continue once the leaders move on?
“I feel there are new board members who want to move the company forward,” Meerdink said. “The theater is going to be in a good place.”