Ben Dicke on the emo rock opera Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson
UPDATE: Just hours before Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson was set to open last night, Ben Dicke, who directed the show and was to play Andrew Jackson, fell through an open trap door in a stage floor, sustaining a head injury and four broken ribs. According to updates from fellow production member Jason Vaughn, Dicke did not suffer a concussion and no surgery was necessary, though a full recovery may take several weeks. This weekend's shows have been canceled and Monday's Industry Night is being postponed, and the staff has promised to keep us updated on future shows and Dicke's condition. Here's the original story published yesterday.
UPDATE #2: To allow time for Ben Dicke to recover from his injuries, all of the performances scheduled for September have been canceled. Shows are set to resume in October and run through October 28. To change ticket reservations, call (303) 739-1970.
Ben Dicke has been heavily involved in Denver's theater scene since he came here from Chicago a few years ago; he directed I, Oedipus at the Boulder Fringe Festival, starred in the Aurora Fox's 2011 production of The Wedding Singer and directed the Fox's production of Xanadu last spring. He's got a few credits under his belt -- but no one, perhaps not even Dicke himself, is prepared for the spectacle of his newest production, the highly-acclaimed Broadway emo-rock opera Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, opening this weekend at the Aurora Fox. Dicke, who also stars as Jackson, has an earnest dedication not just to the show's artistic sensibility, but its political message; he was so invested in seeing the project produced at the level it deserved that he spent a full 24 hours running on a treadmill in the middle of the 16th Street Mall to generate support. Using Kickstarter, he ultimately scraped together $11,000 to produce Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson.
Dicke was "geeking out" over a limited edition Les Paul made from the wood of trees planted by Andrew Jackson when Westword interrupted him to talk about the musical.
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Westword: I'm not really familiar with the musical, so do you want to tell me a little bit about it?
Ben Dicke: Yeah. It was on Broadway last year, in spring 2011, and that's when I saw it. It was developed by a guy named Alex Timbers, who just directed a show called Peter and the Starcatcher, which won a bunch of awards. But he and his ensemble theater group developed it, workshopped it and moved it to the Public Theater, and it was extended there three times. They basically are using the story of Andrew Jackson...they're drawing parallels between Jackson's life and this sort of emo culture. In general the history is very loose... like, there are some things that definitely happened, and there are some things that happened in not quite the same order, so we take lot of license with the Founding Fathers and how it portrays John Calhoun, Henry Clay... which affords you some great ways to develop characters.
And that was the thing that struck me. I went into it just hearing amazing things about the show, but no one could really say what it was. You came into this space and you were confronted with a cacophony of stuffed animals and red light everywhere, just thick red -- everything, drapes, it just felt like the entire room was dripping in blood -- and you're just like, well, what's gonna happen now? And Andrew Jackson comes out, and my girlfriend and I at the time are sitting in the front row and Jackson speaks directly to us, and he's like, "Fuck you." And I was like, what are we in for? And then the guitar [makes violent twanging sound] and it's a rock show. And I fell in love.
This is aesthetically everything I'm interested in, in terms of smashing the fourth wall and this bizarro comedy that starts out in melodrama and turns to really dark politically-driven tones about who we are as Americans and how we got here and what we had to do to take the country. It does it in an hour and a half, and by the time it's over you're like, I don't even know what I saw.
An hour in a half, that's quite a tight space to accomplish that.
Right, and you know we've thought a lot about that, and sort of a lot about who is our audience, and fortunately our cast is this strange motley group of some emo kids and maybe some kids who were on the fringe in high school, and not all of them are the usual suspects of Denver musical theater. We held auditions at the Hi-dive because we wanted to see a different group of people. And interestingly enough, even though I work a lot here and the Arvada Center and know a lot of regulars, a lot of those people didn't come out for whatever reason.
Do you feel like it's polarizing?
Absolutely...the best theater to me is polarizing. And it's no coincidence that we're doing it now, two months out from the election.
Yeah, somebody asked when we were doing Kickstarter, why is it happening now? Why does it have to be this fall? And it was like, "Well, do you know what else is happening?"
Charlie [Packard, executive producer at the Fox] really wants us to do a November 6 show. Maybe we'd do something with setting up some TVs and watching the poll numbers come in. This show is about the presidency like no other show has been -- for better or for worse, our obsession as American people with the presidency. I was in Chicago when Obama won and that rally down in Grant Park was the most electric thing any of us had ever witnessed. Then, as president, you have to sustain that, which is not possible because it's about policy.
Do you think there's something maybe about turning this sort of Founding Father, American mythos on its head that's a little appealing, or does it do that?
It definitely does that. Martin Van Buren, when we introduce him, squirts Twinkie all over his face.
He's eating a Twinkie and--?
Yeah. [laughs] I grew up in a conservative Christian school in Wichita, Kansas, and had some great history teachers, but my history books were U.S. history in Christian perspective -- this idea of biblical truth married to the Bill of Rights. In a way, Manifest Destiny becomes close to godliness. I think the Founding Fathers, certainly many of them were deeply religious -- some of them, though, their faith looked nothing like modern Christianity. All of them did all kinds of things we wouldn't condone today. Slavery, eradication through assimilation, slaughter of native peoples.
And then we celebrate them as idols, and then do all kinds of things they themselves wouldn't have condoned either -- a little incongruous.
Absolutely. I think we're always struggling with that, like how do we interpret the Constitution? The right to bear arms was so that governments couldn't come into your home and take your possessions. Well, we hope that's something we don't have to face, but what does that mean for gun laws? So, you know, this show is definitely about that. It's also about populism. Jackson wanted to be a president for the people. And we know that's not possible.
So, as far as the more loose ways that you can label a show like this "political" -- is this in the vein of the shows you like to do as a company? Is this new for you?
This is my third venture into just self-production. I feel like in terms of the storytelling I'm kind of always interested in these Oedipal stories, Hamlet... but certainly this is the most political thing I've ever done. In grad school, that's all they harped on us about. "Theater must be political!" And you know, I think it's important. I think our generation needs to feel strongly about where we are politically and socially, and I confess that I haven't as much as I do now. So this is new.
So with a very charged, sensitive topic like this -- how do you mitigate that, or do you try to mitigate that?
I think the show structurally mitigates it pretty well. By the end, Andrew Jackson basically says, as he's betraying the last of the Native Americans that he has worked with, "The problem is, we saw it, we wanted it, and it was easier to believe it was ours." And he doesn't make any apologies for that. He just says, "Yeah, you were here first, but we don't give a shit and we never will." And you know, it's true. We've never really cared. In the beginning as we're seating audience members in the reservation, we're putting war paint on them and it's really offensive... by the end I think we're making all those admissions.
You're putting paint on people?
If they'll let us! [laughs] Somebody over there will have a line of dialogue, too, cause I like to give the audience a line of dialogue.
It's like guerrilla audience involvement.
Yes. Some of them hate it.
So people should be warned to expect a little bit of Rocky Horror.
It's true, yes.
So, what do you hope people take away?
First of all, I hope that the production values are high enough that people can really connect. So we talked about people who are confronted by art, as opposed to witnessing or being entertained by some musical theater, and hopefully that art just gets the process going of, "Who am I as an American? How does that way I vote and look at public office matter? What's my attitude toward what we had to do to make this country and how that affects how we're making it today?" Those are some of the things... pretty idealistic.
Do you want to talk about the music?
Jason Tyler Vaughn, who is my musical director, this is his first foray into musical directing. When we were doing Xanadu, I asked, do you have any interest in musical directing? I knew he was a great musician and a really great guitar player. This show is totally guitar-driven. It's guitar-based drums, there's a little piano and a few other things but it's really a three-piece emo rock sound, so it sounds more like Green Day than something else you might be expecting. He heard that first cast album and he was like, "I'm in." The show rocks. The music rocks. It pulls no punches lyrically, tonally, sonically. That's another reason we're excited about this space -- it's gonna be a little too loud for people. But isn't that counter-cultural America? Every great movement is a little too loud.
Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson opens tonight at the Aurora Fox at 7:30 p.m. and runs weekend nights through October 28. Tickets are $25 in advance and $30 at the door. For more information or to purchase tickets, visit the show's website or Facebook page.
And for more incentive, take a look at the promo of one of the show's songs, "Populism! Yea Yea" below:
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