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'Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson' Composer Michael Friedman Talks New Gig as Artistic Director

Courtesy of New York City Center
Michael Friedman

Years before Hamilton premiered, there was another unorthodox musical about a founding father that took the musical theater world by storm: Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, which cast the seventh president as a kind of emo rock star. That show -- which premiered off-Broadway in 2009, moved to Broadway in 2010, and has since enjoyed an extended life in productions around the country -- was composed by Michael Friedman, a founder of the enterprising theater troupe The Civilians, and one of the most original current voices in musical theater.

Now, he's the new artistic director of New York City Center's Encores! Off-Center series, which gives short productions to pioneering off-Broadway musicals past. Friedman's inaugural season opens Wednesday night (July 12) with Stephen Sondheim and John Weidman's Assassins (open through July 15) and will continue with Kirsten Childs' The Bubbly Black Girl Sheds Her Chameleon Skin (July 26-27) and Carole King's Really Rosie (August 2-5). He chatted with Billboard about his timely artistic choices for this season, the oddly selfish life of a musical theater songwriter, and why Rosie is a must-hear for any King fan.

You took over this job from Jeanine Tesori, who wrote Fun Home. Are there ways in which this job is especially well-suited to someone who’s currently making musical theater?

When you’re a working writer, you’re really selfish, like, “Get my show produced, get my thing done, rewrite my thing, work with me!” It’s been amazing to get to work for and promote and try to bring out artists that I have admired and loved, artists I’ve felt were underexposed, shows I think are amazing that I’d love to be shown in a new light. That aspect -- not just the constant “me me me!” of the writer’s life -- feels amazing.

This seems like a dream job for any musical theater lover: to basically get to choose your favorite musicals, no matter how obscure they are, and force people to watch them!

There are challenges to getting audiences in, to casting in the summertime, to budgets, all these things I never really have thought about, when you put together a season. But yes, what’s so exciting is that Jeanine set up this idea of off-Broadway as something that pushed the envelope differently than a Broadway musical. I’m gonna try to run with that.

Off-Broadway musicals, it’s such a crazy gang. Even defining what that means….if an off-Broadway musical moves to Broadway, is it still off-Broadway? Assassins, there’s something about it that feels like it could only have been conceived off-Broadway. There can be a kind of darkness, a kind of questioning. Assassins and Bubbly Black Girl both look at America and ask very difficult questions. Rosie’s about a little girl who doesn’t have a lot of money or a lot of anything and uses her imagination way out there in Brooklyn. All three have a vision of America that is real, and done in a way I can’t think of any other show doing. I’m not sure a commercial producer would be like, “Yay, let’s do that.”

Many people don’t even know that before there was a Carole King musical (Beautiful), Carole King actually wrote a musical!

If we’re talking about timeliness in our moment, [Rosie and Bubbly Black Girl] are about two indomitable strong willed young women making their way, and making their way as artists. That’s as political an act as we could program.  But yes, before there was Beautiful she wrote a musical with Maurice Sendak, her friend! Because it’s in a family vein, it’s been kind of ignored, but it’s a major work of 20th century American popular culture. Attention should be paid, because it’s a very beautiful show. It’s a musical-musical, with a big finale! I first heard it through the recordings of the songs Carole made herself and then got to know it in other ways, but the songs are total Carole King songs in every respect. But they have all the charm of Sendak’s poetry.

I was thinking that Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson seems like such a perfect Off-Center show. Can you see it having a production at some point?

Ya know, I will say, as a selfish writer who only ever wants people to do my work, I would love to see any of my shows at City Center. As a producer, I’d say, Michael Friedman, wait your turn. It’s been an interesting year for Andrew Jackson -- that’s all I’ll say!