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By MARK BLANKENSHIP
This fall, The Path to Broadway will ask artists and audiences to reflect on their first Broadway experiences. To read all the stories in this series, just go here.
If you were describing the "typical Broadway director," then you might never mention Alex Timbers. After all, he's made his name helming low-budget, high-concept shows like Gutenberg!: The Musical and artistic directing Les Freres Corbusier, an off-Off Broadway theatre that used robots in a production of Hedda Gabler and elementary school students in a Christmas pageant about Scientology. It's hard to imagine him leaping from those back alleys to the Great White Way.
And yet… here he is. This fall, Timbers makes his Broadway debut with not one but two productions. In November, he'll direct The Pee-wee Herman Show, an alternative comedy piece that brings Paul Reubens' beloved character to the stage, and at this very moment, he's helming Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, a subversive rock musical about our seventh president that begins previews tonight at the Bernard B. Jacobs theatre.
At the beginning of his career, Timbers never anticipated a season like this one. "When I created my experimental theatre company [in 2001], Broadway didn't even feel like it was on the horizon," he says, noting that his work tends to be structurally unusual and deeply rooted in pop or youth culture. "Broadway can sometimes feel like it doesn't have a lot of dialogue with that sensibility, so I never thought about getting there," he adds.
Granted, the Broadway landscape has shifted since the early aughts. In the last four years, a raft of musicals marked by edgy humor, unusual structures, and pop culture savvy have floated onto the Rialto, and since several have been critical or commercial hits---Spring Awakening, Next to Normal, Fela!, and Passing Strange, to name a few---it's safe to assume that more idiosyncratic productions are on the way.
But shows like these are still the exception, not the rule. In a season that will include a multimillion dollar Spider Man musical and a revival of the warhorse How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying starring no less than Harry Potter, Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson still seems like the scrappy underdog. After all, it uses emo rock music and irreverent jokes to make pointed political argument, and while it's rooted in real history, it revels in anachronisms. When Jackson hits the town, for instance, he wears tight leather pants, and when the show's smarty-pants narrator gets on his nerves, he retaliates. And then sings a song about. (Michael Friedman wrote the score, and Timbers himself wrote the book.)
Small wonder, then, that when Les Freres began developing the show in 2006, their ambitions were low-key. "Our goal was to do it downtown at the Ohio or maybe, if we were lucky, do it at New York Theatre Workshop," Timbers says. When the show was produced in 2008 by Los Angeles' Center Theatre Group and was mounted Off Broadway last season at The Public Theater, he felt "that was like the Holy Grail."
Modest expectations aside, however, each production of the show attracted more and more acclaim, and by the time it reached CTG, it was attracting commercial interest. And that was the moment that Timbers started to doubt his off-kilter instincts.
He says, "When we got to L.A., we made an effort to make it more mainstream, to make the second actor more sentimental, to make the sets more realistic. We got this infusion of cash, and there started to be these whispers about the future. I thought, 'Oh, let's make it more Broadway friendly.'"
But as Timbers recalls, that's when Oskar Eustis, the Public's artistic director, stepped in and encouraged him to push the show in the opposite direction. "Now, I've realized that the stranger and weirder we've made it, the more it seems to have expanded the audience,' Timbers says. "It seems like people want a more singular experience, and when you bleach that out, it doesn't please anyone."
In other words, Timbers has found himself on Broadway because of his unusual voice, not it spite of it. As he's grown accustomed to this fact, he's even started to see some logic in his journey.
"In experimental theatre or in big Broadway theatre, in success, you're reaching beyond a mainstream theatre audience," he says. "Both of them have to appeal to an audience that doesn't always go to the theatre. And in both cases, you'll see that the very successful shows almost always push the form somehow. The Lion King, Next to Normal, Spring Awakening, Cabaret: Those shows feel like they're doing something new."
He hopes that both Jackson and The Pee-wee Herman Show will feel new as well. "To have two alternative comedy shows on Broadway is exciting," he says. "They're in dialogue with popular culture, and in success, they will not only entice people who like this type of material, but also let them know that there's a place for them and their sensibility in the commercial theatre. It's the idea that their type of music and comedy might be on Broadway."
Mark Blankenship is TDF's online content editor.