Keepin' The Musical Real, Off-Broadway

Andrew Durand, Charlie Brady, Al Calderon, Molly Ranson i i

In The Burnt Part Boys, teenagers Chet (Andrew Durand), Jake (Charlie Brady), Pete (Al Calderon) and Frances (Molly Ranson) all set out for the mines that killed their fathers -- some meaning to destroy them, others to prevent their destruction. Joan Marcus hide caption

itoggle caption Joan Marcus
Andrew Durand, Charlie Brady, Al Calderon, Molly Ranson

In The Burnt Part Boys, teenagers Chet (Andrew Durand), Jake (Charlie Brady), Pete (Al Calderon) and Frances (Molly Ranson) all set out for the mines that killed their fathers -- some meaning to destroy them, others to prevent their destruction.

Joan Marcus

If you take a look at this past season on Broadway, it may look as though the musical is waning. Only two shows opened with original scores; the rest were so-called "jukebox" musicals, with music taken from other sources.

But you need only look to smaller theaters, off-Broadway, for proof that the original musical is still going strong.

Molly Ranson, Al Calderon i i

Frances (Molly Ranson) and Pete's (Al Calderon) anger at losing their fathers in a mine accident is rekindled when they learn that the deadly tunnels will reopen. Joan Marcus hide caption

itoggle caption Joan Marcus
Molly Ranson, Al Calderon

Frances (Molly Ranson) and Pete's (Al Calderon) anger at losing their fathers in a mine accident is rekindled when they learn that the deadly tunnels will reopen.

Joan Marcus

Deep Into Mine Country

Playwrights Horizons is only a short walk from Broadway, but when the audience enters the theater it feels miles away. The set for The Burnt Part Boys, a serendipitously timely musical about the aftermath of a mining disaster, is spare — just a painted backdrop of the West Virginia mountains.

Scenes From 'The Burnt Part Boys'

"We use four chairs and four ladders, some rope and, you know, your imagination," says composer Chris Miller.

Set in West Virginia in 1962, The Burnt Part Boys follows a group of teens who lost their fathers in a mining disaster 10 years earlier. Now the mining company plans to reopen the mines that tore their families apart.

"I was interested in exploring, sort of, when you have a tragedy of that scope, what are the different spokes of that?" says Mariana Elder, who wrote the script.

Playwrights Horizons has long supported the work of young musical-theater authors — many who have gone on to win Tony Awards on Broadway — and it's the kind of company that's not afraid to tackle a young theatermaker's indulgences.

"This is a classical Playwrights Horizons ... project, in that it's just untenable," says Tim Sanford, the company's artistic director. "It's like 200 scenes" — set in kitchens, in the hills and hollers, in the mines and on the mountains.

But Sanford says he welcomes the challenge: "I'm just happy to do something beautiful and hard," he says.

A 'Bloody' Ahistorical History Lesson

Greg Hildreth, Lucas Near-Verbrugghe, James Barry, Jeff Hiller, Benjamin Walker, Maria Elena Ramirez i i

Benjamin Walker is Andrew Jackson, the rocker-president who, along with a historically significant cast of characters (Greg Hildreth, Lucas Near-Verbrugghe, James Barry, Jeff Hiller, Maria Elena Ramirez, Michael Dunn), seduces the American public with emo charm in Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson. Joan Marcus hide caption

itoggle caption Joan Marcus
Greg Hildreth, Lucas Near-Verbrugghe, James Barry, Jeff Hiller, Benjamin Walker, Maria Elena Ramirez

Benjamin Walker is Andrew Jackson, the rocker-president who, along with a historically significant cast of characters (Greg Hildreth, Lucas Near-Verbrugghe, James Barry, Jeff Hiller, Maria Elena Ramirez, Michael Dunn), seduces the American public with emo charm in Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson.

Joan Marcus

Down at the Public Theater in Greenwich Village, a very different sort of musical looks back at the past and finds surprising contemporary resonances. It's called Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, and if The Burnt Part Boys is all heart, Andrew Jackson is 99 percent snark.

A Scene From 'Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson'

The play reimagines America's controversial seventh president, Andrew Jackson — founder of the Democratic Party, proto-populist outsider, war hero and architect of the disastrous Indian Removal Act — as a kind of angsty emo rock star.

Author and director Alex Timbers explains: "There is a really exciting juxtaposition within emo — which I define as 27-year-old guys singing about the girl that broke their heart when they were 15. It's so sincere and deeply felt that it's silly and yet so simple — it's kind of profound and moving at the same time."

The show, says Timbers, is "a coming of age story for Jackson ... but it's also a coming of age story of America" — complete with "the terrible, terrible growing pains" that attended Jackson's presidency.

Timbers is the founder of a tiny theater collective called Les Freres Corbusier. The company's mission statement reads that it is "devoted to aggressively visceral theater, combining historical revisionism, sophomoric humor and rigorous academic research."

Benjamin Walker i i

The Public Theater production uses the contemporary music scene to demonstrate how Andrew Jackson (Benjamin Walker) became America's seventh president. Joan Marcus hide caption

itoggle caption Joan Marcus
Benjamin Walker

The Public Theater production uses the contemporary music scene to demonstrate how Andrew Jackson (Benjamin Walker) became America's seventh president.

Joan Marcus

That's a perfect description of Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, which in one scene uses a Spice Girls runway sequence to introduce foppish, out of touch White House hopefuls like James Monroe, John Calhoun, Henry Clay and Martin Van Buren.

Andrew Jackson set in motion political practices that we recognize today — he invented the presidential campaign. And composer Michael Friedman says even as Jackson became a Washington insider, he portrayed himself as an outsider.

"He plays that card a lot," Friedman says. "We like insiders pretending to be outsiders — people who went to fancy, fancy schools or are from fancy places pretending to be from other places, or at least using that kind of patina in their candidacy."

Timbers' and Friedman's rock-star Jackson has been compared to George W. Bush, Bill Clinton, Sarah Palin and Barack Obama. That's no coincidence: Timbers wrote the play in part to explore the power of a charismatic politician.

"It's less a show about Andrew Jackson," Timbers says, and "more a show about populism — it's a show about how populism can lead to fascism. I think one of the things that Andrew Jackson learns in the show is that direct democracy, directly applied, is very difficult and, you know, doesn't really work."

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