Keepin' The Musical Real, Off-Broadway Original Broadway musicals were few and far between this season, but that doesn't mean musical theater is on the wane. The Burnt Part Boys and Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson are two original off-Broadway productions that are keeping the tradition alive.
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Keepin' The Musical Real, Off-Broadway

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Keepin' The Musical Real, Off-Broadway

Keepin' The Musical Real, Off-Broadway

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This past season on Broadway, only two shows opened with original scores. The rest were so-called jukebox musicals, with music taken from other sources. But in smaller theaters off Broadway, original music seems to be thriving.

Jeff Lunden takes a look at two wildly different coming-of-age shows, one a heartfelt story set in a West Virginia mining community, the other an irreverent rock musical about, yes, Andrew Jackson?

JEFF LUNDEN: 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" is spare - just a painted backdrop of the West Virginia mountains.

And composer Chris Miller says...

Mr. CHRIS MILLER (Composer): We use four chairs and four ladders, some rope and, you know, your imagination.

(Soundbite of song)

Unidentified People: (Singing) Lift me up, burn me so up the mountain, down below. The devil's plan is mighty, his work a piece of art. He has blessed every man with a burnt part.

LUNDEN: "The Burnt Part Boys" is what might seem a rare commodity these days: a completely original musical. Not that the show doesn't have its influences, says lyricist Nathan Tyson.

Mr. NATHAN TYSON (Lyricist): Although it's not based on anything, we grew up loving movies like "Stand By Me" and "The Goonies," and the book "Rocket Boys," and thought, you know, that hasn't been done on stage yet.

LUNDEN: Set in West Virginia in 1962, the subject matter couldn't be more timely. It deals with the aftermath of a mining disaster.

Mariana Elder wrote the script.

Ms. MARIANA ELDER (Writer, "The Burnt Part Boys"): In our fictional tiny town, a lot of the children lost their fathers 10 years before. I was interested in exploring, sort of, when you have a tragedy of that scope, what are the different spokes of that?

(Soundbite of song)

Unidentified Man #1: (Singing) I am one of many boys hearing heartbeats in the hill. I am one of many boys with giant boots to fill...

LUNDEN: Playwrights Horizons has teamed up with another Off-Broadway company, the Vineyard Theater, to produce "The Burnt Part Boys."

Playwrights have long supported the work of young musical theater authors, many who've gone on to win Tony Awards on Broadway.

Artistic director Tim Sanford...

Mr. TIM SANFORD (Artistic Director): This is a classic Playwrights Horizons first musical writers' team project, in that it's just untenable. It's like 200 scenes - like going up a mountain. Like, how do you do this? And...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SANFORD: You know, I'm just happy to do something beautiful and hard.

Unidentified People: (Singing) Sunrise. Sunrise. Sunrise. Sunrise through the crack of...

LUNDEN: 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."

(Soundbite of song)

Unidentified People: (Singing) Populism, yeah, yeah. Populism, yeah, yeah. Populism, yeah, yeah...

LUNDEN: If "The Burnt Part Boys" is all heart, "Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson" is, well, 99 percent snark. It re-imagines this country's controversial seventh president - the founder of the Democratic Party, the proto-populist outsider, the war hero and architect of the disastrous Indian Removal Act - as a kind of angsty Emo rock star.

Author and director Alex Timbers explains.

Mr. ALEX TIMBERS (Author/Director): There is a really exciting juxtaposition within Emo, which I define as like 27-year-old guys singing about the girl that broke their heart when they were 15, you know. And it's so sincere and deeply felt that it's silly, and yet so simple that it's kind of profound and moving at the same time.

Unidentified Man #2: (Singing) I wish that you were dead so that I could paint your face a different color. Who was it that ever said that my life really couldn't get any duller? My family's dead and I can't see a way to carry on. I'm not that guy. I'm not that...

Mr. TIMBERS: You know, it's a coming of age story for Jackson, the show, but it's also a coming of age story of America. It's sort of as America shifts into adulthood and the terrible, terrible growing pains that happened.

Unidentified Man #2: (Singing) Life sucks...

LUNDEN: Alex Timbers is the founder of a tiny theater collective called Les Freres Corbusier. The company's mission statement reads that it is, quote, "devoted to aggressively visceral theater, combining historical revisionism, sophomoric humor and rigorous academic research." A perfect description of "Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson."

Mr. TIMBERS: And so, you know, when I want to introduce what Philadelphia was like at the time, you know, what the people running the White House were like, you know, and how they were foppish, and sort of out of touch with the people, I created this Spice Girls runway sequence to introduce Monroe, Calhoun, Clay and Van Buren.

LUNDEN: 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.

Mr. MICHAEL FRIEDMAN (Composer): He plays that card a lot and he invents, I think, in the way that America still - we like insiders pretending to be outsiders, people who went to, you know, 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. So he does play that sort of whiny card of I'm an outsider, why does nobody appreciate me, even when he is president, even when he's in the actual office of the president.

(Soundbite of song)

Unidentified Man #2: (Singing) Washington crossed the Delaware River. Washington acting like a rock star. Washington made America deliver. Washington tried to be a rock star...

LUNDEN: Both Timbers and Friedman say at various times their rock star Andrew Jackson has been compared to George W. Bush or Bill Clinton or Sarah Palin or Barack Obama. Alex Timbers says he wanted to explore the power of a charismatic politician.

Mr. TIMBERS: The show feels to me, it's less a show about Andrew Jackson, it's more a show about populism, it's a show about how populism can lead to fascism. You know, it's a slippery slope, how there's not only a good form of populism, there's also bad forms of populism. You know, and I think one of the things that Andrew Jackson learns in the show is that direct democracy directly applied is very difficult. You know, it doesn't really work.

LUNDEN: "Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson" is playing at the Public Theater until June 27th. "The Burnt Part Boys" opens at Playwrights Horizons on Tuesday.

For NPR News, I'm Jeff Lunden in New York.

(Soundbite of song)

Unidentified Woman #1: (Singing) Eat our dust. Eat our dust. 'Cause it's the early 19th century, we'll take the land back from the Indians. We'll take the land back from the French and Spanish and other people in other European countries.

Unidentified Woman #2: (Singing) And other places...

SIMON: This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.

(Soundbite of song)

Unidentified Woman #1: (Singing) I'm pretty sure it's our land anyway.

Unidentified People: (Singing) Populism, yeah, yeah. Populism, yeah, yeah. Populism, yeah, yeah. Populism, yeah, yeah. This is the age of Jackson. This is the age of Jackson. This is the age of Jackson. This is the age of Jackson. This is the age of - this is the age of Jackson.

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