June 2, 2010

"The Burnt Part Boys" Leaves Me Cold

Is there any harder job in America than writing a decent book for a musical?  I’m beginning to think not. Yeah, I know there’s more at stake in being the president of the country or finding a cure for cancer but at least the folks in those positions seem to know what their job is even when they can’t fulfill it to everyone’s satisfaction.  I’m not sure that’s always the case when it comes to writing the book for a musical. The latest evidence is The Burnt Part Boys, the new show that’s playing at Playwrights Horizons through June 13.

The Burnt Part Boys has been in development for 10 years, dating back to when Chris Miller, who wrote the music; and Nathan Tysen, who wrote the lyrics, were grad students in NYU’s musical theater program. Like so many musicals today their show began with the music—Miller and Tysen wanted to write a score that used the blue grass, gospel and other Americana sounds of their Midwestern and southern childhoods—and so the book kind of got gerrymandered around that. I always thought you started off with a story first.  Otherwise, don't you just have a jukebox musical without any familiar tunes?

The duo knew they wanted their story to be an adventure yarn, a kind of boys-coming-of-age tale in the tradition of the ‘80s-era movies “Stand By Me” and “The Goonies.”  They also thought it would be cool to include a ghost story.  After five years, they brought in Mariana Elder, another NYU grad, and she overhauled the book, drawing on an interest in coal miners she’d developed in an American Studies class and her grief over the then-recent death of her father. 

You can find traces of all those things in The Burnt Part Boys, which is now set in 1962 and centers around the young, and still grieving kids of miners killed in a cave-in 10 years before. But what you won’t find is a compelling narrative, a believable story arc, a book sturdy enough to provide the backbone for a strong musical. Just about every young musical writer today wants to emulate the seriousness of Stephen Sondheim's work. Why aren't more young book writers striving to emulate the book-writing mastery of Arthur Laurents, Joe Masteroff or James Lapine?

About 10 minutes into The Burnt Part Boys, which runs about 100 minutes without intermission, I heard my theatergoing buddy Bill sighing at the thought of having to sit through the rest of it. Five or so minutes later, four people with aisle seats actually jumped up and fled.  And then shortly after that, a woman sitting in the middle of a row crawled over the people between her and the aisle to leave.  I sat still. But I kept checking my watch.

There are some lovely melodies in The Burnt Part Boys but the songs sound so much the same that they’ve all mushed together in my mind. And the lyrics are so heavy on exposition that I gave up trying to follow them.  This is, admittedly, a pet peeve of mine but whatever happened to metaphor in lyric writing?  Or, as Bill said later over dinner across the street at the West Bank Café, couldn’t there be a little subtext?  Does everything have to be spelled out so literally?

As you can probably tell, watching this show made me grumpy.  So much so that during the performance, I had to remind myself that actors feed off the energy of the audience and I had become an enervating black hole. So I sat up and tried to be more supportive. But I kept slipping. 

The backdrops that Brian Prather created to represent the mountains are lovely and beautifully lit by Chris Lee but the use of ladders and chairs to simulate the mountain passages and streams the character trudge and forge as they make their way to the site of the disaster (the “burnt part” of the mountain) is not only cheap-looking but confusing. “What’s that supposed to be?” I had to lean over and ask Bill at one point.

Director Joe Calarco brings some imaginative touches to the staging—the image of the miners that opens the show is as powerful a stage picture as any I’ve seen all year—but he has the actors running into the audience far too much. The cast sings well enough but the acting, perhaps hobbled by the script, is nowhere near involving enough. 

As we left the theater, an usher stood by the door handing out a six-page interview with Miller, Tysen and Elder.  Reading it when I got home made me feel badly about my response to their show. These young folks clearly feel deeply about musicals and they’ve obviously worked long and hard on this one.  Maybe, I told myself, The Burnt Part Boys might fare better as children’s theater.  But maybe not. Kids can be even more demanding of a decently told story.

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