Peter Josephson discusses the apocalypse, The Simpsons, and more as theatre KAPOW debuts ‘Mr. Burns, a Post-Electric Play’

Making its debut in New Hampshire, Mr. Burns, a Post-Electric Play, written by Anne Washburn, is a powerful, wildly funny musical that may offer a whole new perspective on the beloved, long-running television series, The Simpsons, all while staying true to its characters.  Directed by Matt Cahoon, theatre KAPOW proudly presents Mr. Burns, a Post-Electric Play for one weekend only Friday, March 2 through Sunday, March 4 at Pinkerton Academy in Derry, New Hampshire.  Click here for more information and for tickets.

Award-winning actor and Saint Anselm College Politics Professor Peter Josephson shares details about working with theatre KAPOW, the fascination behind The Simpsons, and becoming Homer.

Sleepless Critic:  You work as a Professor of Politics, but you are also a director, you train and teach acting workshops, and have won quite a few New Hampshire Awards for your art. It’s safe to say theatre is your other love.

Peter Josephson:  That’s true. I performed quite a lot in school and in my 20s, but left when I went to graduate school.  For almost 20 years, I didn’t perform and got back into it again almost 10 years ago.  Since I was very rusty, I sought out training and still train as well as teach.  It’s been terrific to get back to it over the last decade.

SC:  What is it like to perform with theatre KAPOW again?  I understand you have taken the stage with them a few times.

PJ:  Quite a few times and I find it valuable to go to other groups.  I have friends there and learn a lot from them.  I hope I bring something to them, but theatre KAPOW is home base for me in terms of performance.  Since my first show in 2010, I’ve typically done 2 or 3 theatre KAPOW shows a year and help lead their trainings.

Matt and Carey are wonderful human beings and have built a theatre company that is always looking for the next exploration, the next way of learning how theatre works, and what we can do with it.  Matt curates the season so we are not just doing a series of shows.  We have an idea of how shows connect and build on one another.  Last year, we did our first musical and Mr. Burns is our second.

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Nicole Viau, Emily Karel, and Rich Hurley in theatre KAPOW’s production of Mr. Burns, a post-electric play by Anne Washburn, March 2 – 4, 2018. http://www.tkapow.com. Photo by Matthew Lomanno

SC:  Mr. Burns, a Post-Electric Play is a unique opportunity to do that.  The Simpsons have been part of the pop culture landscape for decades and have made commentary on politics, entertainment, science, and current events.  What do you think draws people to the Simpsons and as a professor of politics, do you think the Simpsons are insightful?

PJ:  When The Simpsons first started, a lot of controversy surrounded the show because it seemed to snub its nose at family values and traditional morality.  Some scholars take it very seriously as a contemporary text of America.  I have had colleagues at other schools write about it and find it as a way to talk to students about serious concerns in contemporary politics.  People wouldn’t watch it if the show weren’t crazy and funny.  It helps them see more clearly what is going on in their own lives.

SC:  Lately, The Simpsons have predicted a number of things that have come to fruition.

PJ:  Unfortunately, that’s true.  Hopefully the plot of the play doesn’t come true.

SC:  Mr. Burns, a Post-Electric Play has many layers to it.  It’s about surviving an apocalypse and using stories from The Simpsons as a means for survival.

Matt and Carey brought the script to me last spring and I was really struck by how funny it was.  It’s scary, shocking and underneath all of that, it’s an interesting story about how people use culture to work through their problems and how ideas of sacred truths develop culturally.  It’s fascinating and I think Anne Washburn and the actors she worked with when she was writing the script are brilliant.

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Rachael Chapin Longo, Rich Hurley, Nicole Viau, and Emily Karel in theatre KAPOW’s production of Mr. Burns, a post-electric play by Anne Washburn, March 2 – 4, 2018. http://www.tkapow.com. Photo by Matthew Lomanno.

SC:  You play dual roles as Gibson and Homer.  Setting up a cartoon onstage and portraying a cartoon must have been a new kind of challenge.

PJ:  Yes, it’s kind of weird and crazy.  I would expect just about everybody in the audience knows who Homer is and I’m supposed to do that in some way, which isn’t really possible.  I had to find a central trait about Homer, express that, and remind the audience who the character is.  I play Homer in Act 3 and he is put into a different, darker environment.  His response to that is what one would expect Homer’s response to be and that is everything is going to be wonderful.

SC:  Mr. Burns is Homer’s adversary.

PJ:  Yes, Rich plays Mr. Burns in Act 3 and Washburn’s script has taken the cartoon character, identified his corruption, and made that part the most essential thing.  I would guess that if a Simpsons fan sees the show and then watches The Simpsons on television, they are going to see Mr. Burns in a different way.

In the second act, two actresses debate about what we do when we perform a play and whether the primary purpose is entertainment or to express some deeper meaning.  I think Washburn’s script accomplishes both.  Having worked on this play and going back and watching The Simpsons, I don’t look at Mr. Burns the same way anymore because I am aware of what Washburn saw in him and he’s deeper than I thought.

SC:  Bringing the cartoon to life onstage is its own challenge.  Some of the masks for the show are amazing.

Yes, they are wonderful.  We’ll be using masks in late June for an original show we are working on.  It’s an interesting acting challenge.  The masks’ design elements are goofy crazy and I think we have really captured the cartoon-ish quality of the characters and the challenge is to take that quality and put it into actual living human beings.

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Rachael Chapin Longo, Rich Hurley, and Emily Karel in theatre KAPOW’s production of Mr. Burns, a post-electric play by Anne Washburn, March 2 – 4, 2018. http://www.tkapow.com. Photo by Matthew Lomanno.

SC:  Regarding the musical element of the show, I understand it features popular songs from the last ten years.

PJ:  Lady Gaga, Britney Spears, Eminem, and Ricky Martin show up as well as some Gilbert and Sullivan.  There are three acts and in the second act, we’re following a traveling theatre troupe and part of the show features a commercial jingle that we sing and part of the show features six or seven pop hits the audience might remember from a time when we had electricity.  Act three is all singing in a peculiar operetta that is funny, crazy, and frightening.

SC:  What do you think is the best reason people will enjoy Mr. Burns, a Post-Electric Play?

PJ:  I think audiences will attach themselves to it because it speaks to something we are all looking for in wildly entertaining ways. It invites the audience in and makes them part of what is happening.  I’m confident the show will resonate deeply with the audience and keep them laughing.

Click here for more information and for tickets as theatre KAPOW presents Mr. Burns, a Post-Electric Play from Friday, March 2 through Sunday, March 4 at Shepard Auditorium at Pinkerton Academy in Derry, NH.  Follow theatre KAPOW on Facebook and Twitter for upcoming events and more.

Music Director Jamie Kirsch talks Chorus pro Musica’s concert version of comedy musical, ‘Of Thee I Sing’

A spectacular evening of comedy, romance, and award-winning music is in store with Chorus pro Musica’s concert version of Gershwin Of Thee I Sing on Saturday, May 13 at Robbins Memorial Town Hall in Arlington, Massachusetts at 8 p.m.  In the spirit of the show, concert attendees are encouraged to dress in 30s-inspired attire for a costume contest.  Click here for full details and tickets.

Jamie Kirsch is in his fourth year as Music Director of Chorus pro Musica and loves his work.  He offers a closer look into Of Thee I Sing, his incredible work with Chorus pro Musica, and more.

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Chorus pro Musica’s Music Director Jamie Kirsch in action Photo courtesy of Alonso Nichols/Tufts University

Jeanne Denizard:  What I absolutely love about Gershwin Of Thee I Sing is it is part concert and part theatrical production.  It has comedy and romance as well.

Jamie Kirsch:  Yeah, writers definitely have called it a work.  It is a unified single where there’s no instantly recognizable tune in this show in the way one would recognize other Gershwin’s most famous songs from musicals that can be extracted and don’t have anything necessarily to do with the plot.  They don’t appear in the best of Gershwin albums because for the most part, everything is tied to that story.  There might be one or two songs that someone might recognize such as the title song of Of Thee I Sing and certainly people have recorded the song, Who Cares, but no song that would be on people’s top ten list of pieces they know because they bought a greatest hits album or a Michael Feinstein album.  They are wonderful songs, but they are all tied to the book.

JD:  I also understand that this is the first musical to win a Pulitzer Prize.

JK:  It did win the Pulitzer Prize in 1932.  Everyone won the Pulitzer except for George Gershwin because there was no Music Pulitzer at the time.  Ira, Kaufman, and Ryskind got it.  I think actually it was awarded to George posthumously where there finally was a music Pulitzer.

JD:  Of Thee I Sing surrounds the election of John P. Wintergreen and deals with politics in a humorous and lighthearted way.  I understand you really were excited about this particular piece to add to the season more for the music than for its political statement though we had a heated election just recently.

JK:  Yes, it doesn’t make a political statement one way or another.  There is no political party mentioned, making fun of both sides equally.  We also picked the piece well over a year ago.  The current players in the real world were still in the primaries and no one had any inkling of what was to transpire and how unexpected it would be.

Numerous colleges and universities did the show right around the election.  It is remarkable how many across the entire country, even major schools of music.  The University of Michigan did it in October and November knowing what was going on.  We had the same idea, hoping it would be a relevant topic but we didn’t plan for any outcome either way.  Separate from the political stuff, it happens to be a musical dominated by choruses and it made perfect sense to do it with our chorus.

JD:  Now, are you going to be performing a lot of scenes from the show?

JK:  Yes, it is a concert version.  We’re doing most of it, just without the staging.

JD:  I understand it has some comedy and a bit of romance as well.

JK:  Absolutely, there are elements common to musical theatre.  People talk about how different it is from anything else Gershwin wrote, but the other side of that coin is a love triangle.  Certainly plenty of musicals have love triangles and also present is an element of the exotic where a French ambassador arrives in the second act and that happens throughout many other musicals.  It’s new, but it has ties to the standard, more traditional musical theatre.

JD:  It sounds like there will be lots of surprises.

JK:  Yes, there will be musical surprises.  It has a Gershwin, jazzy sound and Gershwin rhythms and syncopation, but it is really unique.  There are scenes that go on and on and mostly music for a good ten minutes.  It’s kind of like Gilbert and Sullivan in that way.  That is an example of a piece of music that cannot be extracted.  You are not going to perform that at a musical theatre cabaret as you would with another Gershwin tune.

JD:  You will have featured artists such as Margot Rood, Christina English, and David McFerrin.

JK:  They are three of the best singers around town and the city and I have worked with a couple of them before.  They are just wonderful, so flexible, and able to handle this repertoire and style as easily as they are able to handle early and baroque music.  They are so incredibly versatile, talented, and wonderful actors.  Having them on board for this production is very special.

JD:  You are also the sixth Music Director of Chorus pro Musica.  The chorus has existed close to 70 years.  What is it like to conduct this chorus?

JK:  It’s a joy.  The musicians are incredibly hard working, love challenging themselves, conquering major works, and striving for excellence.  They are so supportive of each other, collegial, and just wonderful people.  They care so much about the product and each other, the chorus, and its history.

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Chorus pro Musica group shot Photo courtesy of Eric Antoniou

I’m very grateful to be able to do the things that we do with Chorus pro Musica.  In this season alone, we have done maybe the greatest work by Beethoven and some of the greatest works by Mahler.  Then we move on to Gershwin.  We are dealing with pretty amazing people.  I’ve written some amazing music and this chorus is up for the challenge to perform these pieces at an extremely high level while also keeping a good balance of fun while we do it.

JD:  This is your fourth year with Chorus pro Musica, but I understand that you are involved in a lot of projects.  You’re a busy man in music.

JK:  Yes, I am fortunate enough to be on the music faculty at Tufts as my main job and finishing my seventh year there.  It’s a wonderful job and I work with amazing colleagues who are at the tops of their field and teaching theory and musicology.  I teach in a beautiful building with supportive faculty and administration and wonderful students.  We recently did the Mozart C Minor mass.  Yes, between Chorus pro Musica and Tufts, I’m a pretty lucky person.

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Family Holiday Concert 2014 Boston City Singers Photo courtesy of Chorus pro Musica

JD:  Do you have a favorite piece of music you like to conduct or a piece you are hoping to conduct with Chorus pro Musica?

JK:  One of the great things about the Chorus is that they are able to handle everything from a candlelight Christmas concert to Beethoven’s greatest works to Gershwin to new, modern pieces.  One of our strong suits is commissioning new works so we are commissioning brand new works by new composers.  They are able to handle any style, genre, and that is what I like to do.  It keeps things interesting for me and for the singers to switch gears from month to month.  Just to be able to be flexible in that way so the chorus matches my strength and my wanting to keep exploring, pushing, challenging, finding new, undiscovered music, create new music, commission new music, so I think in that way, it’s a very good match.

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Chorus pro Musica with the New England Philharmonic and the Providence Singers, performing Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem, March 14, 2012 in Boston’s Cathedral of the Holy Cross.

JD:  You’ve also worked with a few Boston organizations and collaborated with them in the past.

JK:  We collaborated with the Boston Philharmonic a number of times and we will continue to do so.  We have a wonderful relationship with Ben Zander and the Boston Philharmonic Orchestra and with Richard Pittman and the New England Philharmonic.  We did a number of wonderful collaborations with Richard Pittman.  We are always seeking out new collaborations because they are always great fun, enhance the groups, and work out well for everybody.

Click here for tickets to Gershwin Of Thee I Sing on May 13 at 8 p.m.  It will be an exciting evening that includes a post-concert reception.  Click here for more on Chorus Pro Musica and how to support their mission.