Wicked Local: ‘Burn All Night’ makes the music memorable

Publication date: 
August 10, 2017
Author: 
Alexander Stevens

It takes a while to learn the craft of writing a play. The first effort by any playwright usually ends up in a cardboard box in the attic, or in the shredder.

Andy Mientus’ first play will wind up at the American Repertory Theater in Cambridge. His new musical, “Burn All Night,” plays Aug. 18 to Sept. 8 at ART’s Oberon theater, in Harvard Square.

“We’ve had lots of cosmic strokes of luck with this show,” says Mientus, who wrote the book and lyrics for “Burn All Night.” And landing at ART’s Oberon “is the biggest example of that. [ART] is probably the most storied producer of new work right now.”

Oberon, a large black box theater, sounds like the perfect place for “Burn All Night” and its wall-breaking, interactive approach to theater. The musical is set in the thump of the New York club scene, and at this point, nightclubs are part of the DNA of Oberon, the longtime home of ART’s disco-inspired “Donkey Show.”

“We used to talk about finding a place for the show that was like Oberon,” says Mientus, who was in the cast of the NBC TV show “Smash” and now works on the CW’s “The Flash.” “And then we thought, ‘Hey, why don’t we just try to bring it to Oberon?!’ ”

The show follows a 20-something named Bobby, who’s just had a fight with his mother and hopped on a bus to New York. In one whirlwind night, he meets three people who are facing similar issues, as their fragile dreams smash up against harsh realities.

“It’s about coming to terms with dreams that may not be working out,” says Mientus, 30. “And where do you go from there? We are a generation that was told we can do anything we want, but it’s sometimes more complicated than that. It can be painful.”

Since “Burn All Night” examines the club scene, it sounds like Mientus found the right rock band to help tell the story. Teen Commandments, a Brooklyn-based band, has a retro, synth-heavy sound that may remind you of The Psychedelic Furs or the soundtrack to a John Hughes movie. Written by Van Hughes, Nick LaGrasta and Brett Moses, the show’s score features fun, catchy pop music that’s very danceable.

It may sound like the new wave of musicals – using pop music to tell a musical theater story. But Mientus argues that pop scores are actually as old as “The Pajama Game.”

He says that in the Golden Age of musical theater, you’d go to the theater and you’d hear the song “Hey There,” and then you’d go home and turn on the radio, and you’d hear “Hey There” again.

“Then pop music moved forward, and show tunes really didn’t,” says Mientus. “They became different.”

“Burn All Night” wants to reunite them.

“This is a return to form,” says Mientus. “Rather than breaking the rules, we’re returning to the old rules. We’re using songs that are indistinguishable from what’s on the radio.”

The score may be pushing the envelope in other ways. Mientus says that in the classic musical theater structure, songs are introduced when emotions hit a peak. But he and the composers are interested in a reverse scenario.

“What if the characters sing about emotions that they can’t deal with?” he asks. “What if the songs express a retreat into their interior life, because they’re dealing with something that’s too uncomfortable to express with words?”

Mientus has examined his own interior life while writing this story. Bobby and his friends are facing issues that resonated with Mientus, and they’re living in a world that the young actor used to call home.

Mientus was studying musical theater at college when he went to an open audition for the touring production of “Spring Awakening.” He landed a role, and then a month before the tour began, his father died.

“For the next six months, I was out on my own, touring with a show that was at the zenith of its popularity and dealing with the loss of a parent,” he says. “I hit the city hard. I hit the nightlife hard.”

At the time, Mientus believed he was just heeding the message of his father’s life: Live life to the fullest, because you don’t know when it will all end.

Partying hard “seemed like the sensible thing to do,” he says. But in retrospect, he realizes that it was also a distraction from the pain.

Those experiences, and the long nights Mientus spent in clubs, are all part of “Burn All Night.”

“What I love about our show is that we know that world so well,” he says. “It’s a very specific world. I think young people now crave authenticity. They can smell a rat. They would know if we didn’t portray this world accurately, and that’s held us to a high standard.”

It’s been a long road for “Burn All Night.” Mientus, who lives in New York with his husband, Michael Arden, says that if you include the early “primordial ooze” phase of just writing a song every six months, or so, then he’s been working on the show for about eight years.

Although he and the creative team have been in overdrive for the past two years, he’s glad that they’re still maintaining a sense of wonder about the project.

“The whole experience has been really joyful,” says Mientus, describing his collaboration with Hughes, LaGrasta and Moses. “We were friends before we started working on this. So, at the start, we were just like kids in the backyard building a boat. We had no idea it was actually going to sail.”

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