By LAURA HEDLI
Michael Park has spent fourteen years playing Detective Jack Snyder on As the World Turns, but he’s had less than four months to develop four characters in the new Off-Broadway musical The Burnt Part Boys.
That's certainly a departure from his soap opera gig, and not just because he only plays one character on television. For one thing, the series regularly requires him to learn up to forty pages of a script overnight. “My short term memory has completely taken over my long term memory,” Park says. “That doesn’t lend itself to theatre work, really. [In the theatre,] it’ll take me two seconds to learn a scene, but I have to retain the knowledge of that scene, the beats of that scene.”
Yet this isn’t the first time he’s had to juggle his stage and soap commitments. In 1997, the year he joined As the World Turns, Park was also in the musical Violet, produced at Playwrights Horizons. (The company is also staging The Burnt Part Boys---in a coproduction with The Vineyard Theatre---so this show is something of a homecoming.)
Then as now, he values the freedom that the theatre gives actors to experiment and grow, and he says that playing multiple roles in The Burnt Part Boys is pushing him in unusual directions.
With a score by Chris Miller, lyrics by Nathan Tysen, and a book by Mariana Elder, the show follows a young boy who decides to detonate the West Virginia coal mine where his father was killed in an accident. He imagines he’s John Wayne in The Alamo, and Park plays an assortment of characters from that film (including legendary figures like Davy Crockett and Jim Bowie) that crop up in the boy’s fantasies and help guide him on his journey. “I’m not the one driving the show," he says, "But I add a little bit of salt and pepper to it.”
Director Joe Calarco has encouraged Park to adlib during the show, meaning he's apt to run through the audience. The actor wanted to know whether he was allowed to wake patrons who might be dozing in the front row. Calarco said yes.
Park also credits Tim Sanford, Playwrights’ artistic director, with creating a relaxed atmosphere. "It was really a treat walking in those doors again,” he says. “I’m a lot looser and a little more carefree this time.”
That said, he recognizes the all-too-serious relevance of the show's subject matter. The musical is set in West Virginia in 1962, but with the recent West Virginia mining tragedies still making headlines, things don’t seem all that different now. “In a way, I feel like we’re celebrating what these people do and the dangers that they face every day. But we’re not trying to profit off the tragedies of the past month,” he says.
As the show’s opening on May 25 draws near, Park is working to balance the historical, fantastical, and contemporary elements of his performance. However, he expects that he’ll keep refining his work well into the run. “You can’t be complacent,” he says. He likens this sentiment to the experience of being in front of the camera on As the World Turns. “Every time I see that red light go on, I have a heart attack,” he says. “But the second you’re not having that heart attack, quit. You’re done.”
Laura Hedli is a theatre critic and reporter based in New York City