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A musical can be worthwhile just because it's entertaining, but what if it's also saving human culture? What if pop song medleys and dance numbers are also repositories for everything we know about ourselves? What do we make of them then?
Those questions shape the third act of Mr. Burns: A Post-Electric Play, a new show by Anne Washburn that's now in previews at Playwrights Horizons.
Here's a rough outline of the story: In act one, a recent disaster has killed most of the population and left nuclear plants unattended. Huddled around a campfire and worried about radiation poisoning, the survivors distract each other by recounting the plot of "Cape Feare," the episode of The Simpsons where Sideshow Bob tries to kill Bart on a houseboat. In act two, seven years have passed, and now, there's an entire industry of people who reenact Simpsons episodes for eager audiences.
And seventy-five years after that, in act three, "Cape Feare" has morphed into a musical drama about a young boy battling the evil boss of a nuclear plant. There are heavy debts to ancient Greek tragedy: everyone wears hand-made masks that look like Simpsons characters, a chorus sings about the terrible fate of the world, and mystical figures sometimes hover above the action. There are also nods to Lady Gaga, Britney Spears, and The Flintstones.
On one level, Washburn sees all of this as a simple good time. "I wanted it to be really theatrically pleasurable, because I really wanted that as an experience," she says, adding that the Classical influences are no accident. "Greek drama was furiously entertaining: Tons of singing, tons of tons of motion, super high stakes."
We can also chuckle at the details from The Simpsons that the characters get wrong, like changing Sideshow Bob into Mr. Burns, who owns the Springfield nuclear plant. Still, it's clear this show is more than just a lark. It's also a morality tale that teaches the characters how to live in the ruined world.
Take the arrival of Mrs. Krabappel (Nedra McClyde). She's Bart's teacher on The Simpsons, but here, she's the all-knowing Chorus, guiding us through the history and ethics of what's on stage. "The school teacher in our Simpsons is a nuisance," Washburn says. "But in the future, when so many facts have been lost and so little is known, the person who knows things and who retains knowledge becomes really important."
It also matters that the third act is a musical and not just a play. (Michael Friedman contributed the original score.) "It's been long enough, and the civilization is stable enough, that they're trying to take on what it's like to lose a civilization and for so many people to have gone through so much personal loss," Washburn says. "I don't think you could ever begin to articulate that just with words. You'd have to have music and you'd have to have movement and everything in your repertoire to begin to deal with it."
Washburn also thinks The Simpsons is the perfect series to support these bigger themes. For one thing, since cartoon characters never age or change, it's easier to appreciate them as archetypes. Plus, she adds, "The Simpsons is about family and about community, which are the things you'd really be talking about after the apocalypse."
--- Mark Blankenship is TDF's online content editor
Photo by Joan Marcus