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The Princeton University undergrad makes his Off-Broadway debut with his musical adaptation of Patrick McCabe's novel, starring Nicholas Barasch
Asher Muldoon was five when he saw his first Broadway musical. It wasn't The Lion King or Annie. It was the 2005 revival of Sweeney Todd, and it certainly inspired him to carve his own path.
"Some might call it bad parenting," says the performer/playwright/songwriter with a laugh. But clearly his parents, the novelist Jean Hanff Korelitz and the Pulitzer Prize-winning Irish poet Paul Muldoon, knew what they were doing. "It was the most incredible thing I'd ever seen. I knew instantly that was what I wanted to do in some capacity—just be a part of that art form."
Although Muldoon initially found success as a performer—in 2019, he took a leave from Princeton University to understudy two roles in the national tour of Dear Evan Hansen—what he really wanted to do was write dark musicals like the one that turned him into a theatre lover. And he's done just that with his musical adaptation of Patrick McCabe's hauntingly macabre 1992 novel The Butcher Boy, which is having its world premiere at Irish Repertory Theatre this summer.
"The book is not what one might think of when one thinks of musical theatre," acknowledges Muldoon about the tale of Francie Brady, a troubled adolescent growing up in small-town '60s Ireland. In the novel, McCabe chronicles Francie's turbulent teenage journey through a chaotic stream of consciousness as the narrator embarks on a series of misadventures—some humorous, others horrifying. "Something about the book spoke to me on a purely musical level," says Muldoon, who encountered it in an Irish literature class in high school. "When I was reading it, I heard the music and pretty much started writing songs based on it as soon as I put it down."
Those songs include rhapsodic odes to childhood friendship, rollicking numbers about Western adventures and a ballet depicting psychiatric treatment, all energetically performed by Nicholas Barasch as Francie. The brutal character marks a change for the sweet-faced Barasch, whose credits include Orpheus in the national tour of Hadestown, Huckleberry Finn in Big River at City Center Encores! and eager delivery boy Arpad Laszlo in She Loves Me on Broadway.
"I've never played a character so violent," says Barasch, who's on stage for the entire two-and-a-half-hour show. As the story progresses, Francie slowly loses all that he holds dear, including his family and his best friend. So, he begins to retreat into fantasies. "[Francie] has a kind of whimsical, funny lens through which he sees the world," Barasch says. "It totally contrasts with what he does, but it's how he escapes when things are really painful."
As much as Muldoon loves Sweeney Todd and its ilk, he did not set out to write "a horror musical," he says. But the darker elements of the story were inevitable given the source material. "I think I didn't understand how scary it was until I saw it on stage with an audience," Muldoon admits. "I guess I couldn't acknowledge how scary it was while I was writing it in order to keep myself sane. But seeing it up there, it's even more troubling than I expected."
Muldoon began The Butcher Boy as his senior project in high school and sent a draft to Irish Rep, which gave the show its first reading in 2018. As he developed the musical, Muldoon strove to balance the bleakness of the tale with moments of levity, often achieved through Francie's incongruously upbeat commentary.
"Awful things are happening, but I like to try and find the humor and the lightness in it," Muldoon says. "I think that was sort of a driving principle for me when writing this: How can we counter what is clearly a string of horrible things happening in the show? Truly, nothing good happens, but how can we try and counter it with lightness as a sort of refuge for the audience?"
Some of that lightness can also be seen in the swine quartet that accompanies Francie on stage, a fantasy fueled by a neighbor who disparages his family as "pigs." Serving as a sort of Greek chorus offering sympathy and support, the mischievous animals also encourage him to misbehave.
"They're representing this piece of him that he tries hard to get away from, but there they are, wherever he goes," Barasch says. "I think they represent, in a way, his fate. They're part of his psyche that he can't shake."
The pressures Francie faces, from the external world and his own inner demons, are too much for him to shoulder. But even though he does undeniably awful things, undeniably awful things have happened to him. That's why Barasch, Muldoon and, hopefully, the audience, still find him sympathetic.
"I give him a lot of credit," Barasch says. "To come from a home like that, your mom is mentally ill, your dad is an abusive alcoholic, you are poor... you have no outlet. And you're going crazy. I think it's amazing that he makes it as far as he does without really harming himself or others."
"We want to identify with our main character, even though they do bad things," says Muldoon. "A lot of shows have characters who do terrible things, and we still feel for them. I think that's something that musical theatre does pretty well, because a song can go places in someone's head. We can really see the full scope of why Francie loves his life and why he is deluding himself that he comes from a happy home."
Muldoon has another musical thriller in the works, inspired by Scottish murderers Burke and Hare. However, with the encouragement of friends, he plans to try something cheerier soon. But he's not abandoning the dark side.
"I think that's a notion that people have had for a really long time, that musicals have to be about nice things or fun things," he says. "They don't. Music is not about nice things all the time. There is so much music about the dark things happening in the world. And theatre, too. I don't see why putting those two together should only result in Cats."
Carey Purcell writes about pop culture and politics for Vanity Fair, Politico and other publications, and blogs at CareyPurcell.com. She's also the author of From Aphra Behn to Fun Home: A Cultural History of Feminist Theater.
Top image: Nicholas Barasch, center, flanked by Teddy Trice, David Baida, Carey Rebecca Brown and Polly McKie in The Butcher Boy. Photo by Carol Rosegg.