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Interview: Composer Asher Muldoon Talks THE BUTCHER BOY At Irish Repertory Theatre

The Butcher Boy will run through September 11, 2022 at Irish Repertory Theatre.

The world premiere run of the new musical adaptation, The Butcher Boy, is currently underway at Irish Repertory Theatre.

The new work from promising young composer Asher Muldoon is based on Patrick McCabe's shattering masterpiece novel. Published in 1992, the novel was hailed as a modern classic and has remained in the Irish consciousness for decades.

The show is the first original musical in eight years to be developed by Irish Repertory Theatre. In 2017, then high school senior Muldoon approached Irish Rep with this adaptation, for which he had written book, music & lyrics. In 2018, Irish Rep mounted a workshop and an enthusiastically-received concert performance.

Life is hard for the youthful Francie Brady, who struggles to navigate the narrow streets and narrow minds of an Irish village in the 1960's. But his eternal optimism and carefree spirit carry him above his dysfunctional family and gossipy town, where he lives in a comic book dreamland with his best friend Joe. When he taunts newcomer Philip Nugent, his uptight mother Mrs. Nugent calls Francie's family a bunch of pigs. This triggers a violent pig obsession, which grows as Francie's life falls apart around him.

Below read our chat with Asher as he was gearing up for the show's Off-Broadway run:

How did the story of The Butcher Boy come into your life and what was it about the story that felt like it had musical potential?

The book came to me during a class in high school. I was taking an Irish literature class and it was assigned to us and I read it. There's a lot of terrible stuff that happens in that book and yet there is so much joy and so much creativity and fun and humor to be found within that story, which is sort of where my favorite types of types of art lie. I have a working theory that people who make horror stuff are actually the people who are most scared of everything. I was terrified of everything when I was a kid. So I tend to like that kind of stuff where we talk about these things that are scary to us, but we talk about them with humor and that's why Butcher Boy sort of leapt out at me instantly. Also, McCabe's writing has such a natural musicality to it, and my musical theatre writing brain started working overtime. I just thought this would be a really, really fun challenge.

When I first started writing it, I didn't really consider it to be too dark for [musical] theatre. A lot of the responses we've been getting in previews have been like, "This is not what I expected from a musical." And I've realized that people want musicals to be about nice things and I don't think they have to be. I think they can be about anything. The people who walk out of the show a little shaken, because it is a story that leaves you shaken, are sort of like, "I can't believe that was a musical," and I'm like, "Why not?" To me it made total sense.

That's pretty wild to hear in a post-Sweeney Todd world.

I know! This door has been opened. This door was opened 40 years ago!

So where did you start with adapting the book? Where did that process begin for you? What kind of research did you have to do to bring this time and place to life sonically?

A lot of what I do when I'm in prewriting mode for a show is I'll start with sort of the music of the time and place. For me, for this show, obviously I was drawing on and Irish folk, but I I knew I didn't want to draw on that too much because that would maybe feel a little cliche. and it would also get kind of boring very quickly. The nice thing about Francie is that he's so influenced by American culture. Also in that era, there was a lot of, of music and film and TV and comic books coming from America into Ireland and influencing that culture. So I got a lot of stuff from that.

What also helped starting out was that I was talking to McCabe about the Sharon Tate murders, where the Manson family wrote, "Pigs," on the walls of her house in blood. So that was a pretty distinctive image. I thought that was interesting because I know that Manson felt like he was getting messages from The White Album. So there's some Beatles stuff in there and there's some American rock in there, but there's also a lot of musical theatre. Francie whips around to so many different places in his imagination that the music can kind of go anywhere, which is sort of a blank check as a composer because it allows you to just go anywhere.

I feel like it must be really fun to write for a character like Francie. He fits the bill of "bad guy" pretty well but he really occupies a moral grey area.

That's the question of the show. Like, is he a bad guy? I don't know. At the end of the show, in his mind, he's still that same kid. He had everything he ever wanted. He had that perfect life and he just wants to get back to that and in doing so, does terrible things. We have to sort of question, when did he go from being this rambunctious kid to being a monster and where was that line drawn? That's what interests me about it. The whole impetus for his descent is that he's constantly being told by the world he lives in and, particularly by Mrs. Nugent, that he's not good enough, that he's a pig. How many times can you tell somebody that they're bad before they start behaving that way?

You began writing this piece at such a young age. Do you find that like your relationship to the material has changed as you've gotten older?

Yeah, for sure. I am so, so, so far away from, from where I was when I started. I also think that, particularly with this project because it is so much about growing up and becoming an adult and the reluctance to leave that behind, I feel like being older has only granted me the gift of hindsight. I feel like I wrote most of the show from a place of like, "I am not ready to be an adult," and that is where Francie sort of lives. So I feel like I've tried to maintain that, but now, being a full grown adult at the age of 23 [laughs] I do feel like I have now been able to go back and clarify what younger Asher wanted to say.

You've been working on this with Irish Rep for a while. How has the your experience been developing this piece with Irish Rep?

I love working with Irish Rep. They're so great. What I love about them is that they're a theatre company built on actors. It's a very actor-forward company and I really like that. I think it's really good for developing new work because actors, just as much directors, writers, designers, etc. are so integral to developing new work. They are the ones who are actually embodying it. That's been really, really good for this point in the process. Also it's just such a good group of people. I knew from the very beginning that I wanted to do the show here, because obviously it's an Irish story and they did the American premiere of the play adaptation of The Butcher Boy. So I knew I wanted to entrust them with it and I'm really happy that they wanted to do it.

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