“The Unfortunates is a metaphor for facing hardship,” says director Shana Cooper. “When we fall on hard times, I am always struck by how difficult it can be to open ourselves up and be vulnerable. This show reminds us of the power in community and music. Joe’s journey exemplifies the strength it takes to let someone catch you when you fall.”
A surreal musical voyage through a unique mix of American genres, The Unfortunates was a huge hit at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival last year. The darkly comic musical is based on an old blues song made famous by Louis Armstrong in 1928, “St. James Infirmary,” and transports audiences to a world of memory and myth-making in which courage is tested in magical ways.
Big Joe, a stalwart, tough-talking soldier with oversized hands, journeys through a murky dream world in which he confronts a series of enemies and risks everything to save his armless love Rae from a plague that has decimated all but a handful of survivors. The search for salvation is marked by the characters’ willingness to make music in the face of loss. From a prison camp to a brush with the underworld, The Unfortunates is a musical fever dream that’s as life-affirming as it is darkly imaginative.
Like the history of “St. James Infirmary,” the score of The Unfortunates incorporates a wide range of American musical genres, including gospel, blues, and hip-hop. Each of the creators comes from a different musical background, so it makes sense that they would make a show that is a mash-up of different American sounds. Ian Merrigan is a folk artist and singer-songwriter; Ramiz Monsef is aligned with R&B; Jon Beavers is a lyricist; and Casey Lee Hurt, a third-generation former Southern Baptist preacher, comes from a background of gospel and blues. The thread that ties them all together is hip-hop.
“We all grew up on hip-hop and loved listening to it and spent a lot of time and energy in that scene,” says Hurt. “The fusing of all those genres just came together naturally. We brought the skill sets that we had to the table, and the story grew from there.”
I went down to St. James Infirmary,
Saw my baby there,
Stretched out on a long white table,
So cold, so sweet, so fair.
Let her go, let her go,
God bless her,
Wherever she may be,
She can look this wide world over,
But she’ll never find a sweet man like me.
We sat down with the cast and creative minds behind The Unfortunates (Christopher Livingston, Eddie Lopez, Casey Lee Hurt and Ramiz Monsef) to get the scoop on this hot new show currently running at the A.C.T.’s Strand Theatre until April 10, 2016.
Ok, welcome to San Francisco. Now, first things first… who’s gay and who’s straight? <laughter> <Christopher> Queer, right here <laughs> and that one over there <points to Eddie> <Eddie, smiling shyly> Yes, Christopher and I are the gay ones. <Ramiz> We’re the two straight guys <pointing to himself and Casey> <laughs> One of us is recently divorced, though, so… you never know what can happen. <laughter>
I’m sorry. But Ramiz and Casey, I totally respect your choices to be straight. I really do. <laughter> <Casey> We’re still down for the cause, though! Don’t count us out! We are definitely down for the movement.
You guys have been here at the Strand for about three weeks now. How do you like the theatre? Gorgeous, right? <Ramiz> There is a piece of plaster in the back that they kept from the renovation that has ‘Junkies for Life’ scribbled on it. They found it during the remodel I guess. It‘s kinda crazy the history here.
Yes, the Strand was actually a porn theatre for a while and then it became a crack house for squatters and heroin addicts. And $33M dollars later, it’s one of the best theatres in town! See. All you need is like $33M and you can fix anything. <laughter> <Christopher> The acoustics are fantastic in this theatre.
How much singing is in the show? <in unison> A LOT! <laughter>
Chris, where are you from? Seattle, originally. But now I live in NYC. I was actually in the very first workshop production. I had a bit of a break so it’s nice to come back to the show now that it’s been fully realized.
How long have you been working on this show? <Ramiz> Six years. The very first time we did it Chris was in it and if you saw that version, it would be completely unrecognizable to what we have today. A lot of it has been finding out who these characters are. That takes time to realize.
Where did the original idea for The Unfortunates come from? <Ramiz> I saw this Betty Boop cartoon at the Spike and Mike Animation Festival based on an old Blues song called, The St James Infirmary. I was eleven years old. In the middle of this cartoon, out comes Coco the Clown who sings St. James Infirmary. It’s actually Cab Calloway singing it. When I got the opportunity to write something, we just started digging into this idea and that moment which had stuck with me all these years.
<Casey> We just started pulling things out of the mythology and building from there.
Do you find that this piece resonates more with a younger audience? <Casey> I’d like to see even more younger people! But honestly, theatre doesn’t speak to them most of the time. Most theatre is not directed at a younger audience. <Ramiz> That’s what’s so dope about Hamilton, even though I haven’t seen it yet…
Well it’s fucking sold out until 2025. So, you’re not gonna see it anytime soon. <Laughs> <Ramiz> I know, right?! We get that comparison a lot from the audience. We’re very different in many, many key ways. But what is great is that it’s a diverse cast that looks like what a lot of young people look like today. Kids save their money and they want to be entertained so they go to concerts and movies. <Casey> I think that kids would go to the theatre if they could see something onstage that’s relatable. The Unfortunates is relatable to both adults AND adolescents. When we were creating this piece we thought ‘Hey, let’s turn this form on it’s head.’ We wanted to do something that people haven’t really seen or heard before.
Don’t you think that in the United States today, theatre is perceived as an ‘elite’ thing to do? I mean, tickets are outrageously expensive and shows are often hard to get tickets for. Adults rarely take their kids. They get a sitter. <Christopher> This is a conversation that is happening right now in the theatrical community. Dominique Morisseau wrote a great piece about being a playwright as well as an audience member recently that really spoke to the specific cultural experience you can have in the theatre based on your perspective (‘Why I Almost Slapped a Fellow Theatre Patron, and What That Says About Our Theatres’). It’s a conversation that needs to happen. I think shows like The Unfortunates and also like Hamilton are helping drive interest for younger crowds. I mean, at the student shows these kids loose their fucking minds. They love it.
<Ramiz> As a kid, I would stack my chips to get concert tickets. Hell, I would still spend $100 to see Prince! <laughs> But the questions is, can we convince kids to spend their money on a show like The Unfortunates, just $15 or $30 or so? Yeah. I think we can. Kids are inspired when they see professionals do their shit. We need to inspire these kids.
Don’t you think that’s also part of the failure of art education in this country? <Casey> Oh, absolutely. So much funding has been cut from so many amazing programs all over the country. Art education is the first to go. And that’s really sad.
I think another lesson that young people can get out of seeing a show like this is discipline. I mean, you guys make this look easy but you have put in countless hours practicing and rehearsing. <Christopher> It’s a lot of work, but it’s a lot of fun.
I think often people see you having fun and enjoying what you do and they fail to understand how much work you’ve put into it. You guys are lucky to be doing this for a living. Most creative people I know are not creative for a living. What’s the saying? ‘Find something you love to do and do it on the weekends.” <laughs> <Casey> One of the best compliments that we’ve gotten on the show is that it gives people a model to learn how to face death. For young people, that’s not a topic that is front of mind. It brings a sanctity to life that kids don’t get in any other way. Art is able to bridge that gap. I think kids are desensitized to death in our culture.
<Ramiz> I think the show is universal. One of the most influential shows I saw as a kid was right here in San Francisco… Angels in America. I was like thirteen years old and it hit me so hard. It’s a universal theme. It was mythic and astounding. I went as part of a high school field trip and I never forgot it.
Eddie, you’re awfully quiet over there, <smiles> How did you meet up with these guys? Born in San Jose, I actually grew up nearby in Sacramento. I live in NYC now. I met these guys up in Oregon. I was a part of the process in NYC at Joes Pub. One of my best friends played the role that I have now. So, there has been sort of this spirit torch handed off to me from him <laughs>.
You’ve made this character your own? <Eddie> I have. The role has shifted in this iteration and it’s become my own beast to tame <laughs>. I also do a lot of stretching to prepare myself <laughs>. I have to be quite limber because I am the ‘light’ character so I bring in a lot of lightness to the story. I also tap dance quite a bit. Honestly, the way this world is framed in the opening scenes of the show is something pretty spectacular.
Has this been a hard show for you guys to convey musically? <Ramiz> As it turns out, writing a musical is like, really hard <laughs>
Unless you’re Cyndi Lauper. That bitch can write a musical in her sleep. <laughter> <Christopher> But she’s had a lot of reallllly good helpers along the way! <Ramiz> We’ve had some amazing helpers along the way too. We wouldn’t ever take full credit for this. It has lived and died by the ensemble that has done it over the years. Eddie, for example, has given us so much information about who this character is. It’s expanded so much. Coco is a junkie. He’s a morphine addict – yes! Of course he is! This all makes sense now! <Casey> This show is what it is because of all the people who have touched it. That’s very true; it feels organic in that sense.
Did you guys fund this yourselves to get it off the ground? Did you guys bootstrap it. <Casey> The Oregon Shakespeare Festival is a magical, wonderful, mythical place <laughs>. We were able to get our start with them because they gave us a space to be creative and work for a couple of weeks. We did these midnight projects which essentially is when actors create their own sort of projects and other actors come to see them. We did it for two nights. The first night we had a great response. The second night, there was a line down the block. That’s how we knew we had something special. It really hit the city in a unique way.
<Eddie> I was an audience member for that first night and I think it was really the music that spoke to everyone. It was overwhelmingly powerful – the imagery that was cobbled together. The simple make up. The images in that first workshop have evolved and morphed, but are still in the show today. The big moments of the show now were the big moments then. It’s the reason why multimillion theatres like this are welcoming us, these four dudes with a great idea and some really fantastic music. It’s almost like a Rocky Horror Picture Show phenomenon. People see the show and they bring other people to see it and it just travels word of mouth.
<Christopher> It’s rewarding. I remember when we rehearsing for that first midnight show and we were so fucking tired <laughs>. We had to work all day and then rehearse until 1am. It was a labor of love. There was no money. Years later, from that night and from that moment – all of this has happened. It’s so rewarding to see what this piece has become.
<Ramiz> It wasn’t financial currency that brought this show to life. It was spiritual currency.
The Strand Theatre in San Francisco
February 3 – April 10
Tickets are currently available at tickets.act-sf.org
Running time: 90 minutes, without an intermission
A surreal musical voyage through a unique mix of American genres, The Unfortunates was a huge hit at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival last year. The darkly comic musical is based on an old blues song, “St. James Infirmary,” and transports audiences to a world of memory and mythmaking in which courage is tested in magical ways. Big Joe, a stalwart, tough-talking soldier with oversized hands, journeys through a murky dream world in which he confronts a series of enemies and risks everything to save his armless love Rae from a plague that has decimated all but a handful of survivors. The search for salvation is marked by the characters’ willingness to make music in the face of loss. From a prison camp to a brush with the underworld, The Unfortunates is a musical fever dream that’s as life-affirming as it is darkly imaginative.