Guitars, Guts, and Graphic Novels: An Interview with Jon Beavers, Casey Lee Hurt, and Ramiz Monsef

By Simon Hodgson

The Unfortunates started out as a side project for musical collaborators Jon Beavers, Casey Lee Hurt, Ian Merrigan, and Ramiz Monsef. In 2013, with the creative team now including playwright Kristoffer Diaz, the show emerged as a breakout hit at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival (OSF)—an original musical that blended bluesy grit with contemporary syncopations. Over the last couple of years, the musical’s creators have worked with A.C.T.’s artistic team to refine the score and script for a run at The Strand. We sat down with Beavers, Hurt, and Monsef to find out more about the amazing journey of The Unfortunates.

Four of the five creators of The Unfortunates:
(L to R) Ramiz Monsef, Jon Beavers, Ian Merrigan, and Casey Lee Hurt. Photo by Randy Taradash.
What’s the inspiration behind The Unfortunates?

Ramiz Monsef: The seed of the whole thing is the song “St. James Infirmary.” The first time I ever heard that song was in a Betty Boop cartoon, in which Cab Calloway sings it. It’s this seven-minute-long Snow White cartoon from 1933. I saw it as a little kid and it haunted me.

So, blues and cartoons. Ramiz, don’t you have a background in graphic novels, as well?

Monsef: I have a background in being a total comic-book nerd. I’ve got boxes of Spider-Man back issues to prove it. The character design and the idea of using hands as a metaphor came out of my head, then were brought to life by our incredible designers, set designer Sibyl Wickersheimer and costume designer Katherine O’Neill.

It seems like there’s a Hellboy element to Big Joe, with the supersized fists. Are you drawing from that?

Monsef: Yeah. Hellboy and the Goon, absolutely. I’ve always found hands really fascinating. I also like [early-twentieth century Austrian painter] Egon Schiele, whose figures all have these crazy fingers. We drew inspiration from everywhere.

Casey Lee Hurt: We’ve also pulled from the early blues aesthetic and jazz, with that kind of energy and vibe.

Jon Beavers: We also drew from action movies. And we were really interested in propaganda posters from the two world wars. In World War II, the artwork was heavily influenced by [comic book artist] Jack Kirby, graphic novels, and cartoons from the New Yorker. The styles of those artists were used for war propaganda, and we were borrowing from all of that.

The Unfortunates seems to be rooted in the two world wars—or is it set in a generalized world at war?

Hurt: It’s the idea of a world at war. World War I is where a lot of our influences are drawn from, but we’re trying not to put the show specifically in that time period. The reason for that is because the enemy in the play is not a regime. It’s fear. For us, that’s the most important element—fear is the thing that every generation faces. And we want that to be transparent and true throughout.

This is an unusual score—did you set out to include a range of American musical genres?

Hurt: We’ve done our best effort to expand the definition of Americana. A lot of people tend to lean more toward an acoustic guitar or folk elements. What we’re trying to do is not only bring in those elements but also reach into the more modern elements of blues and jazz and hip-hop and spoken word. The desire is to tell the story through music and to have a really open palette for whatever style we’re working with.

*To learn more about the inspiration behind The Unfortunates, click here to purchase a hard or digital copy of Words on Plays, A.C.T.'s in-depth performance guide series. All proceeds go to our ACTsmart education programs, serving teachers and students throughout the Bay Area. 

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