Past Reviews

Sound Advice Reviews

About Afghanistan and Iraq
(Musicalized, of course)
Review by Rob Lester

Exhibits A and B: two Broadway Records recordings of scores from Off-Broadway presentations—both tackling heavy-duty, high-stakes subject matter, and focused on the same region of the world, the countries on either side of Iran. But their tones and styles are vastly different. The Boy Who Danced on Air takes place in Afghanistan, and the other has its country of concern in its subtitle: Who's Your Baghdaddy (or How I Started the Iraq War) (although some action takes place in Germany and much happens in the United States). Both were inspired by disturbing real events that people seized upon as subjects for their films, although one was not actually produced.

Broadway Records

It was a documentary film that inspired the creators of The Boy Who Danced on Air to write a musical about the disturbing reality in Afghanistan where some men purchase boys (teens and pre-teens) from impoverished families and train them to dance at private gatherings and often have regular sexual contact with the boys. In this culture, where women are veiled, heterosexual activity is only sanctioned within marriage, and homosexuality among adults is taboo, the procured youths dance in garb that can suggest female appearance and they may be offered to various party attendees for sex. When the boys start to become men, they are rejected and might be married off to a woman or repeat history and take in young boys themselves, having been taught that this is all acceptable.

Now, how do you make a musical out of that without being simply exploitative and cringe-worthy? And, besides that: why? Before even venturing to rip the plastic shrink wrap from the physical review CD I was sent, I decided to view the film and a follow-up news report. The footage and commentaries focused on some specific boys, including a very young one. The musical invents its own teens instead, and they are played by 20-something actors. This all creates some easing distance, as does the fact that, for our purposes now, we're just considering the listening experience. The booklet that comes with the CD version has a thoughtful and informative introduction by the musical theatre composer Stephen Flaherty which serves as endorsement and justification of the off-the-beaten-path subject matter.

Since a little touch of uncomfortable reality goes a long way, the glaring spotlight often veers away from the harsher, fearful, or hope-drained moments. This is not a non-stop tear-jerking soap opera exposé. While never letting the clouds of truth stop hovering for long, hope brightens the gloomy skies. Enter optimism. Determined, if risky, plans for a better life for two older boys who fall in love with each other and want to escape become the focus of what we experience as witnesses. The book and lyrics by Charlie Sohne and the evocative and emotional music by Tim Rosser let us glimpse glimmers of the different perspectives the characters have.

Troy Iwata and Nikhil Saboo immediately earn our sympathy and admiration as the boys, their singing drenched with feeling, making their characters come across with the urgency, questioning, and myopic views of life common to youth. With their self-worth tied up in their value as mesmerizing, attractive, and skillful dancers, that pride resonates in their sung performances. Dancing is their power and comfort zone: "Dance away the fear/ I'll disappear/...You move through the space like you rule the world" posits Paiman (Iwata) in "Little Dance." The slightly older Feda (Saboo) boasts of his seductive wiles, all the while reinforcing that they are available only "For a Night" ("I could be desire/ I could be a hunger/ I could be your deep unspoken needs").

Also captured are the conflicted attitudes toward the older men who have kept them: obligation, loyalty, resentment, fondness and confusion. Paiman (Iwata) sings of his keeper, "He's strict and he's brutal/ But I know that he protects me/ he's 'All That I've Known'/He doesn't want me anymore/ But how can I go?" We meet them after they've become long accustomed to their lot, closer to the time that physical maturation will mean the end of their lifestyle. Learned caution informs their approach to each other, with some hesitation about expressing their mutual attraction. Melodies both forceful and lovely are given to them and their quickly developing relationship with plans to escape hatched, abandoned, or thwarted that create romantic tension. And the possibility of freedom "In the City" is the glowing beacon of light at the end of tunnel as respite from what seems to be their unavoidable fate—as part of what the narrator (the effectively solemn Deven Kolluri) reminds us is, metaphorically, "A Song He Never Chose."

One of the boys' duets has them imagine how they'd act if roles were reversed and they were grown men taking in the younger generation. Having been raised that this tradition is simply the way it is implies that such a future is a given. Through accident or design, the cheerful number, "A Boy of My Own," has been written in such a way that it could work out of context, on casual hearing, as if it's about anyone having a son. In any case, it's an especially enchanting track that's a major highlight. Another strong entry is the bonus track "His Song" by pop star India.Arie. Unlike some cases where a variation of a score selection by a non-cast member recording artist is brought in, in hopes of a radio-friendly single (Disney, I'm looking at you!), and creates a style-clashing anomaly, India.Arie's silky, invested interpretation is a potent and polished variation that is rich icing on this already satisfying cake.

It's a tall order to make the rich, entitled men who buy boys to supply themselves with pleasure something less than unforgivably selfish and corrupt, but the actors and writers make them more than cardboard villains. Do they justify or at least rationalize their actions? They portray themselves as rescuers giving the boys a way out of poverty and some comforts. And, through songs, we learn that they have feelings for the boys and are not eager for their exits when they "age out" of their roles. When the man housing Paiman is to gain our understanding, it's done not in connection to Paiman, but instead in a song mourning the lost glory days of his city ("Kabul"), which Jonathan Raviv makes a gripping lament.

Without going for non-Western music authenticity that might be too inaccessible as theatre scoring, the sounds instead are suggestive of something of another land and culture. In a small band of five pieces led by pianist David Gardos, percussion and especially the use of the rubab, a lute-like instrument, work wonders in bringing us a sense of another land that feels foreign but intriguing. This fortuitous compromise and staying in a musical theatre feel reminds me of the anecdote about Richard Rodgers being asked what kind of music he'd write for The King and I as it was set in Siam (Thailand) in another era in a palace housing Buddhists, and he replied, "It will be good Jewish music." The melodies here are quite "good" in their own non-derivative way, not yoked to a particular genre or era, but rather feel somewhat timeless. We are transported. And that's a good thing.


Broadway Records

Lest we, in the present political climate in America, forget... there's a musical to remind us that misinformation from questionable sources buzzing around Washington D.C. is not a new thing. Shortly after the turn of this century, the United States government became convinced that Iraq's leader was hiding caches of weapons of mass destruction. Soon the country was sending in troops, and tensions mounted. And, of course, the horrors of 9/11 were soon to come. Does this sound like the likely subject for "a musical comedy"? Well, that's how the show in question was once billed. That description is not invoked in the incarnation of Who's Your Baghdaddy (or How I Started the Iraq War)—which in one of its New York City runs had its name shortened to just Baghdaddy. It grew from a one-act and an entry in festivals for new musicals, but the genesis beyond the headlines was an unsold screenplay by J.T. Allen called Curveball.

If "Curveball" doesn't ring an ominous semi-distant bell, then note that it was the nickname of the fellow who made up the story that he had first-hand knowledge of the chemical weapons of Iraq's feared Saddam Hussein. Positioning himself as a concerned informant, his dire warnings convinced the C.I.A., the Secretary of State, and finally President Bush. As things unravel in this imagined, mostly irreverent, quirky, and often raucous embellishment of events, with plenty of artistic license, sass and satire, C.I.A. might as well stand for Chaos, Insubordination, Alarm.

In trusting the false information (or "fake news" to, um, coin a phrase), "Who's to Blame?" is the name of the game in this piece. Thus, the story is bookended by meetings of troubled folks in a support group, as members stand up and state, "My name is ___________ and I started the Iraq War." Yes, each has come to blame himself or herself. And we flashback to how and how come as they guide us through the tales of their misguided ways and (perhaps unwise) whys. The grains of truth are stranger than fiction would be. And your ability to find it funny will depend on your ability to find the distance of the intervening years to temporarily "put aside" the cost in lives and money and time and worry that came from the mega-"oops!" miscalculation of believing the unsubstantiated, albeit understandably disquieting, story.

The creators here hardly play it safe, although some of the proceedings are, if not a mess, somewhat of a muddle. To borrow a song title from the uneven score, there is often a "Change of Tone" to the degree of almost identity crisis, with abrupt changes in style and sensibility, not to mention mood and musical flavor. On the satire spectrum, we go from mild to sharp to wild. Comical characterizations favor the brash and broad, but Joe Joseph as Curveball manages some palpable pathos for the person perhaps least likely to engender sympathy when the jig is up and the chips are down on the pleading penultimate track, "Speak to Me Tomorrow." As the Iraqi defector, the pronounced accent he affects earlier is softened here.

If you like your musicals loud, smirking, hyperactively busy and rocking, this will be more your cup of spiked tea. Much is strutting and/or bombastic in this work by composer/director Marshall Pailet and lyricist A.D. Penedo (they collaborated on the book, snippets of which we hear between swaths of sung material). People argue, brag, and vie for recognition. There's some winking and breaking of the fourth wall by addressing the audience ("Everything you'll see today happened/ Basically./ We added drama and we added some 'shine'/ Our timeline is condensed..."). The cast of eight works hard. Perhaps too hard? Some sections feel exhausting and, for me, overwhelmed and weighed down by sound: either layers of voices (lots of "Oohs" and "Ahhhs" cluttering up "Hydrangea Reports") or the busy band led by pianist Rona Siddiqui. Note that the band consists of the skillful multi-instrumentalist/orchestrator Charlie Rosen (who often fronts his own sensational Broadway Big Band) and two string players, violinist Kevin Kuhn and cellist Jillian Blythe.

A standout turn is the amusingly braggadocio crowing of Brennan Caldwell as the German interrogator proclaiming that he is unquestionably (in his mind, anyway) "Das Man," the oh-so-cool dude whom females adore. The generous sprinkling of German words makes this delicious fun (trumpeting his opinion that he is "das bombe/ Das wunderbar phenom..."). An unexpected highlight is a kind of welcome misfit that feels like it's from another score and genre in that it's so sweet and sincere. Yes, it's a love song—or rather, a tender crooning confession of a crush. "Music to Me" is like a sudden fresh breeze unaccountably breaking through the polluted air of miseries and squabbles; Ethan Slater, as a C.I.A. employee, charms here. Elsewhere, there are flashes of musicalized attitudes that fleetingly suggest grandly pleading moments in Jesus Christ Superstar or a visit to parading hip-hop Hamiltonian confidence in the title song. When we come to the horrors of the events of 9/11, the musical, thankfully if wrenchingly, rises to the occasion with a chilling, terse section. The company, often working in group numbers, also includes Brandon Espinoza, Clare Neumann, Larisa Oleynik, Bob D'Haene, and Jason Collins.

Oddly enough, one of the strongest elements throughout is some deft use of close-together rhymes that are, contrastingly, lean and precise. And the cast jumps on the crispness—along with a detailed synopsis, photos, the lyrics are all in the booklet that comes with the physical 21-track CD. Some examples of the word-spinning:

"There lies a treasure in here/ Jewels beyond measure in here/ Yours at your leisure" ("Stay")

"He'd make municipalities/ Munich fatalities/ Legalities? Screw 'em/ Let's all face the realities" ("Berry and the Bad Boy")

"Expert consultations verifications. collaboration complications... How about pics?/At least six/No quick fix" ("Rules")

"I'm your totalitarian/Your card-carryin' Aryan Bavarian/ Now how dare you be tarryin'" (title song)

Alas, for each example of such capabilities, one can find examples of something that could prove irksome: a false rhyme, vulgarities, a statement repeated and repeated to no good effect except for those not paying attention the first three times (diminishing returns). And some of the activity feels steamroller-ish, or desperate to wring humor from mayhem and power struggles. But, war can be hell—and occasionally hilarious here. Fortunately, Who's Your Baghdaddy (or How I Started the Iraq War) also has its bright spots and wins some of its battles to make points while making mincemeat of movers and shakers who sometimes make us shake in our (combat) boots.

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