NEW YORK — Is the Middle East becoming fertile ground for musical comedy?
This year’s Oscar winner for live-action short, “West Bank Story,” was a jokey tuner about an Israeli soldier who falls in love with a Palestinian cashier. And now both the New York Intl. Fringe Festival and the New York Musical Theater Festival are mounting zany song-and-dance shows that satirize everything from Al Qaeda to Arab-American relations.
And across the Atlantic, the Edinburgh Fringe was given a controversial kickoff when protests were sparked by one of this year’s early productions, “Jihad: The Musical,” a comic tuner about a young Afghan flower farmer who gets duped into joining a terrorist cell. Eventually, he’s forced to decide if he will help attack a Western target known only as the Unidentified, Very Prestigious Landmark.
Given the strong reaction in the U.K., where few if any targets usually are considered out of bounds to comedy, how readily will Gotham auds — particularly those who experienced 9/11 firsthand –embrace shows of a similar ilk?
First to find out will be “John Goldfarb, Please Come Home!,” a parody about an American who prompts international hijinks after being forced to coach football in the fictional country of Fawzi Arabia. Tuner, which opens Aug. 20 at the Fringe, boasts a book by “The Exorcist” author William Peter Blatty, adapted from his 1963 novel, which he also turned into a little-remembered 1965 film.
Set during the Cold War, “Goldfarb” makes only indirect reference to contempo strife, and co-lyricist and composer Michael Garin argues that topical references are background to the show’s larger purpose: paying homage to brassy tuners of the 1950s.
“We’re very old-school in terms of what we think a musical should be, and we think the traditional musical-theater audience is looking for this,” he says.
If anything, Garin feels “Goldfarb’s” most subversive act is putting Arabic instruments like the oud and the dumbek into its score.
In stark political contrast, NYMF offering “The Beastly Bombing, or A Terrible Tale of Terrorists Tamed by the Tangles of True Love” is a fangs-out satire. Running in early October, it features Al Qaeda operatives and white supremacists plotting to blow up the Brooklyn Bridge, set to a Gilbert-and-Sullivan-style comic operetta.
For lyricist-librettist Julien Nitzberg, who helmed the show’s Los Angeles premiere last fall at the Steve Allen Theater, this incongruous musical approach was crucial. “I hate most political art because it’s didactic and dull,” he says. “By using music and comedy and keeping tongue firmly in cheek, you can say the same things but not sound like a pontificating ass.”
“Beastly’s” satire was largely embraced in L.A., where it ran for almost a year and won a local crix award despite some mixed reviews. Still, Nitzberg reports that every perf ended with at least a few affronted patrons accosting him in the theater parking lot.
Plus, the L.A. production was self-funded, since no local theater would commit to the potentially offensive material. Gotham producers may be wary as well, but Nitzberg confesses he expected such reactions when he wrote the show with composer Roger Neill.
He says, “I believed that if you didn’t offend someone, you must not be saying anything that interesting.”