Their Take on the Arab Spring Is Remaking Musical Theater
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because they're depicting new stories on old stages.
By Joy Nesbitt
In the climax of We Live in Cairo, a two-act musical retelling of the 2011 Egyptian revolution, the young activist Amir sings: “… and our country is screaming, Tahrir is now and now is here. We’ll wait an hour, a day, a month, a year. We have cracked the wall of fear and we’ll see it crumble.” The band breaks into a raucous vamp, as footage from Tahrir Square is projected on the tent that engulfs the theater. This stage, with only eight people, transforms into a scene of millions of Egyptians protesting to overthrow President Hosni Mubarak.
Brothers Daniel and Patrick Lazour are taking a daring approach to bring American audiences inside the Arab Spring uprising, from the visuals to using Egyptian instruments like the darabukka and the dud in the score.
They’re not so much trying to entertain you. Patrick describes their mission as bringing “a grassroots nature to theater and theatrical activism,” a style that has been lost with increasingly commercialized theater. After Cairo’s well-received extended run at the American Repertory Theater in Cambridge, Massachusetts, the brothers hope to stage their own uprising on Broadway. They seek, Patrick says, to “pull the elastic of what theater is and bring pertinent issues that aren’t considered in the land of theater to the forefront of people’s minds.”
[A musical is] a weird experimentation that breeds a deeply emotional, personal experience in a room full of people.
The siblings grew up in central Massachusetts, sons of a half-Lebanese American family. Their interest in musicals started young, inspired by the 2005 movie Chicago. They wrote their first musical in middle school for a competition. Although their 15-minute musical was disqualified because Patrick had transferred to another school, they still knew it worked when one of the moms in the audience said, “This is really cute.” “Cute” sent them on to write musicals at a community theater. Their biggest hit was Robynn McCree, an adaptation of Julius Caesar that focused on Irish politics during turn-of-the-century Boston.
Today they live together in New York, where they collaborate on their shows, write music and host “loose clothing parties,” where partygoers wear comfortable clothing so they can dance freely.
According to Patrick, 28, they view a musical as “a weird experimentation that breeds a deeply emotional, personal experience in a room full of people.” Daniel, 25, points out that they want to “make the niche no longer niche” by creating community among audience members to discuss subject matter that is “dealt with behind closed doors.” In their partnership, Patrick takes charge of the playwriting and lyrics, while Daniel leads the music.
The inspiration for Cairo, which tells the story of six Egyptian university students whose lives become intertwined with the uprising and the troubling fallout that followed, was a photograph in The New York Times. Patrick saw it during a class at Boston College and was struck by the image of young revolutionaries gathered around a red laptop; the image is replicated in one of the central scenes of the show.
The musical earned them a Richard Rodgers Award, which provides funding for promising composers and playwrights to allow their work to be produced. For the Lazours, the 2016 award led to a residency at the American Repertory Theater, a Broadway training ground for Tony Award-winning shows like Pippin (2012) and Porgy and Bess (2011).
Cairo has an unusual score — both in terms of style and its use of traditional instruments. Madeline Smith, music director of Cairo, points out that going outside convention can feel like a “theater knock-off.” But “the Lazours have escaped this somehow [and] as a result, listeners from all backgrounds find their score both familiar and fresh,” she says. “Instead of a show that relies on pastiche or stereotype, they’ve created the sound of one globalized youth.”
It’s made a mark, particularly among those who experienced the uprising themselves. “The Lazours’ musical is so important because the event isn’t quite historical,” says Ganzeer, an Egyptian street artist and activist who goes by a single pseudonym. “Recent events are proving that the revolution is far from over. Such dramatizations are an instrumental tool in tipping Egypt’s fate from dictatorship to democracy because it’s able to provide a powerful yet condensed depiction of the series of events that led to ‘how we got here,’ so to speak, combatting the amount of propaganda being churned out by the Egyptian state.”
Ganzeer helped develop the musical, along with Harvard public policy professor Tarek Masoud, to make sure it was true to the experience on the ground in Cairo. After their residency in Cambridge, the brothers took the show to the American University in Cairo, breaking the normalized cultural silence about the uprising.
Painting such a realistic picture can sometimes lose the audience. Boston Globe theater critic Don Aucoin was dissatisfied with the second act of Cairo, writing: “Revolutionaries are often at a loss when a revolution is over; similarly, it becomes clear that the musical’s creators have not figured out a way to make post-revolution disillusionment dramatically compelling.”
Nonetheless, Aucoin’s critique plays directly into what the Lazours seek to create. They see their shows as an act of “awareness.” And their work always has an activist component.
Last year the Lazours held concerts in New York and Boston to raise awareness of the conditions for artists and others under President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi. During these concerts, they invited revolutionaries to share their stories on stage. In January, they teamed up with musical activist Ramy Essam for a New York concert commemorating the nine-year anniversary of the Tahrir Square protests.
As future stages for We Live in Cairo are still in the works, the Lazours have begun work on another musical, which focuses on the development of cancer research and patient care throughout history. Their newest project is a folk album entitled Freres, which unpacks their experiences in activism, queerness and masculinity. In all, the Lazours’ work is meant not only to affect others but also to change their own perspectives. “We become better people when we write about these very private issues,” Patrick says. The challenge extends to their audience as well.
- Joy Nesbitt, OZY Author Contact Joy Nesbitt