Iraq war tragedy turned into New York musical

(From left) Brandon Espinoza, Claire Neumann and Joe Joseph in Baghdaddy. The musical tells the true story of an Iraqi defector, whose claims about weapons of mass destruction became justification for the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq.
(From left) Brandon Espinoza, Claire Neumann and Joe Joseph in Baghdaddy. The musical tells the true story of an Iraqi defector, whose claims about weapons of mass destruction became justification for the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

NEW YORK • The Iraq war may not sound like musical comedy, but an off-Broadway revival is spinning intelligence failures and tragedy into a farce that offers potent messages for today's America.

Baghdaddy officially opened yesterday, telling the true story of an Iraqi defector, codenamed Curveball, whose claims about weapons of mass destruction became justification for the United States-led invasion of Iraq in 2003.

"If you put Hamilton and The Office in a blender, you would have this show," said producer Charlie Fink of the Broadway smash hit about Alexander Hamilton, one of the founders of the US in 1776, and the US television sitcom.

The plot opens in the present day with disgraced CIA spies gathering at a support group as they seek understanding and redemption for mistakes that haunt them years later.

The action switches back in time to Frankfurt airport, where the informant offers to trade apparent secrets about Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein's presumed bio-weapons programme for political asylum.

German intelligence consults the CIA, where analysts driven by ambition, office crushes and intransigent bosses see Curveball as a ticket out of everyday routine and a fast track to promotion.

But the growing farce quickly gives way to the 9/11 attacks in 2001, swopping comedy for tragedy and the onset of a war still being fought today, 14 years after an invasion found no weapons of mass destruction.

Saddam himself was hanged in 2006.

It is a fast-paced script woven into a tight score that blends traditional musical theatre and camp dancing with hip-hop tracks that carry a stark warning that history should not repeat itself.

Fink says it is more relevant than ever in today's climate of "fake news" and "alternative facts" as some fear that US President Donald Trump could drag the country into another conflict, if not in Syria then over North Korea.

"It has an immediacy that it didn't have in 2015 and a sense that we're doing this all again," notes Fink, referring to a short run two years ago.

"It feels like a time when rules are being rewritten and authority is listening to its instincts, rather than listening to facts and analysis. And that's scary," he added.

The first preview on April 6 occurred on the day the US President ordered a cruise missile attack on a Syrian airbase.

Low budget and in the works for 10 years, there are just eight actors playing six main roles.

Baghdaddy returns at the height of the Broadway season, competing with more than a dozen new shows.

It also spreads responsibility for the 2003 invasion far and wide, not just at the door of then President George W. Bush or the US government, but also to the country and its Western allies.

"We all messed up," says Marshall Pailet, director, co-writer and composer. Far from seeing comedy as inappropriate, he says it is a great vehicle to get New York theatregoers thinking.

"Because we open up their minds and their hearts with comedy, we're able to slip in substance, story, character and a lesson."

A.D. Penedo, who wrote the lyrics and co-wrote the Baghdaddy book, admits it was daunting to turn the subject into a musical that both entertains and sends people away with a clear message.

"Even though you feel like you don't matter, you really do, and there are ramifications for your actions," he said.

The show never laughs at war itself. More than 4,500 US troops have died in Iraq since 2003.

Estimates for the number of civilians who have died range from 173,916 to nearly half a million.

The show is scheduled to run until June 18 at St Luke's Theater.

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 02, 2017, with the headline 'Iraq war tragedy turned into New York musical'. Print Edition | Subscribe