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 Donald Trump’s America.
Baghdaddy officially opens on Monday, telling the true story of an Iraqi defector, code named Curveball, whose claims about weapons of mass destruction became justification for the U.S.-led invasion in 2003. “If you put Hamilton and The Office in a blender you would have this show,” says producer Charlie Fink of the Broadway smash hit about American founding father Alexander and the U.S. television sitcom.
The plot opens in the present day with disgraced CIA spies gathering at a support group—think Spooks Anonymous—as they seek understanding and redemption for mistakes that haunt them years later. The action then switches back in time to Frankfurt airport, where the informant offers to trade apparent secrets about Saddam Hussein’s presumed bio-weapons program 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, swapping comedy for tragedy and the onset of a war still being fought today, 14 years after an invasion found no weapons of mass destruction.
It’s a fast-paced script woven into a tight score that blends traditional musical theater 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 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,” says 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,” says Fink.
The first preview on April 6 coincided with the day that the president ordered a cruise missile attack on a Syrian airbase, the first direct U.S. action against the Syrian regime.
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 other 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 U.S. government but the country as a whole and its Western allies in general.
“We all messed up,” says Marshall Pailet, director, co-writer and composer. Far from seeing comedy as inappropriate, he says it’s a great vehicle to get New York theatergoers 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 book, admits it was daunting to turn the subject into a musical that both entertains and sends people away with a clear message. “We want them to be entertained and moved,” he said. “But we want them to take away… that even though you feel like you don’t matter, you really do, and there’s ramifications for your actions.”
The show is scheduled to run until June 18 at St Luke’s Theater, a basement venue just steps from Times Square. But never does the show laugh at war itself. More than 4,500 U.S. troops have died in Iraq since 2003. Some estimates for the number of civilians to have perished range from 173,916 to nearly half a million.
“We all own it,” says Fink. “A wound in the world that is not going to be healed with tears or laughter.”