4 August 2010 3 Comments

Sondheim in the West Bank

I’m in between drafts of a novel, so I thought I’d look for something to clear my head. Inspired by a BBC broadcast last week in honor of the 80th birthday of Broadway lyricist and composer Stephen Sondheim, I’ve been working on a musical version of my Palestinian crime novels. (Only in the shower, so far…)

I’m thinking of updating the Romeo and Juliet story and setting it in Bethlehem. In tribute to the Sondheim-Bernstein classic “West Side Story,” it’ll be called “West Bank Story,” of course, and will be the tale of the rivalry between two gangs, one Fatah and the other Hamas. I’ve already scored a couple of the numbers (“Aisha, I just met the mother of a girl named Aisha” and “I feel pretty, Oh so pretty, I feel pretty and witty and…I’d best not talk about it because the Hamas guys won’t like it.”)

I do have quite a track record at developing disastrous failed concepts for musicals. I’ve been driving my wife crazy with these ideas for years. This is inspired by the large number of distinguished writers who’ve penned opera librettos and discovered that writer-turned-lyricists have a special graveyard all their own in Hell. Vikram Seth, Russell Hoban and, most recently, Ian McEwan have turned their hand to it. None of them seem to be rivals to Lorenzo da Ponte, Mozart’s greatest librettist, no matter how hard they’ve tried.

Which is why I’ve always thought it’s a better idea to write a failed musical. After all, did you ever see a musical that didn’t seem like it would’ve been better left in the librettist’s bottom draw – or in this case, his blog? Believe me, I know: I saw “Falsettos” on Broadway.

I’ve particularly enjoyed working on failed musicals which fall into the category first popularized by the Buddy Holly biosical (biography-musical, new word all my own) “Buddy” and recently by Green Day’s “American Idiot,” in which music people already love is jammed into a ridiculous storyline. (Ridiculous storylines are de rigeur in the Middle East, so maybe the Palestinian musical isn’t so silly…)

That brought me the following list of future Tony Award Winners:

BLOOD ON THE CHANTILLY LACE: A detective discovers that Buddy Holly and Richie Valens died when their plane came down only because gangsters wanted to rub out the third, largely unremembered passenger, The Big Bopper.

FUGUE! The life of J.S. Bach, fun-loving father of 20 and writer of the scariest piece of music ever (Toccata and Fugure in D minor for organ).

I’M A BELIEVER: The songs of The Monkees performed in Gregorian plainchant by monks.

SPINA BIFIDA BLUES: The last days of Hank Williams, alcoholic country music star suffering chronic pain from an undiagnosed spinal complaint.

NIXON/KING: Taking a cue from Frost/Nixon, we go inside the famous White House meeting between Tricky Dick and The King. Elvis offers to serve as an undercover DEA agent (which is true). Nixon spins his favorite discs. Mayhem ensues…

GAY EDGAR HOOVER: To a score of great disco hits, the cross-dressing FBI chief sniffs out commies.

Rather than just plough ahead with all of these, I’d prefer you to let me know which you’d choose. Or tell me what other subjects would be the least appropriate for a musical and we’ll see if we can get it rolling. I await your suggestions…

3 Responses to “Sondheim in the West Bank”

  1. montana billings 5 August 2010 at 5:15 am #

    West Bank story has already been filmed. It is about 2 hummus stands, 1 Israeli and 1 Arab. It is only about 1/2 hour, you can look it up. I knew you weren’t serious but it has been done.

  2. Matt Beynon Rees 6 August 2010 at 9:27 am #

    MB, I saw that particular West Bank Story — quite a good laugh. But mine’s a better idea, given that the objective is to produce a FAILED musical! 😉


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