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Home > Columnists > Doug Strassler
May 11, 2017

The Music Men


Tim Rosser and Charlie Sohne (Ben Strothmann)

Tim Rosser and Charlie Sohne discuss their new show, The Boy Who Danced on Air

By Doug Strassler

Those unfamiliar with the Afghani practice of Bacha bazi will have a much firmer grasp upon seeing the new musical The Boy Who Danced On Air, an Abingdon Theatre Company production playing at the June Havoc Theatre through June 11.

Bacha bazi – or "dancing boy culture" – is a centuries-old practice in which wealthy men take in boys from impoverished homes and train them to dance at parties -- both physical and sexual abuse are often an unfortunate part of this bargain. Two such boys, Feda (Nikhil Saboo) and Pedman (Troy Iwata) meet and embark on a relationship that threatens the rigid strictures by which their society abides.

In fact, even the show's own genesis stretches back over several years. Librettist and lyricist Charlie Sohne first encountered this practice in a PBS Frontline video entitled "The Dancing Boys of Afghanistan" back in 2011.

"It was really eye-opening to me because what I knew of Afghanistan was through the lens of what a lot of Americans know," Sohne said, "which was a pretty narrow view of how it relates to the U.S. and the war on terror.

"Dancing boy culture upended so many misconceptions and complicated the picture of what the culture was like. That was five years ago and I was so moved by the accounts of the boys carving out a space for themselves. Six years later, we have this show!"

Sohne eventually joined forces with composer Tim Rosser (while both are graduates of Oberlin College Conservatory of Music and overlapped during their studies, the two only met upon graduation.) "I was intimidated by the idea because I think it's a tall order to write any kind of dramatic show about that subject matter, and write music for it," Rosser said. "It requires a delicate touch and an interest in music of the region. But Charlie's treatment made me cry by the end of act one. I thought, "this is a show that should exist!"

The two embarked on a journey that included reading many first-person accounts and incorporating Afghani folk music into their repertoire and that ultimately would take close to six years before the pair would see the fruits of their labors on a New York stage.

In the show, Paiman's dancing skills please his master, Jahandar (Jonathan Raviv, recently seen in The Lightning Thief). When Paiman matures, Jahandar must marry him off and replace him, an undesirable situation that gets further complicated when he encounters Feda, whose own master is Jahandar's friend Zemar (Osh Ghaminah), and who has designs of escaping their small village with the help of Paiman.

With themes both foreign and heavy, Boy makes for an intense evening at the theatre. But, buoyed by such encomia as a 2013 NAMT Festival of New Works and Writers Residency Grant and the prestigious 2015 Jonathan Larson Award, Rosser and Sohne found the show's initial production at San Diego's Diversionary Theatre embraced.

"People had said San Diego was a conservative theatre town but our experience was very much the opposite," Sohne said. "It was a magical experience. Everyone went above and beyond what they were required to to make it happen."

"People seemed very hungry for new theatre and were very welcoming of us," Rosser agreed.

Several of the secrets to the show's success can also be answered by looking at the creative team, which includes director Tony Speciale, and Nejla Yatkin, the show's choreographer. "There is no one else who should be choreographing this show," Sohne said. "Through her dance, you can see the evolution of a dancing boy."

Rosser had equal praise for Speciale's gifts: "Tony saw what everything in the text meant immediately. I've never seen anyone do that before."

Both men agree that Boy has proven to be quite the rewarding creative experience. "It caused me to question assumptions, it caused me to connect to people that I had not before, and that is one of the great things that musical theatre can do – bring you closer to characters onstage," Sohne said.

"If people leave with a sense of understanding or thinking about some of that, we'll have done our job."

For tickets and further information on The Boy Who Danced on Air, please go to http://abingdontheatre.org/boy-who-danced/.

 

 

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