Egypt's New Music Scene: A Revolutionary Audit

Watching a presentation during a class on Middle East international relations, Patrick Lazour was riveted by one image: Egyptian students staring at a MacBook computer - surrounded by cameras and Coke cans - as they uploaded videos and photos of protesters below in Cairo's Tahrir Square during the Arab Spring of 2011.

 Patrick, then a senior at Boston College, showed it to his brother, Daniel Lazour, a sophomore at Columbia University, and the two took a leap of faith – that they could write a musical to tell the story of the youth and social media-powered rebellion that overthrew a dictator.

Six years later, their musical, “We Live in Cairo” will have its world premier at the American Repertory Theater in Cambridge, opening in previews May 14 and running through June 23. Based on the actual events of 2011 through 2013, the Lazours tell the story of the initial joyful triumph and later dashed hopes through eight fictional characters who promoted the rebellion.

 “The spark for us was that these kids were so young and brave, and that the powder keg was social media,” said Daniel Lazour, 25. “So many people around the world followed the 18 days in the square, but after that so much happened that didn’t get a lot of attention. It was an exciting opportunity to use entertainment to try to tell more of the story."

 The brothers, who grew up in Boylston, a small town near Worcester, are keenly aware of the responsibility they’ve assumed in portraying such a momentous time. They’ve spent hours doing research and interviewing Egyptians in the United States who were part of the protests. In a workshop of the show at the American University in Cairo, they listened to the critiques of students who had been in Tahrir Square.

 "This has been our number one concern and challenge and joy," said Patrick, 27. "How do we honor the story and the people who risked their lives?"

 Rather than attempt a sweeping musical with a large cast like “Les Miserables,” whose young characters rose up in Paris against French King Louis-Philippe in 1832, they focused on six Muslim and Christian activists who were songwriters, street artists and photographers. The story starts after the 2013 military coup when General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi ousted and imprisoned Egypt's elected president, Mohamed Morsi, who remains imprisoned today. The students flash back to the sporadic, small protests that preceded the outpouring of millions of people in Tahrir for 18 days in late January and early February 2011. Almost 900 protesters died before President Hosni Mubarak stepped down after 30 years in power.

 When the Lazours learned that the activists energized their movement through traditional Arab music as well as Western contemporary music, they found the concept for their songs – a blend of traditional, pop and rock. And since they grew up listening to Arab musicians favored by their Lebanese grandfather, they were familiar with the distinctive Arabic rhythms and drum patterns.

“The rhythms of Arabic music lend themselves to theater because they're so infectious and driving,” said Patrick, who wrote most of the lyrics, although, like the music primarily written by Daniel, the brothers collaborated on both, as well as the book.  "And there's a long tradition of activist protest music."

 Emphasizing the centrality of music to the uprising, the band is on stage. Music director Madeline Smith and six musicians play the oud, a lute-like string instrument, guitar, cello, violin, keyboard and percussion. Daniel, who studied composition in college, created the orchestrations with music supervisor and Tony Award winner Michael Starobin and the vocal arrangements with Smith.

 This energy and dynamism are apparent in the first number, “Genealogy of Revolution,” a haunting tune that builds momentum as the solo singer is joined by more singers who propel the song with claps and stomps. A repeated refrain sets the tone for the show: "I was one person/Who had an idea/Who made it words/And someone heard/Someone heard."

 Like the youth in the musicals "Rent" and "Hair," these activists are irreverent and creative. They playfully satire the concept of power in the song "A Decree from Hosni Mubarak.”

 The celebratory mood of the first act is replaced by disillusion and tension in the second, as the activists cope with the return of repression, an economic crisis, backlash against Christians and liberals, and finally the coup and attack on Morsi supporters who occupied a square outside Rabaa al-Adawiya Mosque. The scene is intense when police attack protesters in the square, part of an evocative set of road blocks and features of Cairo. Later, there are debates and arguments between friends, lovers, and father and son.

 "They come at it from different angles and have different ideas about how to respond to these political events,” Daniel said." They’ve done something extraordinary, but they’re people with all the imperfections and fears anyone has. We're trying to show how politics can fracture relationships.”

 The Lazours - who share an apartment in Manhattan – have been developing their skills since high school when they staged a musical each summer at a nonprofit theater near their home. They know they are in the enviable position of launching their first professional production at the American Repertory Theater, the starting point of a number of musicals that have gone on to Broadway. Artistic Producer Mark Lunsford first saw “We Live in Cairo” as a staged reading in New York City in 2016, after the Lazours won the Richard Rodgers Award, which subsidizes production of a work by musical theater composers and writers not yet established in their field. They worked with American Repertory Theater's artistic director Diane Paulus to further develop it and received residencies at the National Music Theater Conference at the Eugene O'Neill Theatre Center in Waterford, Connecticut, the MacDowell Colony in Peterborough, N.H., and elsewhere.

 The actors and many in the creative team have Middle Eastern heritage. Director and Obie winner Taibi Magar has Egyptian heritage, choreographer Samar Haddad King has Palestinian heritage, and the program cover and poster designer, known by the pseudonym "Ganzeer," is a prominent Egyptian visual artist.

 “It’s truly a collaborative musical with a community of Middle Eastern artists contributing and sharing their experiences,” Patrick Lazour said.

 To promote discussion of issues raised in the musical, nine artists, scholars and journalists will lead discussions following selected performances.

 "We're hoping the piece raises questions about the nature of activism and how far will people go for the love of their country," Daniel said. "We think the message isn't that it was a tragedy, but to remind people how remarkable it was that after 30 years they took a dictator down."

 Reach Jody Feinberg at jfeinberg@patriotledger.com. Follow her on Twitter@JodyF_Ledger.

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Source : https://www.enterprisenews.com/entertainmentlife/20190511/staging-revolution-we-live-in-cairo-musical-about-arab-spring-premiers-at-art

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