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Making Theatre in "Qatar" How two Jewish New Yorkers went to the Middle East and came back with two musicals

By MARK PEIKERT

For most people, e-mails from foreign countries written in broken English are an instant signal to hit delete. Not so for lyricist Stephen Cole and composer David Krane. In 2005, they each received an e-mail asking them to write the first American musical to premiere in the Middle East, and they accepted the assignment.

The musical they wrote was called Aspire, and the process of creating it was so bizarre that they wrote a second musical about writing the first. The new show, The Road To Qatar, is now playing at the York Theatre. It tells the story of how two "Jewish boys from New York" bonded in Qatar's theatre district.

To this day, neither is sure how the producers found them. “What we figured out was they had done Google searches,” Krane says. “We guessed that, since Stephen had done a musical based on Casper, and because it involved a child, and they wanted a sultan’s son to be the star of the show, they thought that he could write for children." He adds that his work on the Chicago film may have been his selling point: "Who knows? Maybe they thought I was John Kander.”

Aside from culture shock, their assignment had other unusual challenges. They had to write the entire show in just six weeks, for instance, and they had to incorporate everything from falcons to camels to Arabian stallions.

Krane says, “We came back, and everyone said it sounds like a movie, it sounds like a show. And Stephen said, ‘Let’s look at this.’” Cole adds, “As it was happening, we knew how hilarious things were. We were dealing with a cultural clash, a language clash and at the same time, we were dealing with people who really wanted to do an American musical but as big as possible. And we had no idea [how big] until we saw the stadium they were building. A football stadium!”

Laughing, Cole adds, “We did a musical that could never be done anywhere else. But the competence! I wrote a sequence where the boy rides all around the world on a magic carpet, and they did it!”

The making of Aspire merits its own musical (footage of the show can be glimpsed on YouTube in Krane’s documentary The Road to ‘The Road to Qatar’), but The Road to Qatar focuses more on the friendship that blossomed between the collaborators—who had never met before the producer-matchmakers connected them.

“A month or two went by, and I still didn’t know who I would be collaborating with,” Cole says. “And they were telling me, ‘Well, we have composers in Lithuania and Rome.’ And how was I supposed to write with someone in Rome! And then I found out it was David, and I was thrilled. Someone in New York! And not only did we become great collaborators, but we became great friends. You can write a show and end up never wanting to see that person again, but we’ve written this one and we want to write another.”

Writing about their new friendship turned out to be “a joy” for Cole and Krane, especially since The Road to Qatar, with its cast of five, is as intimate as Aspire was lavish. As Krane says, this show “has the makeshift feel of something like The 39 Steps, where we’re using things theatrically but we’re not recreating entire spaces."

In the musical, the characters of  Stephen and David (“About 80 to 85 percent is true,” Krane says) bond over the ludicrousness of their surroundings, while enjoying what Cole calls “their own private road movie,” like the classic series starring Bing Crosby and Bob Hope. “They’re two different types who wind up helping each other and becoming friends,” Cole says. “It’s a platonic love story.”

At this point, you may be thinking of that other pop culture touchstone that features two New York men on a Middle Eastern adventure. Cole has only one thing to say: “We won’t mention the Ishtar word!”

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Mark Peikert is the theatre critic for New York Press.