How the Creators of Baghdaddy Turned the Crazy True-Life Story of the Iraq War Instigators Into a Musical

Outside the Theatre   How the Creators of Baghdaddy Turned the Crazy True-Life Story of the Iraq War Instigators Into a Musical
 
Marshall Pailet and A.D. Penedo bring their acclaimed hit back Off-Broadway.
Marshall Pailet and A.D. Penedo
Marshall Pailet and A.D. Penedo Marc J. Franklin

Who: Marshall Pailet & A.D. Penedo
Outside: St. Luke’s Theater

A.D. Penedo and Marshall Pailet’s musical Baghdaddy begins in a church basement, where the audience is unwittingly invited to (literally) pull up a chair and join a support group meeting—for the individuals whose work instigated the Iraq war. What follows is two hours of musical comedy detailing the true, but almost unbelievable story of the Iraqi defector known as Curveball. After arriving in Germany in 1999, Curveball’s false intelligence was passed all the way through the CIA—and through the hands of a ragtag group of analysts and detectives—and eventually became a key justification for invading Iraq. The show debuted to critical acclaim in New York in 2015, and returns for an open-ended run Off-Broadway in the acutal church basement of St. Luke’s. Baghdaddy take us to Europe, the Middle East, the U.S. and back again; we chatted to Penedo, co-book writer and lyricist, and Pailet, co-book writer, composer, and director, about bringing this story to the stage and why musical theatre was the best way to do it.

A.D. Penedo and Marshall Pailet
A.D. Penedo and Marshall Pailet Marc J. Franklin

Whose idea was it to turn this crazy story into a musical?
Marhsall Pailet: Our producer Charlie Fink was really interested in the story behind Curveball and thought it would be a great musical. The story is so remarkable—if we made up it up, people would think it was a stretch. But it happened, and we wanted to find a creative way to tell it.
A.D. Penedo: We started thinking: ‘How does it sing?’ It took us a while to figure out the tone and sound.

What kind of steps did you take to figuring it out?
MP: So many steps; a lot of people told us it was never going to work, but we never stopped believing in it. When we started writing Baghdaddy seven years ago, we struggled with structure and the timeline—how do we tell a story that happened in so many different countries, characters who didn’t even meet, and who are connected but don’t even know it. We had to figure out how to do all of that in two hours. The idea for the [fictional] support group came four years into the development, and that unlocked everything for us.

Have you made many changes to the show since 2015?
MP: We’ve probably changed about 25 percent of it.

How did this revival come about?
MP: Our producer wanted it to have further life and we’re hoping for its continued life also.

How might an Off-Broadway engagement help the life of a new musical like this?
MP: The longer a show has a presence in New York, the more people around the country and the world know what it is.
ADP: It brands the show. It also makes you more eligible for licensing.

The show combines a few different styles of music—there’s hip-hop, Arabic sounds, and some classic showtunes. How did that combination come about?
ADP: That was very deliberate. We wanted to draw from genres that were popular at the turn of the millennium, which is when the story takes place, and apply them to the different characters. Richart’s song “Das Man” for example has a boy-band sound, or something similar to Europop. [You can listen to it here]
MP: There was a lot of trial and error with that. The first draft went a little too far with pastiche and we didn’t want it to sound like a pastiche score.

Were you both open to writing songs in so many different styles?
ADP: I didn’t know anything about rap so I had to study it—I listened to a lot of Eminem, the Beastie Boys and Snoop Dog, which are the sounds you hear in the show.

The songs are really funny. I want to know, as a lyricist, do you prioritize incorporating jokes into the lyrics?
ADP: There’s a lot of pressure as a lyricist to be clever. Clarity, staying true to the character that is singing, and the storytelling have to come first.
MP: There aren’t that many punchlines in the lyrics themselves, a lot of the comedy comes from the characters and is situational.
ADP: That’s right. The comedy comes from the choice of the song—you have to choose for the character to sing that song in that moment.

The story is hilarious, but it’s also a very serious one. Were there any moments where you had to pull back on the comedy in the storytelling?
ADP: Our first production in 2011 in D.C. was much goofier. We had to pare that back. As we refined it, the tone of the musical got more serious. Also, we wrote the first draft in 2010 and it felt too soon after the war to really go there.
MP: On that note, when Baghdaddy first played Off-Broadway in 2015 it very much felt like a period piece. Now, in 2017, with what’s happening in Syria and with the current administration, there’s a different tone in the theatre. It’s accidentally “too relevant” again.

Baghdaddy will officially open May 1. For tickets and more information visit Baghdaddymusical.com.

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