Stephen Cole, David Krane, and friend
Stephen Cole, David Krane, and friend
"We want you to write musical. How much?" That was the cryptic e-mail that bookwriter-lyricist Stephen Cole received last February. It was followed by an instruction to call a number in -- of all places -- Dubai. Cole assumed it was "just one of those e-mails," but he wrote back, saying he wouldn't call Dubai and that the sender would just have to call him. "A second later," Cole says, "the phone rang and a broken-English voice asked if I'd write a musical for the Emir of Qatar."

Although Cole has written musicals produced regionally (Casper) and off-Broadway (After the Fair), he hasn't yet reached Broadway, so he was surprised to be summoned. The Dubainians told him that his website had gotten them interested in him. So, would he write an original musical? Says Cole, "I'd read how rich this country was, so I told my agent to ask for a lot of money. They came back with an offer of only a work-for-hire contract but with enough money to make me say, 'Take it!' " But Cole would have to accept their choice of composer. "I suggested ones I'd worked with, but they nixed them all," he relates. "None, you see, had a website. They told me David Krane would compose, and while I'd only barely met him, I knew I'd be dealing with someone who knew musicals."

Indeed, Krane -- who was equally stunned when he got his e-mail from Dubai -- has been writing Broadway dance music and/or arrangements since Carmelina in 1979. "Even though I haven't written a musical for Broadway," he says, "they were sold when they saw on my website that I worked on the Chicago movie." (Moral of the story, writers: Get a good website!) "They didn't offer enough money for a Rolls-Royce, but enough for a mini one," says Krane. "So I said yes."

Fine. But now he and Cole were told they had to deliver the show in eight weeks. The collaborators asked "What's the show about?" and were told they'd learn more after they flew to Dubai. After a 14-hour business-class flight, they met their producers. The first surprise was that the musical would be performed in English "because most of the audience would be foreign dignitaries," says Krane. "And the Emir spoke English, too."

Artistic director Nasser Abdullah Abdul Reda told them that the show would deal with a boy whose father would not let him go to a sports academy. Says Krane, "The show would open Qatar's newest sports arena -- the world's largest soccer stadium -- at the Aspire Sports Academy." Cole decided that he had his title: Aspire. "I was told, though," he says, "that the show had to include such Qatarian icons as the sea, ancient Greece, ancient Qatar, a pearl diving expedition and -- oh, yes -- Carl Lewis, the Olympic runner, and Zinedine Zidane, a French soccer star. I came to the conclusion that they had to be included because the Emir hoped they'd actually show up for the premiere. What's worse, I was expected to have an outline by the end of that first day! They even had set designers there from England, so they could get started working from my outline." (Those designers would eventually quit.)

By the second day, Cole had decided that the show's theme should be what one needed besides strength to be a good sportsman. "So," he says, "I landed on a sultan's son who goes on a tantrum in his room and learns a lesson when a star comes to life. The producers wanted a narrator, but I sold them on the star being personified as a Bette Midler-type. She teaches the boy wisdom, compassion, and courage. The Wizard of Oz always works," Cole adds with a knowing smile. Krane was able to hire crackerjack orchestrator Larry Blank and a music copyist. Cole and Krane then flew to Doha -- Qatar's capital -- to see the still-under-construction stadium, in which the show would premiere on November 19. "Then they took us on a wild SUV ride through the pitch black desert at what had to be 100 miles an hour," says Krane. "We arrived in an encampment where there was a belly dancer, and then we went on camel rides. We felt like we were in The Road to Morocco."

They got their advance. Krane also got a tape of Qatarian folk tunes, some of which would have to be assimilated into the show. ("People would expect to hear them," he was told.) Then Krane and Cole returned home to write, although the contract now said six weeks, not eight. The shortened time frame particularly worried Cole because he'd been working on Marni Nixon's memoir -- fetchingly titled Audrey Hepburn Dubbed My Face -- and it was soon due at the publishers. But Krane and Cole proved the adage that work takes as long as the time you have to do it. They finished Aspire, including the dance music and underscoring, in five weeks.

In July, they went to London to perform it for their producers. "Luckily," says Krane, "Stephen has a fabulous voice. He's the love child of Stephen Douglass and Ethel Merman." Be that as it may, once Cole finished singing and Krane ceased playing, the stone-faced Arabs didn't applaud. Says Cole, "Though I'd spent 90 minutes singing my heart out, I decided that the check's clearing was my applause."

Actually, Reda and his people were thinking where the collaborators had erred culturally. For example, it turned out that one of the Qatarian folk tunes used by Krane can only be played at Ramadan. Out it went. But the show got a green light. This meant that Krane quickly had to go to Bratislava, of all places, to oversee the pre-recording of the music by a a 70 piece-orchestra. "I had put in a chime but was told to take it out because it sounded so much like the bell that tells Muslims it's time to pray," he says.

Krane and Cole were astonished when they were told that they "wouldn't be needed" at casting sessions or rehearsals. They returned to America and waited until they were summoned to Qatar. We'll learn of that trip in my next column.

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[To contact Peter Filichia directly, e-mail him at pfilichia@theatermania.com]