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How was the musical Aspire, written by two Americans, received by the Emir of Quatar and his people? logo
A scene from Aspire
When we last left bookwriter-lyricist Stephen Cole and composer David Krane, they'd been commissioned to write an original musical for the Emir of Qatar. As I related on Monday, they were given six weeks to do it and miraculously accomplished the task in five. Their show, Aspire, was to open a new soccer stadium in Doha, Qatar's capital, on November 19, 2005.

Much has been made of Elton John not being on the scene to work on his musicals. Well, much to the surprise of Cole and Krane, they weren't weren't invited to stay in Qatar for casting or rehearsals. But they were summoned to the Middle Eastern country two days before the opening, so they could watch the final rehearsals on Friday and Saturday. What they saw was a bit of chaos. An LED screen on which projections were to be shown didn't work. (It had been shipped to Quatar at a cost of $95,000!) At each of the final rehearsals, the show never progressed past the third number. So Aspire, with its 175-member cast, would have to open without a full run-through or even a tech rehearsal.

Opening night! It's opening night! It's those Americans' latest show; will it flop or will it go? Before Krane and Cole started dressing for the occasion, they were told that they should take curtain calls, but they wondered, "What if the audience doesn't like it?" The show's stakes had been raised, for what had been conceived as a one-night-only performance had turned into a one-week run. Krane and Cole wondered if there'd be enough interest in Aspire for it to play out the week. Granted, the Emir was charging no admission for his subjects to see the show, but maybe it would be such a disaster no one would want to attend.

As the clock reached show time, something else was missing: The Emir. "Of course," says Krane, "we couldn't start before he got there." The collaborators killed time by chatting with the French and Korean ambassadors. They also scanned the crowd for Carl Lewis and Zinedine Zidane, the sports stars whom they were told to reference in their show. They weren't in attendance, as had been assumed; but Mark Spitz, another former Olympic champion, was.

Finally, a full hour late, in walked the corpulent Emir with his trophy wife. They took front row seats, and it was Magic Time. "It really was," says Cole. "I'd expected abstract sets, but oh, were these realistic. They'd been made in China and were bigger than you'd ever dream. The inside of tombs! King Tut's palace! Three enormous ships! And the cast! There were fire eaters, Croatian acrobats, Russian dancers, and jugglers who juggled things the size of houses. Funny, whenever we asked about the budget, they never told us what it was. They'd always say, 'Less than you think.' But this show sure looked expensive to us. It was like Jumbo, but bigger."

To their delight, the authors saw that the show itself worked. They sat back and enjoyed their tale of Mansour, the son of a Sultan. Since the death of the lad's mother, the Sultan won't let his 12-year-old leave the palace. Mansour is spoiled by his father's lackeys. When they say, "Your wish is our command," he snarkily decides, "I want that star in the sky to come down." Of course, they can't do that, but a Star does come down -- think Bette Midler -- to tell him off for being such a brat. Then she says, "Close your eyes and wish." Soon, Mansour is crossing the sea. He arrives in Greece, where he meets Odysseus, Achilles, Ajax, Agamemnon -- and a Cyclops, whom the Greeks want to kill. Mansour asks them to spare the monster and invites him to dinner. The charmed Cyclops says that he could never eat them now that they're all friends. The Greeks learn, "A man can win a battle by using his heart."

Mansour then takes off on a flying carpet, arrives in Egypt, and meets a nine-year-old named Tut who's been thrust, not unlike Chulalongkorn in The King and I, onto the throne after his father dies. The boy king is scared and runs away, which thrills General Horemheb and henchman Ay, who expect to take over Egypt. The country's laws demand a 30-day waiting period before power changes hands; Mansour spends the time encouraging Tut to reclaim the throne and planning a ruse to quash the villains. It works, and Tut is forever grateful. Mansour then meets the aforementioned Olympic champ Carl Lewis and soccer legend Zinedine Zidane, both of whom encourage him to take a camel ride. He winds up in 1920, where a pearl diving expedition is about to take place.

Then came a showstopper -- "though not the kind you'd want," says Cole. "Right then and there was a sword dance, and then 25 minutes of Arabian music with nothing happening dramatically. We just had to sit and wait it out." (The Emir's emissaries had insisted on all this, and Cole and Krane couldn't fight City Hall, so to speak.) Eventually, the story resumed with Mansour meeting Saad, a 15-year-old who gets stuck in a small underwater crevice. Only the diminutive Mansour can get into the space to help release him. In doing so, he helps Saad to become a man.

Once the Sultan sees how Mansour has matured, he allows him to leave the palace and become a man. But Krane and Cole didn't see the end of the show. They had to get ready for their curtain calls and, considering that the stadium was so large, they needed 10 minutes to go from their seats to the backstage area. When they bowed, the Emir stood up and cheered -- and, needless to say, so did everyone else. David Krane and Stephen Cole felt just like Mansour, whose name is Arabic for "victorious."


[To contact Peter Filichia directly, e-mail him at [email protected]]

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