Sex slavery in Afghanistan isn't an obvious subject for a musical, but haven't we had enough of the obvious in musical theater? Tim Rosser and Charlie Sohne make a good case for the path of most resistance in their challenging, courageous, and beautiful new musical, The Boy Who Danced on Air, now making its New York debut at Abingdon Theatre Company.
Taking place in modern Afghanistan, it tells the story of Paiman (Troy Iwata), a young man whose family has sold him to Jahandar (Jonathan Raviv), a wealthy older man employed at an American power plant. Paiman's duties include dancing for Jahandar's male guests and going to bed with his master at night. While dancing at a party, he meets Feda (Nikhil Saboo), a boy owned by Jahandar's cousin, Zemar (Osh Ghanimah). Feda dreams of becoming a singer and suggests that Paiman should run away with him to Chaghcharan, a big city (population: 30,000) where they could build a new life. But Jahandar, troubled by Paiman's emergent beard, has determined to retire Paiman from dancing and marry him off to a girl. Paiman has to decide if he will do what is expected or take a risk on love.
For the unfamiliar, Paiman and Feda are bacha bereesh, beardless youths bought and sold for the entertainment of older men. While we would like to relegate such behavior to antiquity (Alexander the Great's dancing boy, Bagoas, comes to mind), it is still common in Afghanistan, often justified under the pretense of family values: "Men have needs," Jahandar explains. "That's why we have dancing boys…It’s what allows us to maintain moral relationships with women." Jahandar would never sleep with a woman who is not his wife, but boys don't count. He looks down on Zemar for keeping a boy as old as 17, considering sexual activity between adult men as perverse.
Jahandar's contradictions are infuriating, especially to Western viewers with a dim outlook on pederasty. But his propensity for drawing a convenient line of acceptability around his own lifestyle isn't exactly exotic. Also, the way the older men treat the younger men as "used up" in their late teens has an eerie resonance with the way our own culture treats females stars past a certain age.
As Jahandar, Raviv is the patriarchy personified. His cruel domination of Paiman combined with an unwavering conviction that he is a good person makes him one of the most loathsome musical villains in recent memory. When he sings the second act sympathy number "I Know How You Feel," we resent him for getting so tender a ballad, for trying to make the story all about him. This unapologetic contrast of form with content is reminiscent of Sondheim at his most subversive.
Rosser and Sohne employ a comfortingly familiar songwriting style (Rosser's music often sounds like it was written for an avant-garde Disney project) to push thrillingly fresh ideas: The first act closes with "When I Have a Boy of My Own," a soaring duet that Iwata and Saboo manage to take even higher with their warmth and chemistry. The song is about how they will one day be kinder masters to their own adolescent sex slaves, with the implied message, We should be each other's adolescent sex slaves! We stop to entertain the disturbing thought that every love song is really just an ode to the dream of surrendering our freedom to another person.
The Boy Who Danced on Air uses other time-tested musical theater devices, like the mysterious narrator at the edge of the stage. He's not just a dispassionate observer like the Emcee in Cabaret, though: Deven Kolluri plays this role with an oppressive gravity that lets us know from the beginning that tragedy lies ahead.
Sohne's book efficiently places this human tragedy in the context of its society. Economics, religion, and tradition all have a role to play, as do the complicit Americans, whose presence since the 2001 invasion has added a new dimension to Afghan society. Jahandar may lord it over Paiman, but he looks awfully small and helpless when confronted by his heavily armed American bosses. All of this results in a pattern of culture, sex, and politics more complex than the overlapping Persian rugs on the set (detailed yet versatile design by Christopher and Justin Swader).
Director Tony Speciale realizes Rosser and Sohne's vision with brilliance and thrift, making this five-person musical feel a whole lot larger. He cleverly stages the exposition using shadows to accentuate the height difference between Paiman and Jahandar. Nejla Yatkin's high-flying choreography is technically impressive while pushing the story (a dance performed on crutches is particularly memorable). Prop designer Jerry Marsini litters the set with artifacts of modernity, like the iPhone, while Andrea Lauer tells a similar story with her subtly ingenious costume plot: Feda wears a jean jacket over his kurta. Mass-produced items mingle with the homemade. This mixture of old and new never allows us to forget that this story is taking place right now.
With The Boy Who Danced on Air, Rosser and Sohne have created that rarest of theatrical unicorns: A wholly original musical that is both emotionally and intellectually stirring. Anyone who cares about the future of the American musical should run out and see it now — as should anyone who cares about the country in which the United States is presently fighting the longest war in our history. Yes: the War in Afghanistan is still going on, with U.S. leaders weighing a new troop surge. We rarely hear about the war in the news anymore, but this off-off-Broadway musical makes Afghanistan impossible to ignore.