Mission Accomplished: A Musical on the Iraq War

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Brennan Caldwell, backed by Brandon Espinoza and Claire Newmann, in Who's Your Baghdaddy? Production photos by Jeremy Daniels.

The last thing any self-respecting American should want to see is some thoughtless and totally they-just-don’t-get-it musical comedy about the Iraq War, particularly as our tough and turmoil-ridden world full of endless and rolling geopolitical disasters grows grimmer by the day. Something carelessly tossed off and insensitive would be — well, let’s see: ISIS: the Ballet, say?. Yeah, that’ll really sell. Or dialogue like: “Honey, here’s tickets to The Al Qaeda Quartet!” It just won’t play.

Then again, maybe if an Iraq War musical had Dick Cheney singing for his supper inside a super-max prison for those who committed war crimes, that might play. But that wouldn’t be a musical comedy or even just a musical, it would be a Gothic melodrama or maybe Grand Guignol. Or what if it had President George W. Bush — well, no, we really don’t want to see him in a musical, either. First of all, nothing would rhyme. It also would have no structure and no end in sight and no point and the whole exercise would undoubtedly feel like (illegal) torture.

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Nehal Joshi with Caldwell.
In the dark: Nehal Joshi with Caldwell.

But there’s always but, right? Maybe it really is high time that someone cleverly deploys all the best assets of the musical theater — not just music and lyrics, but character and irony, pathos, even raucous comedy — to attack the whole subject anew. Which, by all accounts, is what Who’s Your Baghdaddy? Or How I Started the Iraq War, written by Marshall Pailet and A.D. Penedo, in fact achieves. Based on a screenplay by J.T. Allen, developed and funded by The New Musical Foundation and now presented Off-Broadway by Charlie Fink and Lee Seymour, there’s no frothing Cheney evil or feckless Bush stupidity to hiss at or cover up (well, not really). What there is, though, is a support group for those mid-level spies who started the war and whose “vanity and office politics led to the worst intelligence blunder in modern history.” And, my fellow Americans, that is something to sing about.

Pailet (whose credits include the 2012 Off-Broadway tuner Triassic Parq) stages the show, which features musical direction by Rona Siddiqui and choreography by Misha Shields. The game cast includes Brennan Caldwell, Jason Collins, Bob D’Haene, Olli Haaskivi, Nehal Joshi, Claire Neumann and Larisa Oleynik.

Who’s Your Baghdaddy? Or How I Started the Iraq War runs through Nov. 22 at the Actors’ Temple Theater (339 W. 47th St., 212-239-6200). For tickets, click here.

And now, 5 questions Marshall Pailet has never been asked:

What’s the most perceptive question anyone has asked you about your work?
I get the most jazzed when an audience member asks me a question about staging choices or character arcs. Usually those are things that are just discussed in the rehearsal room, so if I have the chance to talk about it outside of rehearsal, it makes my day.

Writer-Director Marshall Pailet.
Writer-Director Marshall Pailet.

What’s the most idiotic question anyone has asked you about your work?
I’m not trying to be overly polite here, but I really can’t think of one. If someone wants to ask me a question about something I’m working on, the judgmental side of my brain quickly gives way to the side that excitedly shouts “Whoa! Someone cared enough to ask me a question!”

What’s the weirdest question anyone has asked you about your work?
“Are you always high?” I’m not. My eyes just look like that.

One day, folks write a musical about the people who engineered the Iraq War. Alarm bells go off: Saddam Hussein with jazz hands? “What really rhymes with IED?” Does the finale turn out to be “ISIS on ice”? Or is Who’s Your Baghdaddy? a very different kind of satire?
Haha, what you’re describing sounds fun, but yeah, Who’s Your Baghdaddy? is a very different kind of show. Firstly, it’s not about those big named players — there’s no Bush, no Cheney, no Saddam, no ISIS. Rather, our true story follows a handful of mid-level intelligence agents, regular people in positions of moderate power, who major-league effed up. All of them are good people (basically) with good intentions (basically), but the sum of their actions creates something devastating. These aren’t people motivated by big issues like global stability or party politics; they’re focused on everyday things: gaining respect, not being alone, climbing the career ladder. So in that way, this is a story about the everyman dealing with everyday issues, and how one person’s actions can matter, even when they think they’re invisible. Also, the whole thing takes place in a support group. So that’s fun.

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Larisa Olenik and Olli Haaskivi, questioned by Jason Collins.
Larisa Olenik and Olli Haaskivi, questioned by Jason Collins.

Who’s Your Baghdaddy? is based on J.T. Allen’s screenplay. Can you outline how the screenplay turned into a musical?
Charlie Fink and The New Musical Foundation commissioned me and A.D. to musicalize J.T.’s screenplay. It’s a great script, but in adapting the true story for our medium, our script became very different. We went back to primary sources, found a new structure and different motivations for these historical characters.

George W. Bush buys two tickets for your final performance with one condition: you, as director, must give each actor something specific to do at the curtain call to acknowledge the attendance of the 43rd President of the United States. What do you ask them to do?
Oh gee… well, firstly, if Georgie Boy came to our show, it would be the best press we could ever hope for, so I would welcome that. Consider that an invitation, Mr. President.

But I dunno, I don’t hate George W. Bush. And certainly this show isn’t about hating on him or his administration. Being in charge of an eight-actor Off-Broadway show is the most stressful thing I’ve ever done, I can’t imagine how stressful it is to be in charge of America.

So… I would ask each actor to bring him a beer?