West End actor and playwright Nadim Naaman never wanted to star in his own musical.
But, when he sat down to co-write ‘Broken Wings’, based on the eponymous memoir by Lebanese poet Khalil Gibran, he had no choice but to play the part.
“My producer Ali Matar was very blunt with me. He said, ‘Listen, I can’t put on this show on the West End and sell it to Lebanese people when you are the only Lebanese West End musical guy at the moment,'" said Naaman, with a laugh. “They’re just going to say, ‘Shu, why is he not in it?’”
Gibran was a world-famous Lebanese-American poet who lived between the Middle East and North America, becoming popular for his best-selling English language book of prose poetry ‘The Prophet’ in 1923. One of the most translated books in history, ‘The Prophet’ is available in more than 100 languages and has never been out of print in the near century since it’s been published.
Despite this, Naaman chose to bring Gibran’s lesser-known 1921 book ‘Broken Wings’ to the stage. Unlike ‘The Prophet’, Gibran wrote ‘Broken Wings’ in Arabic; but here, Naaman deliberately excludes any Arabic lyrics from the musical.
“I’ll tell you why,” he told Gulf News tabloid!. “The Arab world knows this man and this book inside-out. What we’re trying to do is take him everywhere else.”
‘HE WAS A FEMINIST’
In a sense, ‘Broken Wings’ is a doomed love story. It follows 18-year-old Gibran as he returns to Beirut after five years in Boston. He falls for Selma Karamy, played here by British-Pakistani actress Hannah Qureshi. But there is no shortage of obstacles in their way.
“Her journey is very tragic,” says Qureshi, of her character. “She starts off as this excited young girl. She falls in love with Gibran, and then, the same day, she’s told that she’s going to be sent to marry Mansoor, who is the bishop’s nephew. She knows, then, she can never be with Gibran. She has to find the strength to live with that.”
Qureshi, who was straight out of school when she auditioned for the production, called Selma’s character “empowering”.
“She goes on to teach Gibran a lot about women and about the society that they were in, which he then uses later in life when he becomes who he became,” says Qureshi. “She was sort of his muse, almost, and the inspiration behind a lot of his works. It’s a lot of responsibility to play that kind of character.”
Another strong influence on Gibran was his mum Kamila, played by British-Iranian actress Soophia Foroughi.
“In the show, she’s very tender but she’s strong. She took her children across to America when they were very young; her husband was imprisoned for embezzlement. It’s a very risky thing to do, to up and leave your home — and to do it on your own. She inspired [Gibran] to look at women as being a strong sex. As a result, he was a feminist,” said Foroughi.
‘A LONELY FIGURE’
In the musical, there are two versions of Gibran — the enamoured boy in Lebanon, and the 40-year-old poet in America (Naaman himself), looking back on his younger self.
“The character of older Gibran is like the narrator,” said Naaman. “He’s at his desk in New York in 1923, writing his memoir and imagining the past. Everybody else in the show is in the past. So, although I’m acting in it, I’m also a kind of lonely figure.
“I was going to leave the show as an actor, but then we took [‘Broken Wings’] to Beit ed-Dine and it was the most overwhelming week of my career. To see the response in Lebanon, where the show matters more than anywhere else, convinced me to stick with it a bit longer.”
“[The audience] loved the fact that we were telling stories that they were so familiar with, that they saw in themselves,” said musical director Benjamin Cox. “What they really connected to was up there on stage, being delivered in this epic format.”
LONDON TO BEIRUT
Naaman’s credits on the West End include ‘The Phantom of the Opera’, ‘Sweeney Todd’ and ‘By Jeeves’. He was born and raised in the UK, blaming his mum (British) and dad (Lebanese) for his limited Arabic; his parents met in Dubai but relocated to London two years before Naaman’s birth.
“Remember the film ‘My Big Fat Greek Wedding’? Honestly, my childhood was like that, growing up [with] family occasions where you have 20 Brits and then 20 Lebanese people, just observing the differences in social behaviours,” said Naaman. “A lot of the comedy in ‘Broken Wings’ comes from the stereotypical Lebanese family culture. The overbearing mother, the laid-back father, and the children who are not children — they’re, like, 40 years old.”
Naaman, now in his mid-30s, studied English and theatre at university and did a postgraduate course at the Royal Academy of Music. But, his appreciation for Gibran’s work goes back further.
“He was a part of my house growing up,” said Naaman. “Pictures on the walls, quotes that I’ve heard at weddings and funerals. He’s always been a presence in my family’s life. There are copies of ‘Prophet’ everywhere.”
Naaman was gifted the book at the age of 15, calling it ‘soul nourishing’. “It’s timeless. That’s the best thing about it — it will go on for centuries.”
When it came to creating ‘Broken Wings’, the process of building an English musical out of an Arabic text was “very formulaic, actually,” he said.
“There’s quite a lot of dialogue. He gives you some good lines,” said Naaman. “But, the one thing about Gibran that’s not helpful is that he writes a lot. He sometimes says in four or five sentences what you need to say in one, in a show.”
For him, it was about “storytelling rather than spectacle”.
“There are some musicals where there is stuff just for the sake of it: now we’re going to tap dance, now there’s been a big scene change, now there’s a sparkly costume. That’s fine, for a different style of show, but that’s not what we’re about.”
The finished musical, co-written by Naaman and Dana Fardan, premiered on the West End in August of 2018. The cast is made up of a dozen different nationalities.
“We have a handful of Lebanese, we have Jordanian, we’ve had Egyptian previously. Now we have Pakistani, we have Tunisian. And we’ve also had Australian, British and Indian,” said Naaman.
The actor compared it to the city of London, calling it a “melting pot.” But he thinks the show would do just as well on Broadway.
“The thing that the Brits don’t have that the Americans do is a real passion for the immigrant story. Because the entire modern United States is founded on immigration and people seeking life in a new world,” said Naaman.
“Plus, Gibran hit the big time in the States ... He’s outsold every American poet, which is crazy ... Gibran’s the third-best selling poet of all time — and the other two aren’t American. So, it’s quite amazing that this Syrian, at the time, refugee lands in America and becomes the biggest-selling poet they’ve ever had.”
Gibran returned to Lebanon at the age of 15. But, he spent the majority of his adulthood settled in America. He died aged 48 of illness in New York City.
Gibran published his first Arabic book in 1905. His themes ranged from religion, politics and freedom to love, happiness and death; he also had a strong connection to his homeland and his work was often characterised by sorrow and sentiment.
In addition, Gibran has several published plays: two in English and five in Arabic.
- Tickets to see ‘Broken Wings’ at Dubai Opera on January 17 and 18 start at Dh295. Watch the video of the Gulf News tabloid! interview as well as a teaser of the show below: