NEW YORK CITY: Even a hardcore arts activist would have a hard time arguing that premiering original musicals fits the mission of the United Nations. But for firsttime playwright Shai Baitel, whose musical Damascus Square (with music by Oran Eldor and lyrics by Sarah Hirsch) premiered on Sept. 6 at the United Nations, the only familiar part of this experience was the location.
“Ten years ago I stood here as a young legal advisor,” Baitel says. More recently, Baitel, an expert in Middle Eastern politics and international affairs, took to the small stage of the Dag Hammarskjöld Library Auditorium in the U.N. building to greet an assemblage of dignitaries under an entirely different context: to thank them for coming to see a concert version of his new musical, a spy story set in one of the most explosive regions of the world.
Baitel’s musical explores the life of infamous spy Eli Cohen, who infiltrated the Syrian government on behalf of the Israeli intelligence agency in the 1950s and ’60s. While framed as what Baitel describes as “a geopolitical thriller,” the play doesn’t shy away from drawing connections to the contemporary. At the close of the first act, as young Cohen enters a tumultuous political scene in Damascus, he befriends members of a rising political party. As they come to power, projections of images from the current Syrian revolution fill the stage, and the actors sing: “The reign of people power has begun!”
Perhaps the play does align with the U.N.’s mission of developing friendly relations among nations, after all. Baitel sees the show as an important transportive experience for audiences: “Eli Cohen, in a way, provides a rare opportunity to take the audience onto a journey to the Middle East,” Baitel says. “It is not only a journey to Syria, a powder keg in the region, but also a journey into the hearts and minds of the people living in one of the most beautiful regions of the world.”
In a true internationalist spirit, Damascus Square next moves to London for a 20-week residency at the Old Vic Tunnels, where the play’s underground operative will actually be placed underground—performing in a subterranean arts venue beneath Waterloo Station.