BEITEDDINE, Lebanon: The Chouf palace went back in time Wednesday night for the national premiere of “Broken Wings,” a musical adaption of Gibran Khalil Gibran’s poetic novel. Directed by Bronagh Lagan, the show was created by Lebanese stage artist Nadim Naaman and Qatari musician Dana al-Fardan.
“We wanted to write a musical for the Middle East, about the Middle East, that encapsulated … Eastern and Western culture coming together and supporting one another,” Naaman told The Daily Star in a prepremiere interview. “We’re both … deeply frustrated by the global landscape at the moment, where things are going backward in time and people are becoming more divided and we were looking for a way to put this into a piece of art.
“A lot of [Gibran’s] work was very philosophical,” he continued. “‘Broken Wings,’ on the other hand, reads like a diary. [It’s] in the first person and it’s him narrating as an older guy about his memories as an 18-year-old.”
First published in Arabic in 1912, “Broken Wings” is a tale of tragic love, set in turn-of-the-century Beirut. The musical enjoyed its first run in 2018 at London’s West End Theatre Royal Haymarket. Helen Zimmern translated the work into English in the 1940s.
“She put the character of Selma as the focal point, rather than it all being ‘Oh poor Gibran,’ like some of the male translations,” Naaman said. “We wanted to focus on the effects on women of the society at the time – arranged marriage, feminism, religious corruption. … It’s all things that he was writing about a century ago, that the world still needs to hear today.”
The musical begins with an older Gibran (Naaman) sitting in his gloomy New York rooms, working on his novel and replaying youthful memories. He sings about his first love, Selma Karami (Nikita Johal), somberly revealing she’s since passed away.
An 18-year-old Gibran (Benjamin Purkiss) returns to his homeland after living in Boston for five years, hoping to further his studies and learn more about his heritage. At Beirut Port he runs into childhood friend Karim (Nadeem Crow) who, joking about the villagelike city, says Gibran will likely run into a cousin within the hour.
Introduced to a wealthy businessman, family friend Farris Karami (Adam Linstead), young Gibran is soon enthralled by his beautiful and clever daughter Selma. In a touching duet the two sing of the first tentative flutter of love, while the corrupt and greedy Bishop Bulos (Karl Seth) schemes in the following scene, eager to have his detestable, womanizing nephew Mansour (Sami Lamine) acquire the Karami fortune.
Throughout the show, the older Gibran narrates, reflecting on his past. His stunning, steady baritone and confident presence is a stark contrast to the youthful, wavering tenor of his younger image, a teen who is still learning about the world and his own identity.
Though the two actors never interact, they play off each other brilliantly. The older Gibran watches the memories unfold solemnly from his desk at the back of the stage.
The bishop approaches Farris, demanding Selma’s hand for his nephew. Unable to refuse the church, her father agrees, much to the young lovers’ dismay. Selma implores Gibran to keep living and to stay in her life somehow despite her fate – obeying her father and Lebanese tradition. The musical takes the time to highlight opposing ideas about love, family and marriage. Gibran feels trapped in the rigid traditions that smother women and the shady nature of the country’s supposedly pious.
The second act begins with the unhappy marriage, an unsmiling Selma accepting her lot in life and an uninterested Mansour waiting for the celebrations to end. The older Gibran bitterly speaks about marriage as nothing more than a soulless transaction in Lebanon, which has clipped the wings of his beloved Selma.
It is not until Farris is on his deathbed that a now-married Selma and young Gibran come face to face. Seeking comfort, the two agree to meet in secret at a nearby temple every week. The bishop is suspicious and has Selma watched. She decides that they must part ways for sure this time.
Bouts of depression have worn down Selma, but she finds the will to live when she falls pregnant and looks forward to the joys of motherhood. Tragedy awaits, however, and this final loss is what drives Gibran back to America, never to return.
The musical’s tale appears to have resonated deeply with the Lebanese audience, who saw themselves in the production’s themes. Though set a century ago, many of the issues Gibran highlighted in his book are still relevant today. The music was stunning and the singers’ and actors’ talent evident, full of believable emotion and skill when mastering the challenging harmonies.
Naaman expressed hope that the musical would eventually have its own life, and a wider audience.
“We had a lovely response from Middle Eastern audience members who said, ‘That was me,’ or, ‘That was my mom,’ and were grateful for us putting the story out there,” Naaman said. “Hopefully we’ve introduced a few new people to [Gibran], to Lebanon, and that it’s not what people see on Western news.
“I’m really excited for the day I get to see it, because I’ve only ever seen it from the back of the stage,” he noted. “I just see the back of everyone’s heads.”
“History will be kind to me, for I intend to write it.” –Winston Churchill