Abingdon Theatre Company's Off-Broadway premiere production of The Boy Who Danced On Air was preserved with a cast recording from Broadway Records, released last month. The cast features Troy Iwata and The Band’s Visit’s Jonathan Raviv, along with Osh Ghanimah, Deven Kolluri, and Nikhil Saboo.
The show's writers, including book writer and lyricist Charlie Sohne and composer Tim Rosser, have broken down the new recording track by track, sharing insights into their writing process and inspirations. Read on below!
“The Boy Who Danced on Air has been a passion project for us ever since we first saw the documentary, The Dancing Boys of Afghanistan, seven years ago,” the songwriting team says. “Learning about these boys—who are bought by wealthy men and taken away from their families when they’re very young, trained to dance, and often sexually abused by the men who own them—was a gut punch that sticks with us to this day. Our show is about two of those boys, Paiman and Feda, who come into their own: Fighting to create a space for themselves against incredible odds and ultimately finding true love. We are so thankful that this show has made its way to the stage and now will be heard on a cast album.
“The show’s journey has taken the efforts of countless institutions and people, including Matt Morrow and the Diversionary Theater, who produced the show’s world premiere; Tony Speciale and Abingdon Theatre Company, who produced it Off-Broadway; Broadway Records, which is releasing the cast album; India.Arie, who generously recorded a bonus track for album; and the brilliant Stephen Flaherty who contributed the album’s foreword. This show means so much to us and we’re beyond thrilled that we get to share it with you now!”
"A Song He Never Chose"
Charlie Sohne: We were aware from the beginning that most people coming to the show wouldn’t know a lot about dancing boys in Afghanistan, so one of the storytelling obstacles that we faced was how to get the audience up-to-speed about what exactly they were watching. After writing and discarding several different opening numbers, we finally realized that, in a way, there actually was someone in the show who could stand-in for the audience: Our main character, Paiman. The main action of the show takes place when Paiman is 15 and has been dancing for a while, but when Paiman was first bought; he would’ve needed everything explained to him. We open the show on this sort of prologue. It also allowed us to lay in what will be Paiman’s emotional journey in the show: Here was a boy who dances to a song he never chose (meaning, he has never been allowed to have agency over his own life), but when he meets Feda, the boy he falls in love with, it will be the beginning of his journey to learn to make decisions for himself.
Tim Rosser: This number is also the first time the audience comes into contact with the musical language of the show, so each instrument enters one by one and uses techniques that appear throughout the score: starting with harmonium, a small handpump organ — playing a drone, a held interval to set up the tonal center. Next comes the violin, almost doubling the voice — usually when I double the melody in this show you’ll hear slight variations between the parts which is a cool effect you see a lot in non-western music called heterophony. It’s like what would happen if a choir boy sang “Happy Birthday” with Mariah Carey — you’d get a straight forward melody line against an ornamented version of the same tune. This is followed by a rubab — the lute-like national instrument of Afghanistan, playing a melody on tremolo. Next is a guitar mimicking the two strings of a dombura — a lute with two strings where the lower string provides an unchanging drone pitch, and the upper string plays a melody. And finally the bass enters along with the foundation of the ensemble, our percussionist, laying down the beat with all sorts of cool instruments: dumbek, kanjira, riq, frame drum, finger cymbals, to name a few. Our brilliant music director, David Gardos, and I got to spend many hours with the incredibly talented and creative percussionist Philip Mayer and his vast instrument collection during pre-production.
CS: While the opening was one of the final numbers we wrote for the show, this was the very first. This song is the window we get into Paiman’s character at the beginning of the show: He’s just been told by his master that he’s too old to dance and will be married off. Paiman is terrified because dancing is the only life he’s ever known. It therefore made sense to us that, at this moment of great change, Paiman would turn to dance to bring him comfort — and that the dance he turned to would not be the performative dances he’s been taught to perform for the men, but a dance he’s come up with on his own. In this dance, we see the seeds of Paiman’s individuality that will grow over the course of the show — as Paiman grows, so will his choreography. This is something that our brilliant Drama Desk-nominated choreographer, Nejla Yatkin and our wonderful director, Tony Speciale, were able to beautifully realize over the years of developing the show.
TR: You’ll hear once again a dombura-style line at the beginning of this song playing two strings at a time: the drone and melody line the whole song is based on. Although piano is not necessarily the first instrument one thinks of for a musical that takes place in Afghanistan, I hoped to use it in addition to the guitar to illustrate Paiman’s gentle spirit and naivety.
"For A Night"
CS: This is our introduction to Feda, Paiman’s love interest. The moment needs to achieve a few different things: We need to establish Feda as an incredible dancer, we need to feel an immediate contrast between him and the more understated Paiman, and we need to understand why Paiman falls for Feda so quickly. Balancing these objectives was tricky: Our initial draft of the song communicated all of that when sung, but it was so packed that, when we went into production, we realized it was really difficult to sing while doing the very athletic choreography that the moment required. That’s where the idea of the musical dance breaks came from: These bursts of instrumental energy that would allow the performer to show off choreographically. Feda is a difficult role to cast, as it requires being a true triple threat, and we were so fortunate to have found the brilliant Nikhil Saboo to take on this role.
TR: That “chick chick-a-chick” of the ocean drum is based on a rhythm I heard in my research online, accompanying an actual dancing boy routine. It haunted me, so I thought I’d better use it for this very performative moment.
"With Him Around Me"
CS: This snippet is from a poem that is one of Feda’s favorites. Feda sings these words when he doesn’t think anyone else is around. It’s a soft moment: The main goal of this is to give us a small window into Feda’s more sensitive side. It needs to stand in contrast to the carefree, confident Feda who burst onto the stage in “For A Night.”
TR: The accompaniment figure is meant to evoke the spinning dance that Sufi dervishes used to participate in as the text of the poem was read allowed. Feda has always been drawn to the dervishes dance — a dance that was said to be able to lift you up so high that nothing on earth mattered. This sets up another contrast between Feda, who is fiercely individual and believes you can transcend any obstacle that the world puts in your way — and Paiman, who has always been taught that he has no power over his life and what happens to him. The idea of the spinning dervish dance comes back both musically and thematically at the end of the show, and the piano figure takes on a new meaning.
"All That I’ve Known"
CS: This is the only lyric-first song we wrote for the show. It felt important to give Paiman a chance to work through his very conflicted emotions about his master, Jahandar. Jahandar took Paiman away from his family and has abused Paiman from a young age, but as Paiman says “He’s all that I’ve known.” The emotional attachment that Paiman feels toward his abuser is part of what makes the idea that he’s now going to be married off so terrifying to Paiman.
CS: This is a song for Jahandar — Paiman’s master. It was important to us that Jahandar be more than just a mustache-twirling villain and this was a decision that we’ve had many conversations about over the course of developing the show. To be clear, Jahandar abuses and brutalizes Paiman — and Paiman endures a tremendous amount of cruelty at Jahandar’s hands. At the same time, painting Jahandar as “evil personified” would, in some ways, let the audience off the hook: They’d root for the boys and their love story and remain distant from Jahandar’s unspeakable actions. In reality, however, the cruelest acts are often committed by actual people who have rationalized why they’re doing what they’re doing. They’re people who, outside of their darkest moments, come off as charismatic, kind, or even idealistic. Rather than dismiss evil in the world as done by “bad guys,” it seems much more valuable to consider the ways in which even the most hateful acts come from humanity — they’re not apart from us or some outside force, but driven by recognizable emotions. Jahandar, for instance, is a nationalist who believes in rules and structure and tradition. This belief is completely understandable, looking at the recent political history of Afghanistan, which was a thriving, self-governed country, until political revolution and outside forces destabilized it. Jahandar’s worst actions toward Paiman, as well as his inability to admit the feelings he has toward his dancing boy, all stem from his belief in the rules of tradition. Dancing boy culture is right in his mind because it’s tradition and breaking it, in any way, will only lead to the chaos that comes when you start breaking rules. Kabul is where we see the seeds of Jahandar’s philosophy and, secondarily, it was a good opportunity for us to give the audience some context about the larger forces at play in Afghanistan politically.
TR: Also, check out the beautiful violin playing of Eylem Basaldi. She’s got such a wide range of expertise and contributed so much to this score. In this song you can hear Eylem playing with different kinds of trills, slides, and micro-tonality (pitches in between half steps). So expressive and gorgeous; she’s such a rockstar.
"Play Your Part"
CS: This song, again for Jahandar, is the clearest statement of how Jahandar’s belief in rules and tradition applies to Paiman. The music for this song is intentionally lush and sweet — almost like a lullaby. Again, even though Jahandar’s relationship with Paiman is abusive, he feels a tremendous amount of affection toward his boy. On the one hand, tradition says that Paiman is too old to continue dancing and so Jahandar must marry him off — on the other hand, Jahandar, as the end of this song reveals, feels things for his boy that he can’t quite admit to and is not ready to give Paiman up.
"Into Your Hands"
CS: This is one of our favorite kinds of songs to write, because most of the storytelling is done via subtext. Paiman is nervous about his upcoming wedding, so Feda offers to walk him through the ceremony, so he knows what it’ll be like. While on the surface the number is just instructive, as Paiman and Feda go through an Afghan wedding ceremony together, we see them grow closer in real time. This was another number where Nejla, our choreographer, really took the song to the next level: Feda has to put a mock wedding ceremony together using just a few objects that he has on hand — and Nejla’s creativity in figuring out how Feda’s scarf could transform into wedding clothes and then into a shawl was really wonderful to watch.
TR: In trying to achieve a sense of mysticism at the end of this song, I found myself creating an aleatoric piano accompaniment — a term that means “left to chance.” I actually improvised it directly into my computer by letting my fingers go free, and although it’s written out note-for-note in the sheet music from that day I wrote it, I think it’s almost impossible to play it the exact same way twice. I know I never have. Although, David Gardos might. Did you hear his pristine scales in “Play Your Part”? He’s amazing.
"A Song He Never Chose (Reprise)"
CS: Jahandar has found out about Paiman’s growing flirtation with Feda and he brutalizes Paiman. This is driven both by the fact that Paiman has broken the rules, and also, on a deep level, a fear Jahandar feels Paiman growing distant from him. Jahandar tries to get Paiman to disavow Feda, but Paiman, aware that Feda can hear him, refuses. Despite the violence in the scene, it’s a big step for Paiman — it’s the first time he defies his master and a big step on his emotional journey to make decisions for himself.
"A Boy of My Own"
TR: We often talk about this song as the heart of the show. The inspiration for it was an interview we saw with a dancing boy. He was talking about his future and casually began describing what it would be like when he owned a boy. There was something so powerful in the idea that this boy would naturally assume that he would grow up to own dancing boys. It hit home for us how much these relationships are part of everyday life for the boys involved.
CS: One of the main challenges of Paiman and Feda’s developing romantic relationship was figuring out how they would talk about it — we wanted to keep their conception of their relationship to each other grounded in their own reality and avoid placing a western lens on how they related to each other. That’s when the idea emerged that, in talking about their futures and how they would be better to their dancing boys, they would find a vocabulary for how they feel towards each other. Later in the show, this emerging vocabulary solidifies when Feda asks Paiman, incredulously, “What? You’re going to be my ‘boy’?” and Paiman replies “I dunno - maybe we’ll be each other’s’.” At the end of this number the boys kiss and solidify a plan to run away together to the nearest city, Chagcharan.
"Denying The Sun"
CS: This is our Act 2 opener. Woven throughout the story is a man on a long journey, who we at first assume to be a narrator. This moment, where he lays out a philosophy that stands in contrast to Feda’s (you can’t change the world, the only thing to do is follow the rules and try to survive), is the first when you start to feel like maybe there’s something more to this narrator figure. The role is difficult to pull off, as his emotional journey is told mostly through subtext (until the last scene) and Deven Kolluri, who played the role Off-Broadway, did wonders in communicating that emotional journey.
TR: At the end of the track, we hear Feda singing a snippet. The song echoes along the mountain range — Feda likes the echo because if he sings loud enough, it will echo “with the power of one thousand voices.” This is a metaphorical encapsulation of Feda’s philosophy: An individual is more powerful than the first seem — and if they are willing to put themselves out there and make their own decisions, they can make a major impact.
"What You Did To Me"
CS: This moment is tremendously important for Paiman’s character. Jahandar has just shot him in the foot, preventing him from ever dancing again. Feda, scared by this, tries to abandon their plan to run away. Paiman refuses, deciding that they should continue on with the plan. This role reversal is huge: Paiman is now the one who is willing to take action and break the rules. In this song, he makes the argument to Feda about why they should run away — crediting Feda with teaching him the strength and resolve necessary to change their lives for the better. Troy Iwata’s performance of this song (and all of the songs on this album, really) is wonderful because it doesn’t give in to sentimentality — even though the song is a ballad, Paiman is strong at this moment and is forcefully making a case to Feda that they have to continue with their plan to run away.
TR: Once again, the two-string dombura had a huge influence on me as I wrote this song. At one point I even toyed with the idea of using an actual dombura in the pit but it became very clear that outlining the chord changes and navigating the various keys of the songs in this show is a tall order for this lute. In fact, early on, I thought we might have to play all the lute parts on a keyboard. But then I met a great guitar player who showed me how very flexible the guitar is, and that is when Hiddy Honari’s grave was dug! Not only was he up to the excruciating task of playing these “guitar parts,” but he also doubles on rubab. How effortless he makes it all sound!
"In The City"
TR: In a show that deals with a lot of big emotions and high stakes drama, it was important for us to find a moment of pure joy. “In The City” is that moment — where the two boys imagine what their life will be like once they run away. The energy of this song is really important and gives us something to hold onto as Paiman and Feda soon face mounting obstacles.
"I Can See It"
CS: This song is related to Jahandar’s B-plot, where he resells black market fuel, stolen from American military bases to local Afghan businessmen so they can run their generators—turning the supplies of a violent occupying force to a source of the country’s renewal. This relates to a larger dream of Jahandar’s: A hope that Afghanistan will one day have power of its own.
TR: In a show with so much activity and so much story, I felt compelled to slow everything down, here. To start quietly with a scared man in the dark, and slowly reveal the enormity of his vision — let it emerge like the sunken cathedral or something, just to see who Jahandar really is for a moment, separate from his mistakes and his cruelty. And an interesting thing happened in rehearsal: Charlie insisted on overlaying the climactic point of this music with Paiman’s abduction! At first it really made me mad that he was stepping on the climax, but I understand now that it works and what it means: You can’t separate Jahandar from his actions. Even if you understand him, he isn’t off the hook. He’s responsible for the suffering he causes, and that is tied in with his vision, however noble.
CS: This takes place after Paiman is brutalized by Feda’s master. His dreams of running away with Feda have been dashed and he struggles on his injured foot. Still, even at this low point, Paiman has an inner strength that he’s earned over the course of the show — refusing to be beaten down, he returns to his dance from the beginning as an act of defiance. He clearly can’t do the dance as he once did, but struggling through his injury he comes up with something more beautiful. This moment is really all about Nejla Yatkin, who choreographed a truly stunning dance for Paiman. We love the fact that one of the most powerful moments in the show doesn’t feature a single word — it speaks to a really unique power that musical theater has.
"I Know How You Feel"
CS: This song is sung by Jahandar to Paiman right before the wedding. It’s last time that Jahandar gets to speak to Paiman as his boy — and Jahandar still can’t admit how he feels toward him. Jahandar’s attachment toward his boy flies in the face of the power relationship that’s supposed to exist between a master and his dancing boy. So we watch an uncomfortable struggle; Jahandar tries to express how he feels in a coded way, by ascribing the emotions he has to Paiman. This stunted attempt to connect falls flat, particularly because Paiman, made stronger through his relationship with Feda and increasingly aware of Jahandar’s cruelty, refuses to engage.
TR: It took a long time for us to settle on the drum part for this song. It has a kind of a gently wavering quality, due to its unusual time signature and any percussion I added to it took it to an aggressive place. Philip Mayer’s brilliant solution was a large frame drum played with two broomsticks. Yes, broomsticks. That he just happened to have on his shelf. Philip Mayer is magic. And maybe also a witch.
"A Song He Never Chose (Finale)"
CS: Feda is brought in to dance for the men at the celebration after Paiman’s wedding. Paiman, now married, is among the men. Feda, who had abandoned their plan to run away together as a way to hopefully keep Paiman safe, makes an impulsive decision. He decides to dance only for Paiman: Adopting the moves of Paiman’s dance. The men in the room are furious, and so Feda runs out. Paiman runs after him. As the men close in on the boys, Paiman makes a final decision: Like the dervishes who used to spin to Feda’s favorite poem, Paiman and Feda will now transcend this earth. Only he means it literally: They’ll blow themselves up by igniting Jahandar’s diesel fuel supply.
TR: Here’s where the spinning dervish accompaniment returns, only this time, it returns as the sound of the diesel pouring out of a fuel tank when Paiman punctures it. Feda is still convinced that, while he himself doesn’t have a future, Paiman could have a good life if he just went back to the party. Therefore, in a moment where Paiman is far enough away from the blast, Feda ignites the tanks—sacrificing himself for his friend.
CS: In the aftermath of the blast, Paiman emerges, mourning his friend. He then, for the first time is able to see the wandering Unknown Man, who has guided us through the story. We realize that the Unknown Man is a grown up version of Paiman — and in a sense, the show has been a memory play. In this heightened moment, where young Paiman is able to see and speak to his future self, this future version of Paimain reveals that Jahandar will marry Paiman off to someone else — and in order to survive, Paiman will push the memory of Feda out of his mind as much as possible. Paiman will hold onto a knife that Feda has given him, but when Paiman’s son finds the knife, he will realize that he needs to let go of that as well. So he comes back to the village where he used to live in order to bury the knife and say goodbye to the memory of his friend. Young Paiman is disheartened by how resigned his future self seems, so he sings Feda’s song in defiance and we hear it echo through the mountain range. But then the echo fades. The Unknown Man points out that the echo that Feda claimed gave him the power of one thousand voices is ultimately just a trick: There were never a thousand voices, just Feda’s. One person’s voice isn’t enough to change the world. But then something happens. A voice from far off in the distance repeats Feda’s song back. And then another. And then another. As the echoes build, we realize that Feda’s voice (and by extension, Feda and Paiman’s relationship) might not have been enough to immediately change the world, but in some small way his was heard and over time, if enough people are brave enough to sing their own song, the world can change. When we landed on this ending it was truly exciting for us — this theory of change was something that we genuinely believed and felt like our story could communicate.
TR: This song is incredibly special. India.Arie is one of the most powerful and nuanced vocalists around and we were thrilled to have gotten to work with her a few years back on a project for The Dance Theater of Harlem. We had always been a little bummed that Feda’s song in the show had never gotten a full song-length expression and when we wrote one as a “single” track for the album we asked India if she’d record it, without much expectation that she would have time to do so. We were blown away when she got back immediately and agreed. She did such an incredible job with the track and we’re overjoyed to have it on the album.