Rock opera spiked with macho
It's an unusual, vitriolic fringe production. But the creators of "Playing With Fire" believe its down-to-earth topics will move the masses.
"Lately I've been feeling like a walking storm in the making, here in my gut."
That is a paraphrase of the raging and testosterone-fueled monologue that opens "Misahek B'esh" ("Playing with Fire"), the new rock opera by two men with the same name: Shai Lahav, a journalist, playwright and a former music critic and editor at Maariv newspaper, and Shai Lahav, a singer and musician best known as a member of Dr. Kasper's Rabbit Show.
The monologue continues. "I don't know what to call it and it's driving me crazy, and it has to break. I've also found a way to get it out. Listen carefully to me. For a number of weeks, I've been coming up with rhymes. They burst out, from the gut, straight to the keyboard, unmediated. As if I'm not even involved in the matter. Entire songs. Poems. It's wonderful that a 39-year-old man suddenly discovers the Yossi Gispan within him, isn't it? So that's it. Yossi Gispan writes happy songs that go well with clapping. And me? I spurt out bitter and cynical rhymes full of pain and anger. Rhymes by somebody having a bad time."
The musical show, which has been showing at the Be'er Sheva Fringe Theater for the past month and will have its Tel Aviv premiere on July 17 at the Tzavta club, deals with one of the biggest cliches of masculinity: the midlife crisis. The trigger for it was the real midlife crisis of one Shai Lahav, the playwright, some four years ago.
"It happened on my 39th birthday," he says. "We went, a few couples and their kids, to a bed-and-breakfast in the Arava Desert to celebrate. There was a small dining room there and they organized a party for me on Friday evening. What could be better than that? But when the time came to go to the party I felt I didn't want to leave the room. And I'm an emotionally content person, almost impenetrable, or at least that's how I once was. I didn't understand what was happening to me, and I also chuckled at the banality of it, that it was happening on my 39th birthday. But I didn't go. They sent a delegation to get me. My wife wanted to die, but I didn't agree to go. I stayed in the room."
The crisis that surfaced on Lahav's 39th birthday unsettled his life and that of his family for the next few months and at its height he started writing songs, for the first time since he penned humorous ditties to attract attention when he was in fourth grade. "Just like in the play's opening, I started writing songs full of sadness, poison and anger, without understanding why I was doing it," he says. "Writing for the sake of writing, without thinking who, what, how." Lahav set those songs aside and only two years later, when the ghosts of the midlife crisis had calmed down and his family got through the storm in one piece, did he come back to them. "I saw it was good, and I also noticed there was a story here," he says. "These weren't just any songs, but a story with a beginning, middle and end."
Lahav wanted someone to set the songs to music and decided to approach Shai Lahav the musician. "The songs were heavy, and needed someone to lighten them up," he explains. "Shai is perhaps the biggest pop artist there is here. He knows how to take complex material and present it in a way that is both fun and deep."
"I just heard a lot of The Smiths and The Cure," says Lahav the musician. "And Madness," adds Lahav the writer. "You could have taken the words all the way and composed music for these songs that was heavy," continues the musician, "but my nature is to take songs to a place of 'stanza-refrain.'"
The two Lahavs first talked in the late 1990s. Lahav the writer, who was taking his first steps in journalism (he was a lawyer before that ), wrote an article on the album "Muscat," on which Arik Einstein and Shalom Hanoch collaborated again after a 20-year break. All the people interviewed for that article praised the new album, and logic dictated that Lahav the musician, then the head of the Israeli division of the NMC record label, which released "Muscat," would do the same. But Lahav hated "Muscat" and had no problem saying so on the record. "I didn't know whether to respect him for his candor or worry about his sanity," says the writer.
The following year Lahav the writer became one of Israel's leading music critics, and people starting mixing him up with Lahav the musician. "It was very problematic for me," says the musician. "There's a book by Dostoyevsky called 'The Double' about a man who wakes up one day and discovers there's another person like him. That's how it felt. It caused some very embarrassing situations. Friends of musicians would come up and say, 'Tell me, are you nuts?' Or someone sweating after a Kasper show come up and say, 'Thanks, bro! I agree with every word.'"
Lahav the musician says people never realized they were not the same person. "It happened maybe 500 times," he says. "It still happens today, but less frequently. What did happen is that my uncles were very happy: 'He finally found a respectable job!'"
Lahav and Lahav's collaboration on the rock opera started with a song the writer sent to the musician. "He sent me back a tape with the melody on a Friday," says the writer, "and it was a delight, so I wrote back that it was a Shabbat treat, and it became a custom: Every Friday I would receive a Shabbat treat from him."
"For me it was a challenge," says the musician. "I'm not used to composing in a very pop structure: stanza-refrain-stanza-refrain-solo-refrain-refrain. And suddenly I'm getting songs with three stanzas or more. Do you know how stressful a third stanza is?"
When the musician tells of the stress of the third stanza, the writer relates that one of the songs in "Misahek B'esh" was featured in another of his plays, "Srul," which will soon be staged at Tel Aviv's Cameri Theater, with music by Yoni Rechter. "It's just amazing to see what happens to your words when two different people compose music for them," he says.
The musician seems shocked. "Can you believe this guy?!" he says. "He gives me and Yoni Rechter the same words to compose music for without telling me. We're talking about the guy who composed the music for 'Atur Mitzhekh,' right? I composed the music for 'Bo'i Dina.' But without hearing Rechter's melodies, I'm telling you that my composition is better," he declares. Jokingly, I think.
Far from fringe
After a few weeks of e-mail exchanges, when six or seven Shabbat treats had accumulated, Lahav and Lahav realized they had more than just a collection of songs on their hands. They also knew, says the writer, that given the current state of the music world "releasing an album with a series of unfamiliar songs and performing them in concerts would be outright suicide, both financially and in terms of the enjoyment, the fun. You have to wrap the songs, you need another medium."
The musician thought at first about a film or a series of clips, but Gadi Gidor, a senior music industry executive the pair consulted asked, "Why don't you go to the fringe with this?" To check out the idea they enlisted actor Niso Ka'avia, a childhood friend from Tiberias of the musician, and Lahav the writer wrote monologues to link the songs. In the end the monologues and songs became a rock opera, which arrived at the Be'er Sheva Fringe Theater. The theater's artistic director, Yoav Michaeli, accepted the job of directing.
Lahav the writer concedes that "Misahek B'esh" is far from being a fringe play. There is nothing experimental in it. "Over the last few years fringe has been the last resort of people who can't find their place in a repertory theater," he says. "It's like 'indie' in music. If Kol Hahatikhim Etzli [a young rock band also known as I Got the Hotties] is indie, then we are fringe. This play could easily have been a repertory theater piece."
"If fringe is a play without a lot of silences where you never understand what's happening then we are fringe, without a doubt," says Lahav the musician. "But I think that we do have an unorthodox element in the link between the actors and the band."
In addition to Ka'avia, who plays the hero, and actress Tzahala Michaeli, who plays his wife, there are onstage Lahav the musician, who sings most of the songs, a singer-actress and two other musicians. The two actors don't sing, and Lahav doesn't act. "The last thing we wanted was for the actors to break into song, like in a musical," says the musician.
They called the play "a rock opera duet," but the label is unimportant to them. "It's not as if we sat down and said to each other, 'You know what's missing here in Israel? A good rock opera,'" says the musician. "Anyone who doesn't like the label 'rock opera' should just change it."
"At first, I thought of calling it a pop opera," says the writer, "but they told me, and rightly so, that it's overly clever."
Lahav the writer says he didn't think of earlier rock operas while writing this one. "I thought of [Israeli rock opera] 'Mami,' but only after writing this one and only in the sense of the play's reception. 'Mami' would not have been etched in our collective memory if the Tzavta club people hadn't believed in it and staged it even though it was a flop at first," he says. "They staged it at their expense and opened it to soldiers and then it was a little successful, less so than according to the legend."
Desperate to be bored
The most conservative aspect of "Misahek B'esh" is the plot. It's the biggest cliche of all: A 40-year-old man feels restricted and strangled, leaves home, meets a young and seductive woman in a bar and then sobers up and goes back home. "The story itself is utterly banal," admits Lahav the writer. "There is no narrative invention. I wasn't looking for any plot twist. The songs are the twist.
"I wrote it looking back retrospectively, after turning 40," continues Lahav. "This crisis seems very dramatic when you're in the middle of it, but afterward you realize it's not such a big drama. It's also everybody's story. People live with it and identify with it. If reality is so banal, why fight it?"
Lahav the musician bursts out laughing when asked if he also experienced a midlife crisis when he turned 40 (he is now 44 ). "It was totally ridiculous how much Shai's words don't relate to my life," he says. "In the play's first song there is a stanza that says, 'Just give me, give me a sign of life / other than gray, I heard there are a few other colors / I'm not afraid of anything / just don't want to die of boredom.' I'm desperate to be bored. The last thing that's missing in my life is colors. I'm looking for the gray. If you give me a few hours of gray I'll say thank you. I have no kids. I'm not familiar with the bourgeois existence of going from the car to the park. I have no set schedule. Every day I get up and have to create my world and understand who I am. "I never understood this business of a midlife crisis," he continues. "I've been in the middle of a terrible and awful crisis for more than 20 years. Kasper split up and that was a crisis. I left NMC and that was a crisis. Every album I release is a crisis." Still, he adds, he sees himself in "Misahek B'esh": "I have no explanation for it, but I felt as if it was about me. I find touches of myself in it."
It's amusing to discover that the actress who plays Plilit, the young woman who seduces the hero in the bar, is none other than Lahav the musician's wife, Yifat Noah Lahav (whose stage name is Libra ). "It's topsy-turvy," says Lahav. "I solved the hero's problem by marrying Plilit."
"The irony of life is that I've been freelancing for more than a year," says Lahav the writer, who was fired as editor of Maariv's culture supplement and currently writes a column on the Ynet news website. "I'm starting to experience all of Shai's stories about himself: How will I earn a living? Who am I and what am I worth? This is doing wonders for me but it's also doing horrible things to me. Everything connected to earning a living is very tough, but as far as creative freedom is concerned, it's terrific."
As a music critic Lahav usually has no patience for artists who are unable to reach at least a relatively large audience. Often his writing gives the impression that if a singer or band remains on the margins their work is of little value. Does he also think in such terms about his new rock opera?
"We have the pretension to cross over the fringe barrier," he says. "The topic should speak to the general public, although the way we present it is hard to digest relative to what's happening today: The combination of music and acting is not standard, and performing arts center audiences want to be entertained and amusing by plays about women from Venus and men from Mars. In comparison to this genre our play is demanding. But it's clear that we want to reach a lot of people. Without belittling the shapers of public opinion, which I once was, if it gets good reviews and isn't exposed to a large audience I will feel a lack of success."