EDINBURGH, Scotland, Aug. 23, 2007 — -- With songs like "I Wanna Be Like Osama" and "Building a Bomb Today" set to jaunty tunes and a high-kicking chorus line, "Jihad: the Musical" opened this month in Scotland to packed audiences, mixed reviews and inevitable controversy.
The cast from New York premiered the production at the Edinburgh Festival, the largest arts festival in the world. Organizers believe musicals are undergoing a satirical renaissance and among the 2,050 shows being performed this year are musical comedies about Prime Minister Tony Blair, Britain's anti-terror laws, TV evangelism and the Christian nativity story.
None has created as much buzz as "Jihad: the Musical."
Billed as "a madcap gallop through the wacky world of international terrorism," it tells the story of Sayid Al Boom, a naive Afghan farmer who is groomed to be a suicide bomber in the West, accompanied by Broadway-style glitzy show numbers.
Along the way, he is seduced by an ambitious terrorist cell leader and an American news reporter, who both try to use him to further their respective careers. It's a satirical comedy with the emphasis firmly placed on the comedy.
The show's producers say that it "invokes the blitz spirit that we must laugh at those who seek to intimidate us."
Coming a month after a failed car bombing on Scotland's biggest airport, the show generated controversy before the curtain first went up. Britain's biggest-selling tabloid newspaper called it a "sick play glorifying terrorism." An online petition posted on Prime Minister Gordon Brown's Web site by a member of the public asked him to condemn the show. Showstopper tune "I Wanna Be Like Osama" has so far received more than 140,000 hits on YouTube.
Once the show opened, critics were divided.
"It seldom forgets the tragedy beneath the gaiety, and its wit and musical polish see it through — it does pull off a difficult balancing act," wrote the Daily Telegraph. The Independent thought the script "needle-sharp" and the Evening Standard enjoyed "many funny-clever moments."
The Times of London begged to differ: "If there were a prize for poor taste, the creators of this show might have been hoping for a podium finish." "Its feeble satire," wrote the paper's theater critic, "barely lands a punch."
Script writer and co-lyricist Zoe Samuel told ABC News that "Jihad: the Musical" is not intended to be taken too seriously. "Our aim is to make people laugh. That said, it's a bleak subject that needs satirizing. The story shows how people can exploit other people's beliefs to further their own ends."
She pointed out that the petition to Brown has only attracted a tiny handful of signatures, including rather unlikely supporters such as "Osama bin Laden's goat."
Sorab Wadia, who plays terror cell leader Hussein Al Mansour, agrees. He told ABC News, "The writers took great pains in this show to respect religion."
And what do audiences think?
"I don't believe it's offensive," said George Watson after the show. "It's very evenhanded. It satirizes everybody: Western values, terrorist ideology, the news media even if it does rely on some pretty crude stereotypes and slapstick!"
Standing in line outside Venue C before the show, theatergoer Michael Marsden told ABC News that he believes "it's extremely healthy for religious fundamentalism to be lampooned" and said he was looking forward to seeing "Cash in Christ!" a satire of television evangelism that's also being performed at the Edinburgh festival.
On the night this reporter saw the show, the audience certainly seemed to appreciate composer Benjamin Scheuer's pastiche of catchy musical theater styles.
Audience member and Californian Betsy Kurtz summed up her feelings, "We came to see the show because it's very topical. I found it funny, but sad because of what people are capable of doing to each other."