A tragic love story is perfect for Valentine’s Day and in Nadim Naaman and Dana Al Fardan’s new musical Broken Wings there are plenty of soaring melodies for lovers and just as many haunted and broken-hearted ballads for the less romantic. Set largely in Beirut – a location rarely seen in musical theatre – Broken Wings is in many ways a very traditional musical that places the classic boy-meets-girl-but-can’t-have-her template in a new location and sets it to a fairly typical, if rather lovely, score. Yet, with attempts to look at the impact of duel nationality on identity and social expectations, the inherent yearning for cultural and spiritual homes, the restrictive consequences of binding traditions as well as the effects of gendered societies on concepts of motherhood and female liberty, Broken Wings has something new to say.
Having played briefly at the Theatre Royal Haymarket in 2018 and in concert in the Middle East, Broken Wings is back in London at the Charing Cross Theatre in a revised version. Based on Kahlil Gibran’s novel The Prophet published in 1923, this story is set in Beirut at the turn of the twentieth-century, setting Gibran’s wider philosophical discussions about politics, society and self-knowledge within an international tale of love and loss that partially mirrors Gibran’s biography in which the young man is sent back to his birthplace from Boston to learn more about his heritage and the richness of the country he barely knew.
In fact, the musical’s first major number is an exuberant one as the 18-year old Gibran fresh off the boat is flung into the heady experience of a central Beirut, a place alive with colour, light and people that equally overwhelm and delight him. And the richness of the Lebanese culture filters through Naaman and Al Fardan’s story, as the central affair is given both an epic and timeless quality played out against the backdrop of an ancient society on the cusp of a new century that the characters hope will bring change, and about which the writers have much to say.
And while there is plenty of vigour in this story of love denied by status, reputation and the expectations placed on wealthy families to marry appropriately, what really gives Broken Wings its heart is its soulful frame as the older Gibran narrates the story almost thirty years later still feeling the ache of youthful romance and telling the audience from the start what that unhappy ending will be. It is a often-used device but here lends the drama added depth, drawing valuable and often quite meaningful contrasts between the hopeful lovers and the despairing emptiness of Gibran’s future life.
The story then becomes a series of happy but painful memories recast by the older Gibran who stalks the action, preciously protecting the moments he treasures as his only connection to the beautiful Selma. On the sidelines for much of the action, Naaman and Al Fardan use the character well, allowing him to set the scene and move events along, drawing on first person narratives in Victorian novels as the audience’s way into and guide for the story, but still giving him a complex inner life that feels just as real and just as complete as the younger version of Gibran who is actively living the life that the elder merely reflects on.
And it is this that truly moves the drama on, pinning back some of the musical’s more sentimental moments and successfully adding a darker tinge particularly to the cheerier first Act where the lovers declare their feelings for one another. The stakes in fact become even higher, giving a driving inevitability to the plot that sustains the momentum while still leaving the audience waiting to find out how and when it all goes wrong, and why Gibran continues to cling to these memories decades later. Yes the love story is romantic but the contrasting loss of it is where the musical really packs an emotional punch.
Within the show, the writers also explore the contrasting fates of men and women partly using Young Gibran’s experience of living in America to consider what Selma describes as a man’s freedom to follow his dreams while a woman must follow her duty. And this becomes essential to the developing relationship between the lovers, Gibran is infused by US notions of liberty and the necessity to push against traditional boundaries to forge a new path, free to choose a life outside standard moral codes created and imposed by others while Selma is unable and somewhat unwilling to move beyond the familiarity of these expectations and structures while still acknowledging how painfully they restrict her.
There are several points in the show where the lack of choices for women becomes the key focus and while sometimes this is a little heavy-handed and spoken in that very self-aware manner that only people in fiction seem to use, these themes come out more powerfully through the drama itself as Selma is effectively traded in marriage to preserve her father’s reputation and must silently suffer the immediate indignities of being shackled to an adulterous villain, a fate she calmly submits to and becomes a major statement of her character.
But Selma as a creation still needs a little more work. It is very difficult to write purity and goodness while making them seem credible, attractive and dramatically interesting qualities, and while Selma is never bland, more of her decency and perfection is reported by Gibran that the audience ever sees in practice. We are told she is a woman ahead of her time, filled with knowledge and insight about the world as well as a kindness that make a lasting impression on the young man, and yet, performance aside, the musical only gives her love songs to sing or conversations about her feelings for Gibran or her father that make Selma seem less rounded in practice than she is when the men talk about it. And it leaves you slightly wondering whether Gibran is mystified by his own memory of her, over proscribing her qualities because he was blinded by love.
And to a small degree this feeds through to the love story itself and while love at first sight is a musical staple, there just needs to be a little more context to go from that initial meeting to full blown, life changing ardour. Older Gibran tells the audience that the couple met regularly but the audience just needs to see a little bit more of that in presentation, even an extra scene or two that reveal more about Selma’s qualities in particular, just to better ground the romance in their personalities. Les Miserables, of which there are occasional echoes here, has the same problem, Marius’s passion for Cosette is dampened by her complete lack of characterisation again because purity and goodness are dramatically difficult traits to give depth to, but Selma has far more to give.
Noah Sinigaglia however does everything she can to correct this with a full-bodied and vocally impressive performance reaching the depth of feeling in song that arguable the book denies her. Whether in solo or in duets with Young Gibran, Sinigaglia is a powerful presence and ultimately, as her character’s fate is revealed, a very moving one. Lucca Chadwick-Patel matches her in enthusiasm and vocal range as Young Gibran, an ardent boy eager to embrace all the experiences of his homeland while pushing for change in social attitudes. Chadwick-Patel also has one eye on his later incarnation, sometimes singing together and while Chadwick-Patel’s final buoyance seems a long way from the despair Gibran senior inherits, the two men largely work well as a single character at different stages of life.
But for the less overtly romantic in the audience, it is really Naaman playing the 40-year old Gibran who is the emotional and intellectual heart of Broken Wings, a man tormented by years of regret and grief, consumed by memories. Continuously acting and reacting to every moment, even when required to sit on the side of the stage and observe for much of the first half, Naaman brings real gravitas in a deeply felt performance, adding a necessary balance to sharpen the poignancy of the piece.
The score is one of Broken Wings biggest hits, orchestral in composition it leans in to more traditional musical theatre writing to create that epic sweep that supports the towering nature of the love story and the vibrancy of its youth perspective with a rousing quality that underscores the excitement of a changing Beirut in this era. And while it has fewer Middle Eastern influences or instruments in Naaman and Al Fardan’s melodies than you might expect, the contrasting melancholy of the older Gibran’s music adds depth to the soundscape and leaves a lasting impression. Special mention for Soophia Foroughi’s extraordinary voice as a multifaceted and eternal mother figure that adds real texture to the show.
Staged in traverse by director Bronagh Lagan at Charing Cross who uses both sides of the stage with relative balance and makes good use of the revolve for emotional emphasis and to create physical character movement, designer Gregor Donnelly using beige and cream along with occasional shots of terracotta and spice tones to evoke the warm feeling of early twentieth-century Beirut repurposing the in situ pillars that support the musicians’ balconies to create doorways, courtyards and gardens that allow the story to travel easily around the city. Nic Farman’s lighting is glorious, shifting between bright yellows and oranges to reflect the bright days to the more atmospheric blues and purples of romantic night scenes and the intense grief of older Gibran.
Ultimately a memory play, Broken Wings is interested in the power of remembrances to shape the present, not only in the person of Gibran, but through moments of recollection experienced by other characters and how they affect concepts of motherhood, friendship and identity. The female lead needs just a little more time in Act One to establish her qualities but this first full staging of the musical by super-producer Katie Lipson has a notable impact, and Broken Wings should have a greater life to come.