As the orchestra began vamping for roughly a thousand festivalgoers at a 19th-century palace in a mountainous town in Lebanon, Selma Fehmi — the Velma Kelly character in a new Arabic version of the musical “Chicago” — started to croon lyrics to the tune of “All That Jazz.”
But this reimagining of the show’s opening song quickly provided a Lebanese twist: “Hurry, pick me up and let’s take a drive/to a small place hidden in the center of Beirut.”
The Arabic adaptation of “Chicago,” the longest-running show currently on Broadway, debuted at the Casino du Liban in May with a sold-out run that extended to five nights. The team returned with three performances in August at an art festival in Beiteddine, a town some 20 miles southeast of Beirut — where this adaptation takes place — and now hopes to take the show abroad, within the Middle East and beyond.
Despite dealing with American cultural references and wildly different syntax, translating the musical into Arabic came pretty smoothly, said Roy ElKhouri, the writer, choreographer and director of the adaptation. The context particularly speaks to present-day Beirut, said Anthony Adonis, who adapted the lyrics.
That ability for a show set in 1920s Chicago to speak to modern affairs in the Middle East was attractive to ElKhouri. “You can relate to it in every aspect,” he said, pointing to its universal themes of corruption, media manipulation and the power of showbiz.
Barry Weissler, who produced the 1996 Broadway revival alongside his wife, Fran, was not surprised that artists in Lebanon were revisiting the story. “Everyone gets it,” Weissler said. “It doesn’t matter which language it’s in — the reaction’s still the same.”
Yet even with the commonalities, reinterpreting the musical was a complicated process because of the strict guidelines that accompany licenses from Concord Theatricals. The Arabic version had to stay true to the original story line. Characters could not be added nor removed, and neither could songs. And the Lebanese team was required to give the adaptation entirely new choreography — originally by Bob Fosse — and direction.
Once those parameters were laid out, ElKhouri’s team got to work.
The first step was coming up with relevant Arabic names for characters, including Selma (Mirva Kadi), whose name rhymed with Velma. Roxie Hart, whose killing of her lover sets the story in motion, became Nancy Nar (Cynthya Karam), alluding to the Lebanese pop star Nancy Ajram.
Other changes involved wordplay: The smooth-talking lawyer Billy Flynn, who frees murderers from prison, became Wael Horr (ElKhouri), his last name meaning “free.” Roxie’s loyal husband, Amos, became Amin (Fouad Yammine, who helped adapt the script), which means “faithful.” And the sympathetic journalist Mary Sunshine became Nour El Shams (Matteo El Khodr), whose full name translates to “the light of the sun.”
Translating the songs was a bigger challenge. The legal and showbiz jargon of “Razzle Dazzle” — “Shubeik Lubeik” in Arabic (“Your Wish Is My Command”) — were especially tricky. Adonis wrote at least three versions until the team settled on the one that most aligned with the music. “It was like doing very, very complicated math,” he said.
Lebanese references were trickled throughout the musical. In “Cell Block Tango,” or “Kan Yistahal” (“He Deserved It”), the prisoners’ dialects reflected the country’s diversity. The character of Hunyak, who is Hungarian in the original, became Armenian, a reference to Lebanon’s Armenian population.
Though the country is considered one of the most liberal in the Arab world, many pockets of society lean conservative. But the team did not shy away from the musical’s sensuality, whether it was the wide-open legs in the dance numbers or the revealing costumes and suggestive squeals.
ElKhouri did have other fears, though, primarily that “Chicago” would not find an audience in the country. The sold-out shows proved otherwise.
“You rarely see this in Lebanon — this level of performance,” said Yahya Fares, a nurse who watched the first performance at the festival. His girlfriend, Maribelle Zouein, was also impressed.
“They incorporated Lebanon’s culture,” she said. “They made it relatable.”
Both Fares and Zouein lamented that Lebanese theater, and art in general, is growing more difficult to produce despite its cultural reputation in the region.
In the mid-1800s, Maroun Naccache introduced Western-style theater to Lebanon by adapting European plays into Arabic musicals, said Aliya Khalidi, the founder of the Foundation for Arab Dramatic Arts. After the arrival of the Baalbeck International Festival in 1956, theater flourished. And even during Lebanon’s civil war, from 1975 to 1990, the composers and playwrights known as the Rahbani brothers, the singer Fairuz and her son Ziad produced musicals and plays that remain cultural mainstays.
The past few years have delivered a setback because of the coronavirus pandemic, the financial meltdown and the port explosion, Khalidi said. “Usually, in times of crisis, the most affected medium is the theater,” she said.
In the past year, more and more modest productions have begun to pop up in Lebanon, Khalidi and ElKhouri said. But the “Chicago” adaptation stood out for its scale, even though financial constraints meant the cast and crew had only two months to rehearse before the debut. Some actors and dancers had to keep their day jobs.
“We’ve done this out of pocket,” Nayla El Khoury, the producer of the show, said. “Imagine what they can do if they had the proper resources and the proper support from the country.”
Adonis said the adaptation was a statement in and of itself: No matter what the country endures, culturally, “Lebanon’s still on the map.”