David Baddiel and Erran Baron Cohen think there’s a positive message in their musical about a Muslim who finds he’s a Jew
Erran Baron Cohen, left, and David Baddiel. ‘People from different ethnic groups laughing at the same thing indicates some togetherness.’ Photograph: Frantzesco Kangaris
With songs such as Sexy Burka, Put a Fatwa On It and I’m a Jew, David Baddiel accepts that some people might not see the funny side of his latest project.
But, he says, they would be missing the point. Behind the comic cultural confusion of Infidel: the Musical, a stage adaptation of his film about a man brought up as a Muslim who finds out he was born a Jew, is a message about how groups at loggerheads can have more in common than they have differences.
“I’m not saying it’s easy to get on [with each other], Shia and Sunni Muslims don’t get on … Jews and Jews don’t get on,” says Baddiel. “I am not making any great claims for world peace coming out of this musical, but I genuinely think when you see people laughing, it’s a levelling response. If you see people from different ethnic groups laughing at the same thing, it does indicate some bit of togetherness.”
Infidel, due to open at the Theatre Royal Stratford East, east London, in October, might seem at first glance like the latest in a series of musicals, such as Jerry Springer: the Musical and the Book of Mormon, targeting religion. Songs include lines like “I’m a Muslim – I’m not a loon, I didn’t even mind those Danish cartoons” and, when the main character, Mahmoud, discovers he’s a Jew, “I know it’s shit but get used to it.”
But, sitting with Erran Baron Cohen, who composed the music for the show – and whose brother Sacha has offended a few people over the years – Baddiel says the show is perhaps more Fiddler on the Roof than Book of Mormon.
“It’s not a blasphemous piece, it’s about people, a body-swap story about a Muslim sort of becoming a Jew,” he says. “I thought it was interesting to write a comedy about people caught up in this cultural crisis … It’s funny and human and it brings the religions into focus.”
Baddiel was warned at the time of the film’s 2010 release that it might attract trouble but a Muslim-only screening was successful and, although denied a certificate by censors in Dubai, it has been heavily pirated in the Middle East.
Nevertheless, Baron Cohen and Baddiel are aware that some people may find a reason to be offended by the musical. “The headline [song] titles could be completely misconstrued if someone wants to,” said Baron Cohen. “But if people listen to what’s being said and the words, they’ll realise it’s a very positive message.”
To prove their point, they treated the Guardian to a preview of some of the tracks that will feature in the show. Sexy Burka is sung to Mahmoud’s wife by a burka-wearing friend who tells her that wearing sexy clothes is not the way to win back her husband’s wavering attention. Rather than judging the burka, it emphasises the sexuality of the eyes, as she sings: “All the white women they get it wrong, thinking being sexy is wearing a thong.”
Baddiel describes himself as “pro-religious atheist” and says that he finds people who deliberately set out to blaspheme stupid, as well as those who threaten to kill blasphemers. He believes that the song in the show most likely to raise hackles is a satirical one in which Jews sing that “anti-Zionism is antisemitism” but is comfortable as a Jew about raising such an issue.
“One of the great things about writing songs about these contentious subjects is that you can go into these issues and be funny about them,” says Baron Cohen.
The contentious subjects and the fact that the Theatre Royal Stratford East is a charity have led them to crowdfund for the show. They are seeking £55,000 through Kickstarter, with rewards on offer for those who donate, including lunch with Baddiel. He says that the theatre, located in a heavily Muslim area, was very keen on the show and he is happy that it is being put on in a multicultural area.
It might provide the basis for much of the humour but both Baron Cohen and Baddiel are saddened by the fact that there is friction between some Jews and Muslims in a way there was not when they were growing up in London.
“There’s a lot of cultural similarities, it’s probably just a bit of ignorance,” says Baron Cohen, as he and Baddiel cite similarities in Hebrew and Arabic words, beliefs and methods of ritual slaughter. In Infidel, Mahmoud finds another source of common ground with his Jewish neighbour in the song Less is More, an ode to the “turtleneck” – or circumcised penis. “Like the good body-swap movies, you discover at the end there are many more similarities than differences,” says Baddiel.
See www.infidelthemusical.com for details on how to help fund the show