CAMBRIDGE — Before Daniel and Patrick Lazour were out of their teens, they’d already authored three full-fledged musicals that were staged at a community theater in their hometown of Boylston. If the shows demonstrated the Lazours’ promise as composers and writers, to them it felt like child’s play. Was this really something they could do as a profession?
“We started this journey with none of the pressures of an ‘industry’ or ‘making a career,’ and that probably instilled the love of the [musical] form in us,” says Patrick Lazour, 28, the older of the two brothers.
Now the Lazours are poised for their first big professional breakthrough, in a city just 40 miles from their hometown but, theatrically speaking, a world away. After six years of development, the American Repertory Theater is presenting the world premiere of their musical “We Live in Cairo,” inspired by the events of the 2011 Egyptian Revolution, at the Loeb Drama Center, from May 14 to June 23.
The show earned them a 2016 Richard Rodgers Award for Musical Theater, which helps promising composers and playwrights get their work produced in New York. Previous recipients have included 2019 Tony nominee Anaïs Mitchell (for “Hadestown”) and the Tony-, Grammy-, and Oscar-winning team of Benj Pasek and Justin Paul (for “Dogfight”).
The spark for the show started with a photo Patrick saw while a student at Boston College. The indelible image, shot by photojournalist Ed Ou and appearing on the front page of The New York Times, shows young people gathered around a table scattered with coffee cups and cameras in a flat near Tahrir Square in Cairo. The glow of MacBooks illuminates their faces, and cigarettes hang from their mouths as they post updates and upload videos from the massive demonstrations. It captured the hopeful energy, uncompromising determination, and sense of possibility that reverberated across the Arab world in early 2011 during the 18 days of the Egyptian Revolution.
Patrick says he was immediately captivated by the “dynamism” and “communion of youth” depicted in the image. “It’s like we knew these kids,” says Patrick, seated alongside Daniel while on a rehearsal break at Oberon. “There were these similarities to our lives, but there were also small things that signaled to us that there was a lot more going on.”
“One kid’s head was bandaged” Daniel, 25, continues. “In a video [that accompanied the story], it says that if these activists don’t succeed, they’ll be tortured or killed. So they’re taking great risks with their protests, and that was inspiring.”
When Patrick is “hopped up” about an idea or piece of art or music, Daniel says, “it’s infectious.” The story they created follows six burgeoning activists brandishing their tools of revolution — cameras, laptops, guitars, and spray-paint cans — as they take to the streets to protest police violence and the brutal regime of President Hosni Mubarak, and to advocate for new social and economic freedoms. The action moves from the heady early days of the uprising and the ouster of Mubarak, to the country’s first free and fair presidential elections in its citizens’ lifetimes, to the dashed dreams of a population facing a military crackdown, widespread censorship and repression, and a new iron-fisted ruler.
The Lazours and their director, Taibi Magar, want to explore what unfolded in the eight years since the events of the revolution and ask hard questions. “What is the nature of activism? Is activism personal? Is it political?” Patrick says. “When is it time to act? When is it time to step aside? Is it ever time to step aside? And how far does one go, how much does one sacrifice, for the love of one’s country?”
As they worked on the show, Magar, whose father immigrated from Egypt as a young man, says she and the Lazours felt a “deep apprehension” about being seen as interlopers from the West co-opting a story that’s not theirs to tell. But during a trip to Egypt in late 2017, they received feedback that suggested they were on the right track. After a reading of the show at the American University in Cairo, they went for coffee with a student who had told them how moved he was by the story.
“He said, ‘It brings me solace in my heart to know that you’ll be over there in America telling our story — because we can’t,’ ” Magar recalls. “It felt like the permission we wanted and needed, and I hold onto what he said almost every day.”
In penning the score, the Lazours drew upon their mother’s Lebanese heritage. Daniel, a pianist who majored in music composition at Columbia University, says they didn’t want the music to simply reflect their own American sensibilities. So he went back and listened to the Arabic songs his grandfather used to play when they were kids. That grew into what he calls “a love affair” for divas like Umm Kulthum and Fairuz; Sayed Darwish, the so-called father of Egyptian popular music; and Sheikh Imam, a celebrated ’60s and ’70s performer who wrote political songs for the poor and working class.
Ramy Essam — who wrote anthems that became the virtual soundtrack of the revolution — was also a key influence. “There was such an amazing, rich blend of music playing in the Square during the revolution, from traditional Arabic music to Western rock music, from old to new, and we wanted [our score] to reflect that,” says Daniel, who taught himself how to play guitar in order to write “the earthy protest-music sound” they wanted.
When the Lazours were growing up, music and show tunes were frequently heard around the house, and the brothers recall their parents, Paul and Nel, taking them to see shows in Boston. In high school, they wrote a short election-themed musical, “That Tuesday in November,” with friends for a play competition. Patrick, who was on the crew team at St. John’s High School in Shrewsbury, says with a laugh, “I pretended I was the jock of the family.” But when a college recruiter inquired about his other interests, he talked enthusiastically about writing musicals with his brother. “The guy was like, ‘I can tell in your voice that’s what brings you real joy.’ ”
Indeed, it was the three musicals they created for Calliope Productions in Boylston every summer from 2009 to 2011 that set the Lazours on their current path. “Tribulations of the Millionaire” explored the aftermath of the 1929 stock market crash. “Robynn McCree” centered on a female Irish ward boss in turn-of-the-century South Boston. And “Affairs of a French Afternoon” was a musical-comedy they describe as a “sex-farce soufflé” set in the time of Louis XVI. People around town were hugely encouraging, and it gave the Lazours a big boost of confidence. “I feel like those three summers launched us and gave us some momentum to continue for a long time with this,” says Daniel.
With “We Live in Cairo” poised to open at the ART, the Lazours are thrilled to share the fruits of their labors with friends and family who live nearby. It also has them looking back on their formative experiences. “As kids, we were always collaborating with each other, creating stories and making music,” Patrick says. “We pursued it as a profession as the result of the strength of our relationship, and from there it’s blossomed into a real passion.”
We Live in Cairo
Presented by the American Repertory Theater. At the Loeb Drama Center, Cambridge, May 14-June 23. Tickets from $25, 617-547-8300, www.americanrepertorytheater.org
Christopher Wallenberg can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.