New Jersey is the venue for the first full-stage production of a musical about a legendary figure in Israeli history. Rehearsals for Damascus Square — about Israeli spy Eli Cohen — are under way at Mana Contemporary, the massive Jersey City arts center, which joined forces with the Axelrod Performing Arts Center in Deal, where there will be performances the evenings of Aug. 17, 18, and 19.
A cadre of 10 Israelis is involved in the cast and among the creative personnel. Political analyst and writer Shai Baitel came up with the idea and cowrote the show, and the director, Ohad Ashkenazi, is a leading figure in Israeli television and theater.
Contributing to the production are composer Oran Eldor, music supervisor Dror Baitel, music director Sinai Tabak, actor Etai Benshlomo (who played in Wicked on Broadway), and three chorus members. Moishe Mana, who founded Moishe’s Moving and Storage, moved to the United States from Tel Aviv in 1982.
“It was unintentional, but that’s the way it came about,” Baitel said of the Israeli personnel.
The musical is loosely based on the extraordinary story of how Cohen, an Egyptian-born Jew, risked his life and moral integrity to insinuate himself into the highest echelons of the Syrian regime during the 1950s and ’60s, to ferret out information that would aid in Israel’s defense. He was caught and executed in 1965. Some commentators credit him with providing the information that helped Israel win the Six-Day War.
Eli Cohen’s story has been told before, most prominently in Eli Ben-Hanan’s book Our Man in Damascus, published in 1968, and Harvey Chertok’s 1987 movie The Impossible Spy. But Shai Baitel found himself obsessed by the inner struggle such a person must have faced. “It also was a way to show what is happening in the Middle East in a richer way,” he said, “and what is happening in Syria and with the Arab uprisings.”
Baitel, 40, a seasoned journalist and Middle East expert now based in New York City, wrote the basic script for Damascus Square in just two weeks, in 2011. He has since begun work on other plays, but this was his first. For the past four years, working at Mana Contemporary with lyricist Sarah Hirsch and composer Eldor as well as many others, he has been honing and developing it into a Broadway-style musical.
The script is based, he said, “on such thrilling stuff. This is real life, versus James Bond.” His goal, he explained, was to weave the nerve-wracking reality that Cohen endured into universal themes. He wants audiences “to have had an uplifting emotional experience” that leaves them with a better understanding of “the hearts and minds of the people in the region.”
A version of the musical was staged at the United Nations in September 2012, featuring a cast that included Tony-nominated actors, with a staging the following year at The Old Vic Tunnels in London. The current version, developed at Mana Contemporary, is the most fully realized yet, with many of the 22 songs written for it.
Baitel is director of corporate development and global partnerships at Mana Contemporary. Founded in 2011 by artists Eugene Lemay and Yigal Ozeri, with financial backing from Moishe Mana, the former tobacco warehouse includes artist and dance studios, exhibition space, and art storage. Moishe Mana’s plans call for restaurants, more exhibition spaces, galleries, a theater, a sculpture garden, and a boutique hotel for artists.
Ambassador Ido Aharoni, consul general of Israel in New York, will address the audience on opening night of Damascus Square; an invitation-only reception that evening will be sponsored by Jewish Federation in the Heart of New Jersey.