For music major Daniel Lazour CC’16, composition has been a lifelong passion. “I started on piano at age seven but I never took learning pieces very seriously because I was always too excited about whatever I was coming up with,” he says. “Writing my own material has always been my way into music.”
In July 2015, Daniel’s proclivity for composition was on display in the original musical, We Live in Cairo, which was presented at the Eugene O’Neill Theatre Center’s 2015 National Musical Theatre Conference (NMTC) in Waterford, Conn. It was chosen from nearly 300 submissions to be featured as one of three new works at the conference. Daniel’s compositional work for the show was complemented by his older brother Patrick’s playwriting — Daniel and Patrick, a graduate of Boston College, have been working as a composer-lyricist team since 2007, having previously written five full-length musicals together.
Daniel’s childhood enthusiasm for composition found structure in the formal musical theory training that he began at the age of 13 and has pursued ever since. “I started to understand chords, scales, notation and how it all fit together. And once I became aware of the system, I started taking composition more seriously,” he says.
Similarly, theatre was a part of Daniel’s home life from a young age. “In terms of theatre, my parents made sure to expose me early on,” says Daniel. “It’s always been a part of my life.” The family attended performances together and theatre became an interest that Daniel and his brother shared, so working together to create their own material was a natural next step. “Writing for musical theatre was a marriage of two of my favorite things: composition, and theatre,” Daniel says.
The development of We Live in Cairo began in 2013, during Daniel’s first year at the College, and over the past two years he has found that his academic studies have helped his composing.
“One thing I’ve learned about myself while at Columbia is that I like a lot of different genres and methods of music making,” he says. “Studying music here has granted me the time to contemplate and understand what it is I like to listen to — and from there I can understand what it is I want to compose.”
We Live in Cairo, which tells the story of a group of young organizers and revolutionaries during the 2011 Arab Spring, was inspired by a photograph in photojournalist Ed Ou’s Egyptian Youth series. “Patrick was taken by the photo’s dynamism, urgency, youthful energy — all things that he thought would make for a compelling musical,” says Daniel. “He shared it with me and I was instantly hooked on the idea.”
Daniel Lazour CC’16 (left) and his brother Patrick. Photo: Courtesy Daniel Lazour CC’16
To develop the show, the brothers read, researched and spoke with Egyptian revolutionaries, seeking to gain insight into the revolution in Cairo. “For me, research meant a lot of listening, to both old and new Egyptian music,” says Daniel. As he began to compose the score, Daniel drew from his studies at Columbia, exploring the different musical genres and cultural sounds that colored the Egyptian zeitgeist during the Arab Spring. “The soundtrack to the revolution was so varied, including everything from [Egyptian singer] Sayed Darwish to American pop,” he says. “It took me a while to reconcile all those different musical styles with my own voice.”
The result was a score that mixes oud — a stringed instrument commonly used in Middle Eastern music — with guitar, piano and hand drums. “This is an unusual ensemble,” Daniel says. “But I think the O’Neill audiences were happy to hear something a little unexpected.”
At NMTC, Daniel and Patrick’s new work appeared alongside that of two well-established musical theater teams — a musical about a sandwich turning people into zombies by Mark Hollman and Greg Kotis, creators of the absurdist Broadway hit Urinetown, and a musical adaptation of Slaughterhouse Five, written at Kurt Vonnegut’s suggestion, by Jed Feuer and Adele Ahronheim.
For Daniel, the experience at NMTC reaffirmed many of the developments he has made as a composer while at Columbia. “I think what’s so great about musical theatre audiences is that they’re open to many different sounds. There really is no definitive ‘Broadway sound’ anymore,” he says. “So in a way, musical theatre is the world in which I feel I have the stylistic freedom to experiment and express my love for the variety of genres I’ve gotten to know at school.”
Though the conference is over, We Live in Cairo is far from done. In September 2015, Daniel and Patrick were selected as Dramatists Guild Fellows for the 2015-2016 Dramatists Guild of America season, a highly-selective nine-month program that will allow the brothers to continue to develop the show with experienced theater professionals and mentors in New York. And when the program has concluded, Daniel and Patrick hope to see We Live in Cairo through to a full production. “That's always the goal,” says Daniel. “Like the O'Neill, we see the Dramatists Guild Fellowship as a wonderful opportunity to get the piece in shape for a New York run of some kind — whether that be Broadway, Off-Broadway, Off-Off Broadway or our living room.”
As for his lifelong love of composition, Daniel has no intention of stopping anytime soon. “After the conference ended and I realized how consumed I was by it all,” he said, “I knew that musical theatre, if I can swing it, is definitely what I want to be doing.”
Chloé Durkin CC’15 is a freelance writer and producer based in Brooklyn, NY.