A Tango with the Past

FEB 15, 2017

On December 10, 2013, Argentina celebrated “30 Years of Democracy,” a national holiday marking the longest period of uninterrupted democratic rule in the country’s history. Thirty years without a military coup. A milestone. In a country which declared its independence only fifty years after our own.

The most recent coup took place in 1976, when a democratically elected government was overthrown by a brutal military junta led by General Jorge Rafael Videla. Determined to eradicate anyone who opposed its rule, the Videla dictatorship systematically kidnapped, tortured, and in most cases murdered as many as 30,000 Argentines—young men and women “disappeared” by a regime which claimed to have no knowledge of who had abducted them or where they had gone.

Discredited and humiliated by their loss to the British in the Falklands War in 1983, the Videla regime finally stepped aside, bringing to an end the seven-year period known in Argentina as the Dirty War.

But there is an Argentine expression: “the past is predator.” And the searing scars which the brutal experience of the Dirty War had inflicted on the people of Argentina and on the Argentine psyche linger to this day.

It is no accident that there are more psychiatrists per capita in Argentina than in any other country in the world.

My first connection to this intense and tumultuous history, my first connection to Argentina, came not through the newspapers, or a book, or a documentary. It came first through music and then through dance.

The music was, in a word, amazing. Vibrant, vital and—to my ears—incredibly theatrical. And it was produced by the Argentine/ Uruguayan band Bajofondo, which I heard play for the first time at the Highline Ballroom in New York. Fronted by their lead guitarist and composer, Gustavo Santaolalla, Bajofondo’s music was thrilling and electrifying, yes, but even more compelling (to me) was the fact that it clearly proceeded from a cultural sensibility which I knew little or nothing about.

I was hooked. This music came from elsewhere, and that elsewhere was Argentina. And when I found out that Gustavo was anxious to move his music into the world of musical theater, I wanted to be part of that process, however it might develop and wherever it might lead.

Which several months later was to Buenos Aires and to my first real experience of the tango.

The tango, I learned, was born in the working-class neighborhoods of Buenos Aires at the end of the 19th century—neighborhoods largely populated by immigrant men who had come to Argentina to make their fortunes, often leaving their wives and children behind in Italy and Spain. The intense emotions evoked by the dance, the passionate bond between tango partners, are said to reflect the feelings of these lonely men yearning for contact and connection.

At once melancholy and joyful, constraining and liberating, “the tango,” said Argentine author Jorge Luis Borges, “is a direct expression of something that poets have often struggled to state in words: the belief that a fight may also be a celebration.”

Intensely theatrical music, now married to intensely theatrical dance.

Almost all the work I have done in the musical theater has involved taking an unnerving but exhilarating step into the unknown. And helping to create Arrabal was clearly going to be no exception.

The creative team assembled to bring this new musical to life consisted of Gustavo and his remarkable collection of Argentine musicians; Julio Zurita, a brilliant Argentine choreographer with an innate sense of theatricality and story-telling; a cast made up entirely of Argentine dancers and actors; and multi-talented and multi-award-winning director and co-choreographer, Sergio Trujillo.

The story which we crafted was both political and personal. The coming-of-age tale of Arrabal, a young girl on the verge of womanhood, whose father, Rodolfo, was “disappeared” by the junta when she was just an infant. Eighteen years later she takes her courage in her hands and sets out to discover what became of the father she never knew, embarking on a journey which leads her into the sultry, shadowy world of Buenos Aires’ underground tango clubs.

And the tools we would use to tell this story were the two things which hooked me in the first place—not words, but music and dance.

Crafting the book for a musical is a peculiar and challenging task, often misunderstood even by the people who attempt it. To do it with virtually no language makes it even more challenging. (Word to the wise: Don’t try this at home.)

That said, creating a musical which captures an audience’s imagination requires being sensitive to which story-telling tools— music, lyrics, dance, dialogue—are best suited to delivering the story with maximum impact. Which tools you need and which ones you don’t. And in the case of Arrabal, it was clear from the beginning that the most powerful way to tell the story would be to restrict our vocabulary to the music of Bajofondo and the tango driven dances designed by Julio and Sergio.

We’re pleased with where we’ve come out. We hope you will be, too.

John Weidman is the writer of Arrabal. His work for Broadway includes Pacific OverturesContactAnything Goes, and Assassins.

Related Productions