Would it comfort you, in this moment of an unconceded election and unprecedented legal challenges, to know that an earlier regime did some wildly irresponsible stuff, too? And would you like various C.I.A. agents to sing about it? Then consider a ticket to “Who’s Your Baghdaddy, or How I Started the Iraq War,” a smarty pants musical satire with an excruciating title and a mostly true story based on what The Guardian once called “one of the greatest confidence tricks in the history of modern intelligence.”
“Baghdaddy” began at the DC Fringe Festival, then went on to a couple of Off Broadway runs in 2015 and 2017. A show about failures of intelligence on multiple levels, it has now reappeared in canny digital form, produced with the assistance of BroadwayHD, where it streams starting Wednesday. An Australian cast, under the direction of Neil Gooding, gathered in a shared house in a Sydney suburb. Following a 20-page Covid safety plan, they performed the show live, then recorded it. (Stay for the credits if you want to see how.) The musical cavorts atop your screen as a short course in digital ingenuity and a hectic sprint through a major government screw-up — less deep state than dope state.
Some facts: In 1999, an Iraqi man, claiming to be a chemical engineer, arrived in Germany seeking asylum. An official from Germany’s intelligence service, the BND, interviewed him about chemical weapons in Iraq. The man, given the code name Curveball, supplied spurious information, which made its way to the C.I.A. Though the BND raised questions about the source’s credibility, George W. Bush’s administration ran with the intel. In 2003, Congress declared war on Iraq with Curveball’s sham weapons-of-mass-destruction the casus belli, a catastrophic whoopsie that would lead to more than 4,000 American combat deaths.
“Baghdaddy,” with music and book by Marshall Pailet and lyrics and book by A.D. Penedo, based on an unproduced screenplay by J.T. Allen, tells this tale with an antic disposition, like a Le Carré novel sent skidding on a banana peel. It reframes an espionage snafu as a story of bureaucracy gone wrong and the dumb things C.I.A. spooks do when they’re angling for praise or dodging blame.
The show begins in what might be the present day with a support-group meeting for the agents and experts who championed Curveball’s intel. (What was once a church basement meetup has been seamlessly reimagined as a Zoom conference.) Flashbacks — and some fudging of timelines and personnel — track Curveball’s arrival and the rolling snowball of terrible choices that afforded him credibility.
There’s a fierce if occasionally goofy intelligence animating the piece, which focuses on five main characters, Martin (Doug Hansell), a weapons inspector; Richart (Matthew Predny), a BND detective; Nelson (Philip Lowe), a C.I.A. higher up; and Berry (Laura Murphy) and Jerry (Adam Rennie), two of his analysts. In their individual squares they sing — a mixture of backpack rap, pop balladry and Sinatra-esque swing. The cunning multisyllabic rhymes (hurt ya’/ Goethe, analysis/ paralysis) can’t stop, won’t stop. If video swallows a lot of the actors’ choreography, the web team has made the Zoom lozenges shimmy all around the screen, like Scrabble tiles with ants in their pants.
Online, the show has the passionate enthusiasm that only a house full of musical-theater types afforded gainful employment can generate. Which means that they’re playing to the balcony when a screen gives you a better-than-front-row seat. So the enterprise, even with the volume turned way, way down, can feel a little exhausting. It improves in the second half, when the comeuppances arrive and the mood and lighting darken. “Do you feel like this has gotten less funny?” Jerry asks. It has.
That’s the awful moral of “Baghdaddy”: It’s all fun and geopolitical games until somebody sends in the troops.