I have met the brother of Sacha Baron Cohen on the school run and walking to synagogue but never had the pleasure of chatting to him properly. So given the chance to interview Erran Baron Cohen about his work on the new production The Infidel – The Musical, which opened on Saturday, it came as no surprise to me that he was not only a pleasure to talk to, but also passionate about his work and his family.
As the older brother of Sacha, 46-year-old Baron Cohen is extremely successful in his own right, both as a classical trained trumpeter and award-winning music composer.
He collaborated with his brother on both Borat and Bruno, for which he wrote the songs that helped the films become huge hits.
His latest project composing the songs for The Infidel with David Baddiel is, he explains, exciting but also slightly nerve-racking. After all, a show about Jews and Muslims is always going to prove a tricky storyline to tackle.
“It’s a show that has a strong ethnic theme running throughout it that will hopefully appeal to people of all backgrounds,” said Baron Cohen, who is a member of the New North London Synagogue.
“Although serious, it is also a very funny musical as we felt it was important to mix in some humour, too.”
Having worked together on the smash hit 2010 film of the same name, Baron Cohen was an obvious choice for Baddiel when it came to finding the right composer for the musical. However, Baddiel admits he was slightly wary at first.
“I wasn’t certain to begin with as Erran is primarily a film composer, who’s written scores rather than songs. However, two days in his studio and we realised that he’s got an amazing ear for melody.
“It’s the trump card I would say of the show: it’s a really funny musical, with brilliant performers, but the number one thing is, all the songs are really, really, really catchy. I can’t think of one that doesn’t stick in your head long after you’ve heard it.”
For Baron Cohen – who knew of Baddiel from their school days at The Haberdashers’ Aske’s Boys’ School – it was a challenge he was happy to take on. “I was so excited to work on this musical as it is something new for me,” he enthused. “I knew the film well, but turning it into a musical was an interesting experience as it involves getting the actors to sing parts that had originally been written for someone to speak.”
The biggest obstacle the two men faced was getting the musical – that tells the story of an adopted Muslim man who discovers his birth parents are Jewish – into production as film companies were wary to take on the show.
“It was obviously thought to be quite a risky story for anyone to showcase,” said Baron Cohen, who instead praises the public for help in getting it off the ground after they realised they had to finance it independently.
This was done through an online Kickstarter campaign, where members of the public put their hands in their pockets to raise the £55,000 needed to make the show a reality. With such a large show of support, it is no doubt the Stratford theatre will be packed each night.
“We chose the theatre as, like the show, it is very alternative; it is the perfect venue to host the film,” added Baron Cohen. “It is based in a very multicultural area so we hope it will appeal to the diverse community.”
Having penned new songs for the musical, such as I’m a Jew, Sexy Burka and Put a Fatwa On It, I ask him if his brother Sacha has lent a hand in writing such comical tunes. It seems not.
“My brother has always been supportive of me but he works abroad so has not been involved in this show. I’m hoping he will come and see it if he’s in the country,” added Baron Cohen, who has another brother Amnon, whom he describes as a “computer programming genius”.
“We grew up in a traditional Jewish environment and that’s exactly the way I am with my family now,” he said. “Judaism was a very important part of my life growing up and we enjoy celebrating Shabbat and the festivals together.”
Although this is his first step into musical theatre, Baron Cohen has great experience on the stage having performed with Sacha (who is four years younger) since they were children.
“Growing up together we used to do little comedy songs, improvised for singing on Friday nights to unsuspecting guests.”
As well as hoping the show will be a sell-out, Baron Cohen’s dream is to one day take it to the West End. Having had a listen to the music, I have no doubt this will one day become a reality. My only concern is if the songs are as catchy as Baddiel points out, and they certainly are, singing Sexy Burka on the streets may not be such a good idea!
The Infidel – The Musical runs from 4 October to 2 November at the Theatre Royal Stratford East.