“MC Abel/MC Cain/We’ve done it before/We gonna do it again/So throw your hands high like you’s insane/It’s the story of Job/Allegory of pain!”
When you think about musical theatre, two twenty-something dudes in track suits rapping about epistemology is probably not the first thing that comes to mind. In a genre dominated by schmaltzy Andrew Lloyd Webber-style productions and overblown, angst-ridden plots, Eli Batalion and Jerome Saibil have thrown down the gauntlet hip-hop style, and they’re ready to represent.
Batalion and Saibil, both 23, are the masterminds behind Job: The Hip-Hop Saga, which combines Parts I and II of their hugely successful Fringe festival hit Job: The Hip-Hop Musical, and opens at the Tarragon Theatre tomorrow night for a month-long run. High school pals from Montreal, the duo graduated from Brown University in 2002 with degrees in psychology and philosophy before mounting Job I on the Fringe circuit to rave reviews that summer. Co-founders of Foque de la Tete productions, Batalion and Saibil write, direct, produce and perform in their own shows, and have taken Job and its sequel, Job II: The Demon of the Eternal Recurrence (which caused lineups right down the block from the George Ignatieff Theatre when it premiered at the Toronto Fringe this past summer), across North America over the past year and a half.
It seems almost unfair that so much talent and intelligence can be wrapped up in two guys this young, but watching Batalion and Saibil on stage and hearing them talk about their work, their devotion to the Job project is immediately evident. The show began as a lark that grew out of the Grafenburg All-Stars, a satirical hip-hop group the duo started in their last year of university to indulge their love of the genre, and quickly spiraled into a hit that ended up taking over almost two years of their lives.
“We enjoyed certain satirical forms of hip-hop, or hip-hop with a comedic angle… OutKast, for instance, takes a very comic spin on stuff; Pharcyde does a similar sort of thing. We were inspired by that, and we were like, ‘Okay, well, let’s do something about stuff that rappers would never touch, like epistemology, for instance,'” Batalion explains over the phone during a break from rehearsals last week, describing the genesis of the project. “It went really well, and from that point on, we knew we were going to do the Fringe again, because we had really enjoyed our tour the last year, and we said, ‘What are we going to do? It would be really cool if we did a hip-hop show, but with a narrative.'”
The narrative they chose was the Biblical story of Job, the long-suffering disciple subjected to harsh tests to prove his faith before finally being rewarded for his fidelity.
“We thought it would be a good idea,” Batalion explained. “It’s a fairly simplistic story that is open to a lot of interpretation and is pretty well known, so it seemed like the right story to re-tell. And, most importantly, it was relevant, and it could use a re-telling.”
The hip-hop version of Job is definitely not one that Biblical scholars would easily recognize. Narrated by MC Cain (Saibil) and MC Abel (Batalion), the musical transfers the story from its Biblical setting to the office of hip-hop mega-label Hoover Records, where protagonist “Job Lowe” is General Manager. Subjected to a series of painful tests by the evil VP Lou Saphire, Job suffers and sweats before being forgiven by the omnipotent company president J. Hoover. The story ends on a cliffhanger, with MC Cain shooting his brother in a rage, and called for a sequel in the minds of both its audience and creators.
“There were a lot of musical and conceptual ideas we didn’t get to do in Job I and we really wanted to purge ourselves of that, so Job II was our opportunity to do more of those things,” Batalion says.
The second installment of the story shifts significantly in both tone and content, shifting the characters to the confusing post-God world of Nietzschean philosophy, in which MC Abel must make his way back from the brink of death to save hip-hop from certain demise. Written within a year of each other, the two parts of the play have been presented as two separate works-until now.
Switching things up has always been part of the duo’s plan. Both on the Fringe circuit and in previous remounts at theatres across the continent, Job has drawn effusive praise from critics and audiences that have been very different from the typical theatre crowd.
“We’re not really fans of mainstream theatre,” Batalion declares. “We aim to do fresher things, do things that don’t go with the typical theatrical convention. Relative to typical theatrical productions we have brought in a lot of different people, a lot of people who wouldn’t normally go to the theatre. That’s basically our mission.”
As part of this mission, Batalion and Saibil have enlisted REMG (Toronto hip-hop visionary Jonathan Ramos’ management company) to co-produce the Toronto run. “For the most part, we’ve been bringing in theatre fans,” Batalion said. “We thought it would be really cool if we could bring more hip-hop people out.”
“Some people we’ve met have really thought that we were trying to capitalize on hip-hop… that we’re theatre artists, we’re basically trying to get more audiences, so we throw in hip-hop because that’s something people are into,” he continues. “If anything, it might be the opposite. We started off doing this play because we both started to really get into hip-hop and we thought it would be really fun for us to make a play that used hip-hop in this way and allowed us to be MCs.”
With an off-Broadway run and a CTV documentary in the works, Batalion and Saibil could easily keep the Job project running indefinitely, but true to form, they are more than ready to move on.
“As far as Jerome and I have discussed, there will definitely not be a Job III,” Batalion laughs. “We could go on with it, and we have had fun with it, but I think that Job III would just be milking of the success we had, whereas Job I and II were just getting out our artistic interests.”
The endlessly creative duo already has several new projects in the works. They are working with an Edmonton MC on a Grafenburg All-Stars EP, and, veering away from hip-hop completely, their next theatrical venture will be a rock opera. The Toronto run will be end of the road for the Job phenomenon.
“I think we’ve gotten our best reaction from Toronto,” Batalion said. “We’ve really enjoyed playing to Toronto audiences. Jerome and I have found that they’re the most sophisticated audiences out of all the places that we’ve been-that includes a lot of major cities, including New York. We’ve really enjoyed the feedback that we’ve gotten here and we’ve enjoyed a certain amount of success here, so we thought this [performing the combined saga at the Tarragon] was really appropriate.
“We’re going to do a couple of Job gigs here and there, but what we’re doing now in Toronto is the culmination for us of the whole Job project, which has been our lives for the last year and a half. That’s why we want to go all out and give Toronto our all.”
Job: The Hip-Hop Saga opens tomorrow (Nov. 18) at the Tarragon Theatre and runs until Dec. 14. For tickets ($18 students/$15 rush), call (416) 531-1824.