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Shlock Rock’s Lenny Solomon Previews New Musical, ‘Daniel in Babylon,’ in Teaneck

In 2012, Lenny Solomon went to the Phoenix Hebrew Academy in Arizona to perform with his Shlock Rock band, and had a conversation that would change his life. The head of Jewish studies asked him if he had ever read the story of Daniel. No, he said, he hadn’t. “You must!” the principal replied. Solomon read it and was enthralled. “This is theater! This is drama! This is a show!” he thought. And he started writing. Twelve years later, “Daniel in Babylon” is on its way to becoming a fully staged musical production.

On Wednesday, December 14, Solomon previewed the musical at the home of Linda and Elliot Allen in Teaneck, to a very receptive audience. Solomon played the entire score, which when staged will have multiple actors and parts. Allen had sent the lyrics to everyone who reserved a seat. We could follow along on a screen in the room, or on our phones, as I did. Solomon took periodic breaks to tell stories and give context to the lyrics. He told the audience initially he didn’t have to play the complete score but everyone urged him on.

From the first notes of the overture, I was transported to an imaginary stage. Throughout the performance, I could visualize actors and hear their rich voices. While adhering closely to the biblical text, Solomon has creatively envisioned a contemporary setting, and took some dramatic license with interpretation. Allen also had sent us mock-ups of the scenery, which helped in imagining how the production would look. Solomon’s lyrics and musical compositions moved the story forward with variations in tempo and approach that kept us entranced. I was still humming the catchy melodies on the way home.

Meir Popowitz, a singer and musician himself, said he and his wife did not know the story of Daniel and both enjoyed the production. “Telling a story the way he did, through music, is really impressive. He told the story in a fun, humorous way. We all sat there for two hours, not knowing how long it would be.” Growing up with Shlock Rock, Popowitz said it was nostalgic to hear Solomon and his music. Although the nostalgia factor will be gone when actors sing the score, he thinks the show will succeed on a different level.

The story takes place when the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar conquers Yerushalayim, and Daniel and three friends are sent into exile. Daniel becomes an advisor to the king, and his son and grandson after him, through the wisdom he gets from God. But his position inspires jealousy, and his rivals conspire to bring him down. He is punished by being sent into a lion’s den, from which he emerges unscathed.

In an interview before the performance, and in stories he told the audience, Solomon explained that he created “Daniel in Babylon” with “musical prophecy.” First, he got advice from a friend who is an expert in biblical criticism. “He told me to stay as close to the text as possible, so Jews and non-Jews can listen,” said Solomon. “He said you don’t want to put in a million midrashim. Put in some humor, make it a show.”

He began by studying both the Art Scroll and St. James versions of the story and found them identical. And then, in eight weeks, he wrote 26 songs. “I got this inspiration, that’s how I wrote it, it had to be done.” He added that sometimes the inspiration came at inconvenient moments. He recalled that he was in a car with his father-in-law driving to Heathrow Airport after a show in London, when a song came into his head. “Not now,” he thought, but then he relaxed, and let the song come to him. He remembered it and wrote it down a few days later.

The core of “Daniel in Babylon” may be divinely inspired, but getting it produced is taking hard work, connections and money. He collaborated with one producer he met but that didn’t work out. Now he is working with Kay Cole, an accomplished actress who played a lead in the hit musical “A Chorus Line,” among other productions, and is now a director and choreographer. Together they developed a working plan to get “Daniel in Babylon” fully staged. First, they hope to realize their fund-raising goal by March. They have a $600,000 budget, which is half funded. After three to four months of pre-production, the musical will have 10 performances at a small theater in Los Angeles, near where Cole lives. They will film two or three performances and edit them into a final theatrical livestream. The finished version will be uploaded to the site Filmhub.com, where all the streaming services find productions that they choose for their platforms. A release date is planned for the end of 2023 or early 2024. After livestreaming, the next step could be a film or Broadway performances.

Allen said she hosted the preview to help Solomon attract investors. She got to know him through his organization, Four Corners Project, a 501(c)3 non-profit that uses his music to educate and inspire Jewish children and adults. “Lenny called one day and said, ‘I wrote this new musical.’ And he played it for me. We feel that it is beneficial to get this show out there not only for Jews but for the entire world.” Anyone interested in learning more about investing in the show can contact Solomon at [email protected].

Solomon knows the finished product might be somewhat different from the musical he has now. Everything from the contemporary setting to choices about songs could be changed. He told the audience a story about the musical “Pippin,” written by Stephen Schwartz and directed by Bob Fosse. Schwartz was away for two weeks after rehearsals began. When he came back, there was almost no resemblance to the original. “What are you doing?” the incredulous writer asked. “I’m fixing your (expletive) musical,” Fosse said.

The difference with this show is that Solomon has Cole’s complete support. Reached by email about what attracted her to “Daniel in Babylon” and why she wants to make it happen, Cole expressed unbridled enthusiasm. “Lenny is an artist,” she wrote. “Daniel is a story with heart. The music is brilliant and timely. It is a story about faith…in every aspect of life. All of those reasons are why I believe in ‘Daniel in Babylon.’”

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