Given enough intellectual muscle, any outré story can probably be pounded into a musical. For evidence, look no further than “Sweeney Todd,” “Fun Home” and “Hamilton,” three great shows of forbiddingly unlikely origin.
But the authors of “The Boy Who Danced on Air” have taken the challenge of difficult source material too far. Their troubling new musical, which opened Thursday in an Abingdon Theater Company production, was inspired by “The Dancing Boys of Afghanistan,” a 2010 documentary about, well, pedophilia.
Sure, the practice of bacha bazi — “boy play” in the Dari language of Afghanistan — includes much more than that. As Tim Rosser (who wrote the show’s music) and Charlie Sohne (who wrote the book and lyrics) explain in a program note, it is also an “ancient tradition where wealthy men buy boys from poorer families” and “train them to dance.” So the sexual abuse, which the show does not ignore, is seen in the context of historical precedent and local culture, much as those who defend it ask us to see genital cutting. Imagine that musical.
This one is about Paiman, a boy of 16, who was only 10 when he was sold to Jahandar, a married man then about 40. Jahandar explains that Paiman’s father “didn’t want you as much as I do.” But now that Paiman is sprouting peach fuzz, tradition decrees that their liaison must be severed. Jahandar arranges to marry him off: a prospect that each of them, in different ways, dreads.
The ick factor here is dangerously high, a problem that the production, directed by Tony Speciale, labors hard to mitigate through aesthetics. We see the preteenage Paiman only in silhouettes projected on the fabric of a…