Imagine writing a musical with your friends in college for a class project, performing it for students and teachers in a tiny blackbox theater at the school and then, less than a year later, the show blows up to become the hottest thing in New York City.
That’s exactly what happened to us back in 1999. The show was called The Bomb-itty of Errors and it was an add-rap-tation of Shakespeare’s The Comedy of Errors. Yes, back before Hamilton brought rap to Broadway, five 20-year-old kids brought comedic hip-hop theater to NYC every single night in a 300 seat off-Broadway house on Bleecker Street. Bomb-itty was a groundbreaking, exuberant, colorful show packed with non-stop comedy, energy, music, and choreography.
It all began at Tisch School of the Arts at New York University. Gregory Qaiyum, aka “GQ,” had a homework assignment: to create a senior project for his final semester at the Experimental Theatre Wing, a progressive acting studio that encouraged “self-scripting” – i.e. actors writing work for themselves to perform in. Rather than tackle his senior project alone, he reached out to three guys he knew, who, similar to himself, loved hip-hop – I was one, Jordan Allen-Dutton another, and Jason Catalano, the fourth. All four of us, including GQ, had grown up listening to rap, and now we had serendipitously connected at acting school to write a performance piece together. But what to write?
We landed on adapting The Comedy of Errors because it featured four main characters – two sets of twins – and there were four of us. Plus, Shakespeare’s play was already written in rhyme. Very, very, very old rhyme. So we spent the next month or so meeting up in acting studios after our day classes and burnt the midnight oil rapping, laughing, arguing, and generally having the time of our lives.
We decided the four of us would play all the characters, men and women (just like actors in Shakespeare’s time did). But unlike Shakespeare (at least, we think) we’d add a DJ to spin instrumental beats for us to rap over. A few of our good friends had cameos as characters from other Shakespeare plays who had mistakenly walked into ours, like Othello, Falstaff, Hamlet, and more.
We performed five shows in a small blackbox theater on the second floor of Tisch. Students and faculty came to watch and, almost immediately, we felt a tremendous response. People really seemed to like it and think it was fresh and original. So after it was over, we didn’t know what to do – this was a class project – something GQ had to do to graduate. We were done, right?
Weeks went by and people wouldn’t stop talking to us about it, telling us it was too good to let lie. “You gotta do it again!” was a common refrain. So we decided to have a “backer’s audition” (a performance for theater producers and other industry folks in hopes of getting them to invest in and/or produce our show). We rented an art gallery in Noho – aptly named the Noho Art Gallery – and got a list of all the producers in town. We called them incessantly, leaving freestyle rap voicemail message invites, and bugging their office staff to no end. After calling 200 different producers we got a tremendous response: two producers agreed to send their assistants!
One of the interested producers, Daryl Roth, sent her assistant, Shaheen, to the backer’s audition. That night, the Noho Gallery was packed tightly with 90% friends who chortled a little harder to appear a devilishly entertained crowd. Shockingly, that one connection was all we would need to move forward as Shaheen loved it and recommended it not only to her boss, Daryl, but to her boyfriend, Andy Goldberg, who would eventually become our director.
We met with Daryl – a warm, down-to-earth, wonderful woman who took us under her wing and shepherded our show to New York Stage and Film at Vassar College. There we worked with Andy Goldberg – a young, brilliant director – on developing our show and transforming it from student project to a professional musical. It was there we also added the most dynamic piece of the puzzle – Gregory’s younger brother, Jeffrey Qaiyum (aka JQ), who created all the awesome, original beats for the show and became our permanent DJ, as much a member of the cast as any of us.
After working for a month to get the play ready we performed five shows at Vassar. Daryl came to see it, loved it, and told us she thought we were ready to open in New York. But we would have to wait until she found a theater. So we all split up and went back to our normal lives – we had just graduated college and some of us were waiting tables, others doing carpentry work, and I myself was doing web design, pre-dot-com-bubble burst.
One day I was sitting in my cubicle at work. My pager went off with a simple date: 12/12/99. I knew immediately what it meant: our opening date for Bomb-itty. I pumped my fist silently and handed in my two week notice. Daryl had converted an old lumberyard on Bleecker Street into a brand-new 300 seat off-Broadway house. We were the first show to perform at the newly minted “45 Bleecker Street Theater,” currently the Lynn Redgrave Theater. We jumped into rehearsal and everything happened very quickly: sets, costumes, advertisements with our faces plastered up all over the city. It was pretty crazy and it was really f*$&ing exciting.
Opening night finally came and all our friends and family were there to help us kick-off our Off-Broadway run. We played to sold out houses every night, received rave reviews, and became the talk of the town. We were in magazines, TV shows, with celebrities on late night TV telling the audience to go see our show, even Jeopardy had a question about us. At 21 years old, it was the stuff of dreams, but not just because of the success. The show was just about the most fun we’ve ever had performing, then and now – high-octane comedy hip-hop, lightning quick costume changes, and, most importantly, singing and rapping every night with the best of friends.
After our run ended in New York we took the show to the HBO Comedy Arts Festival in Aspen, Colorado where we won Best Show and signed a deal with MTV Networks to do a TV show and movie. As time passed, we went on to new projects and ultimately pursue individual careers – including the Q Brothers, who have continued to adapt Shakespeare’s works to new award-winning, modern hip-hop musicals – The Bomb-itty of Errors took on a life of its own, with new actors performing in new productions around the world – Chicago, Florida, Philadelphia, Edinburgh, Dublin, Amsterdam, and more. And thanks to publishing with Samuel French we see more and more productions popping up at regional theaters, colleges, and high schools around the globe. Knowing that the work will live on and have kids and adults alike performing it and having as much fun as we did is one of the greatest blessings to come from “Bomb-itty”. I think I speak for all of the authors when I say, if you decide to work on it, it’ll be one of the most fun shows you’ll ever do. And if you don’t get a chance to act, direct, or experience being a part of The Bomb-itty of Errors, hopefully you’ll get a chance to see it someday.