It was a grisly story of two immigrant cabdrivers whose taxi-sharing partnership ended with one attacking the other with a meat cleaver and then jumping to his death from the Robert F. Kennedy Bridge.
It was chronicled in a 2009 article in The New York Times.
But can this drama translate into a musical?
Timothy Huang, a Manhattan composer, thinks so. He has written “Costs of Living,” which has been selected as a finalist for the American Harmony Prize, which celebrates new musical theater works that involve American ethnic, religious and gender issues.
It was also one of four shows selected for the Ascap Musical Theater Workshop, which includes a staged reading of the piece for a panel of established composers, including Stephen Schwartz, the creator of “Wicked” and “Godspell.”
With that momentum, Mr. Huang, 37, thinks he has a good chance of interesting a theater company in producing this 17-song musical for a run in New York.
It focuses on two immigrants in Queens who trade 12-hour shifts driving the same yellow cab seven days a week. The cabbies have similar immigrant dreams that wind up taking very different trajectories, culminating in a violent encounter that leaves one dead and the other injured.
Throughout the musical, which Mr. Huang began writing in January 2011, the two cabdrivers sing about their hope and heartbreak while struggling to make a living in New York.
In the real-life case, the two cabbies were Nepali immigrants, Debindra Chhantyal and Pema Sherpa.
But Mr. Huang, whose parents immigrated from Taiwan, made his central characters Chinese.
“I wanted to write something that had more to do with my personal journey, and I felt I was more qualified to speak about my own culture,” said Mr. Huang, who considered the newspaper article a good basis for a musical because “music transcends language” in expressing the emotional intensity of the story. He also wanted to write about the immigrant experience.
“In this country, if someone speaks with an accent, they’re considered lower class,” he said, “And I felt that using song form would be a cool way to show that it’s not true.”
“Cost of Living” has plenty of jokes and quips but retains a dark depiction of the troubles immigrants can face in New York. Mr. Huang held a rehearsal on Tuesday to prepare for the panel reading, for which he is using eight actors, most of whom are of Asian descent, including Telly Leung, who is currently performing in “Godspell” on Broadway.
As were the Nepali drivers, both of Mr. Huang’s cabbies were classmates at a Queens taxi-driving school. Their long shifts are reflected in the song “Drive,” in which they sing “the road’s a climb” and “there is only drive.”
Like Mr. Sherpa, the character Eng works the day shift and has friends and a family, and dreams of buying his own medallion cab “with that great new-car smell, no partners, no shifts, no boss,” as his wife says.
The other main character, Chin, is patterned after Mr. Chhantyal, who worked the night shift and whose life was unraveling. Like Mr. Chhantyal, Chin becomes increasingly depressed and frustrated with his job and with family problems in his homeland.
As it was with the real-life drivers, Eng and Chin’s arrangement is amiable. The attack is a surprise, much like in September 2008, when Mr. Chhantyal was handing over the taxi to Mr. Sherpa before sunrise on a dark street near Mr. Sherpa’s home in Woodside, Queens.
Mr. Chhantyal suddenly pulled out the cleaver and began hacking at his partner. As Mr. Chhantyal did, Chin then drives the cab to the bridge and leaps into the East River.
During the rehearsal on Tuesday, the attack scene was accompanied by the cast singing a version of “America the Beautiful” in a minor key and imbued with dissonance, as if to accent an American dream turned sour.
“It’s a song we associate with the kind of majesty and glory and beauty that drew the two men to America, but which wound up corrupting them,” Mr. Huang said. “Immigrants are told that if they come here and work hard, things will be great, and it’s actually not true.”
Reached by phone on Wednesday, Mr. Sherpa seemed bewildered that the horrific episode could serve as grist for the musical theater.
“They’re singing songs about it?” he said.
Mr. Sherpa, who now owns his own medallion cab, said he had gotten a couple of Nepali friends to handle other shifts in his cab and he drove nights so he could care for his 5-year-old daughter during the day while his wife worked. He said his wounds had healed but he was still haunted by the attack.
Told more about the musical, he said, “I’d go to see that.”