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Broadway Calling

By Lavina Melwani Email By Lavina Melwani
April 2024
Broadway Calling

South Asian plays, musicals, artists, and creators are slowly gaining traction in this mecca for theater lovers and across other stages throughout America.

 

Last year, locals and tourists at Times Square witnessed a pop-up dance number by the cast of Mughal-e-Azam: The Musical, a glorious stage production based on the iconic Indian film directed by K. Asif and starring heavyweights like Prithviraj Kapoor, Dilip Kumar, and Madhubala. It was one of those big-canvas movies that begged to be made into a Broadway-style show. Feroz Abbas Khan, the director of this musical, had always dreamed of doing precisely that ever since he first saw Mughal-e-Azam in its original black-and-white version in the ’60s. His passion for retelling this timeless love story of a prince, the son of Emporer Akbar, no less, and a courtesan, paid off. In 2017, Mughal-e-Azam: The Musical, billed as India's first Broadway-style musical, won seven out of the 14 BroadwayWorld India Awards, including Best Play and Best Director.

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What’s noteworthy is the buzz it enjoyed in the U.S. during its 13-city North American tour in 2023. Mughale-Azam is hardly the only musical coming out of the Indian subcontinent that has made its way into American theaters. Come Fall in Love—the DDLJ Musical, based on Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge, arguably Bollywood’s most iconic movie, premiered in 2022 at The Old Globe Theater in San Diego, California. There is talk of it heading for the bright lights of Broadway.

Keeping in tune with its pedigree, the DDLJ Musical is a collaboration of the best of Bollywood and Broadway. It is directed by Aditya Chopra, the director of the DDLJ movie, and is choreographed by Rob Ashford, the choreographer of Disney's Frozen - The Musical. Shoba Narayan, who was Princess Jasmine in the Broadway version of Disney's Aladdin, will essay the role of Simran. Sorry, SRK fans, there is no Raj for Simran in the Broadway avatar of DDLJ! Instead, the male lead character is a dashing American heartthrob named Rog Mandel, played by Austin Colby, who was Hans in Frozen - The Musical.

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Come Fall in Love—the DDLJ Musical is a collaboration of the best of Bollywood and Broadway. It is directed by Aditya Chopra, the director of the DDLJ movie, and is choreographed by Rob Ashford, the choreographer of Disney's Frozen - The Musical. (Photo: Jim Cox)

CoverStory_20_04_24.jpg“I am thrilled to be making not only my stage debut but my American debut. The DDLJ Musical, with all new English songs by Indian composers Vishal [Dadlani] and Shekhar [Ravjiani], has allowed me to revisit my original vision for DDLJ,” says Chopra of this love story between an American man and an Indian woman. ​

While the Mughal-e-Azam and DDLJ musicals were by no means crossover successes in terms of mainstream audiences, Broadway, Off-Broadway, and other theaters in the U.S. are starting to warm up to Indian and Indian-American-themed stories. Last year, New Yorkers also witnessed mock wedding baraats, with jubilant dancers reveling on the streets outside St. Ann’s Warehouse, a 100-year-old theater in Brooklyn. This was happening before each showing of Mira Nair’s Monsoon Wedding, the musical version of the movie that was, for many Americans, their first peek into the big fat Indian wedding. Nair herself was seen joining locals at some of those dancing baraats outside the theater.

[Left] Shoba Narayan as Simran. Sorry, SRK fans, there is no Raj in the DDLJ Musical. Instead, there is a dashing American heartthrob named Rog Mandel, played by Austin Colby. (Photo: Jim Cox)

Having started in theater, Nair returned to it wondering why there weren’t more desi productions on the American stage considering “our own absurdly rich subcontinental culture that is so marinated in storytelling and gaana-bajaana.” That was her inspiration behind Monsoon Wedding, the musical.

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Mira Nair’s Monsoon Wedding had New Yorkers dancing in mock wedding baraats outside St. Ann’s Warehouse, a 100-year-old theater in Brooklyn. Seen here is a scene from the musical. (Photo Matthew Murphy)

Another Indian-themed hit recreated in theater was director Ang Lee’s Life of Pi, based on Yann Martel’s best-selling novel. Thanks to its Academy Awards (Best Director and Best Cinematography), the movie had already sparked the interest of American audiences. Adapted by playwright Lolita Chakraborti, the play ran in London’s West End and in Broadway and won three Tony Awards. “Life of Pi delivers the magic… The roaring you hear at the show’s end is the sound of a standing ovation,” was part of a glowing review from The New York Times. A North American tour of the musical has been announced for this year.

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  [Right] Rajesh Bose and Hiran Abeysekera in Life of Pi. (Photo: Matthew Murphy & Evan Zimmerman for MurphyMade)

The credit, though, for a breakthrough for Indian stories on Broadway goes to Andrew Lloyd Weber’s Bombay Dreams. It was in 2004, and it seemed South Asians had arrived on Broadway. Even for this writer, it was a surreal feeling to walk through Times Square and see Indian names up on the marquee. It was the first time desis celebrated their own story on Broadway with an all-South Asian cast. According to Theatrical Index, the show ran for 11 months on Broadway, grossing $22,437,579.

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Adapted by playwright Lolita Chakraborti, Life of Pi, a stage version of Yann Martel’s bestselling adventure novel, which also inspired the Oscar-winning movie by director Ang Lee, ran in London’s West End and on Broadway and won three Tony Awards. (Photos: Matthew Murphy & Evan Zimmerman for MurphyMade)

CoverStory_09_04_24.jpgThe numbers, though impressive for an ethnic-themed musical, were not sufficient to capture the American market. Making it on Broadway is no easy task. Manu Narayan, one of the leads of Bombay Dreams, explained the cyclical nature of the theater industry, which depends on tourism and goes through slow periods during winter. Contract clauses make it imperative that shows have substantial ticket sales to remain open. There are only 40 theaters on Broadway, and Narayan says, “It's a much more difficult needle to thread to find the right theater for your show and the right time.” With such intense competition, it's no surprise that Broadway’s indulgence of South Asian stories and actors has had a slow and checkered trajectory.

[Left] Andrew Lloyd Weber’s Bombay Dreams (2004) was the first teaser of what is possible for Indian stories on Broadway. (Photo: www.andrewlloydwebber.com)

 

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Desi Americans, though, have been channeling their aspirations for theater for quite some time. In 2001, Rehana Lew Mirza and Rohi Mirza Pandya, two sisters of mixed Pakistani and Filipino heritage, founded Desipina & Co, the award-winning South Asian theater company that produced the popular Seven.11 Convenience Theater, a series of seven 11-minute plays and musicals, all set in a convenience store.

[Right] Speaking about the competitive nature of Broadway, Manu Narayan, the male lead actor in Bombay Dreams, says, “It's a much more difficult needle to thread to find the right theater for your show and the right time.” (Photo: Lia Chang, wiki commons)

CoverStory_11_04_24.jpgFast forward a couple of decades, and we see the payoff and evolution of those efforts. Bhangin' It: A Bangin’ New Musical, based on a book by Desipina’s Rehana and her husband, Mike Lew, is an exhilarating and joyous musical comedy about dueling bhangra teams in American schools. It played at the La Jolla Playhouse in California in 2022. The rave reviews from the mainstream press indicate that American theater viewers may be ready for the exuberant sensibilities characterized by vibrant colors and high-decibel song and dance. “The diversity gives the show richly complex music and dance,” said The New York Times; and “There’s lots to love…Jubilant, funny, accessible and entertaining…Well-crafted characters, quirky humor and touching moments…” was the verdict from The San Diego Union-Tribune.

[Left] Speaking about the competitive nature of Broadway, Manu Narayan, the male lead actor in Bombay Dreams, says, “It's a much more difficult needle to thread to find the right theater for your show and the right time.” (Photo: Lia Chang, wiki commons)

 

The play, in its new avatar, and renamed Bhangra Nation, just finished a very successful run at the Birmingham Repertory Theatre in the UK. “Scintillating new slick musical…The fun of this thrilling, hilarious, and charming show is truly infectious. Bhangra Nation is guaranteed to lift your spirits. It’s a must-see… I could easily see this transferring to the West End soon… I left the theatre beaming from ear-to-ear,” gushed a review in the Birmingham Mail.

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“Bhangra Nation is guaranteed to lift your spirits. It’s a must-see…I left the theatre beaming from ear-to-ear,” gushed a review in the Birmingham Mail. (Photo: Craig Sugden)​

Once upon a time… it was just stereotypical roles for desis

Such enthusiasm in the West for desi-themed theater is music to the ears of those who have been toiling on the sidelines for years. It's been a challenging journey for South Asian performers who have had to deal with racial stereotyping, making it extremely hard, if not impossible, to land mainstream roles. Often rejected for such roles due to their looks or accents, they had to make do with playing caricatured taxi drivers, swamis, and terrorists.

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Actor-writer Aasif Mandvi was ahead of his time when, in 1998, he wrote Sakina’s Restaurant, an Off-Broadway play that won two Obie Awards. It was the first time on Broadway that anyone had made Indian immigrants central to the story.

CoverStory_18_04_24.jpgActor-writer Aasif Mandvi was ahead of his time when, in 1998, he wrote Sakina’s Restaurant, an Off-Broadway play, in which he ambitiously played all six characters. It was the first time on Broadway that anyone had made Indian immigrants central to the story. The critically-acclaimed play went on to win two Obie Awards. 

Despite the potential Mandvi showed from early on, he went through tough times finding a footing for himself as an actor. He “has played his share of cabbies, news stand workers, and other spunky dreamers who have washed up on the shores of America,” wrote this writer in Newsday, the American newspaper, in 2001, adding, “Yet, even in real life, he is never totally out of character, because he himself is an immigrant, fueled and sustained by his dream to be an American actor.” Fortunately, a talent storehouse like Mandvi could not be denied his due for long. He went on to become a correspondent on the hugely popular The Daily Show hosted by Jon Stewart, a gig that lasted for a decade and earned him national fame.

(Photot: Laurence Agron, Dreamstime.)

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Michael Maliakel and Shoba Narayan, the lead actors in Disney’s Aladdin. (Photo Matthew Murphy, courtesy Disney)

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Devanand Janki is an old timer who knocked on Broadway’s doors for over three decades—and often heard the door bang shut in his face. He had trained in Canada as a professional ballet dancer and soprano and came to New York at the age of 18 to attend the American Musical and Dramatic Academy (AMDA). It was a tough life: he recalls working as a singing waiter and relentlessly auditioning. “No agents would touch me. They were basically like, ‘You are un-castable.’” Still, he stuck to it, going to audition after audition. He played many ethnicities wherever a brown face was required.

[Right] Devanand Janki is an old timer who knocked on Broadway’s doors for over three decades—and often heard the door bang shut in his face. Today, his resume is brimming with impressive credits in the world of theater.

Janki finally bagged a role on the iconic show CATS, and that too only based on his singing and dancing—no one ever saw his face because it was plastered with makeup. His persistence paid off; and in his long career, he performed in many Broadway shows like West Side Story, Miss Saigon, and the world tour of The King and I. Fortunately for Janki, the struggles of early days were replaced with the euphoria of having found success eventually! He worked in scores of Broadway, Off-Broadway, and regional theaters, even winning awards for his work as director and choreographer.

Climbing up the Broadway ladder

With productions like DDLJ, Monsoon Wedding, Life of Pi, Bhangra Nation, and others getting play, South Asian American actors and creators have also seen a spike in their fortunes. Today, there are so many desi names in theater that it’s hard to catalog them all. Aladdin, the Broadway favorite, for the first time, had an Indian actor, Michael Milaikel, in the lead role, and Princess Jasmine too was played by an Indian actor, not once but twice: first by Shoba Narayan and then by Sonya Balsara. Shoba Narayan debuted in Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812; had a role in Wicked; and played Eliza in a national tour of Hamilton.

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Uma Paranjpe, thanks to gender-blind casting, plays the role of Pi Patel in Life of Pi. (Photo: @superumapuma) / X)

Uma Paranjpe got a big break on the Broadway stage when her debut role turned out to be one of a lifetime. Her selection for playing Pi in Life of Pi, the role that went to Dev Patel in the movie, created quite a buzz because of the gender-blind casting. It wasn't an easy ride, though, for her. “I was just auditioning and auditioning and auditioning...” she recalls. “I was just really making it a job to look for a job.”

Amongst some of the big names on Broadway is Ayad Akhtar, the novelist and playwright of Pakistani heritage who won a Pulitzer Prize for his play Disgraced. Akhtar, who has also formerly served as the president of PEN America, was nominated for a Tony award for Junk, his Broadway play. The Invisible Hand, another of his plays, won several awards, including the Obie Award and the Oliver Award. Rajiv Joseph is an Indian-American playwright whose thought-provoking plays have won acclaim. His Broadway debut in 2011, Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo, starred Robin Williams and was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for Drama.

CoverStory_05_04_24.jpgThe lead actors of Bombay Dreams have solid careers in theater now. Anisha Nagarajan has acted in regional productions of Rent and The Wiz and is currently performing in Stephen Sondheim’s Company on Broadway. She also landed the role of Alice in Mira Nair’s musical adaptation of Monsoon Wedding. Manu Narayan has landed roles in several shows, including My Fair Lady, Getting the Band Together, and Company, and has also been busy with regional theater, films, and TV. Narayan believes “Bombay Dreams allowed a whole generation to see themselves reflected in the marquee lights.”

The good news is that South Asian actors are finally finding success in roles beyond their ethnicity. Indeed, desi names are becoming common in the cast and crew of American theaters.

“You're now seeing producers recognizing that we should be represented on American stages like we are on London stages. It's taken some time, but we are getting there,” says Narayan. He adds, “It's a fascinating time for South Asians. There is real talent in the community that is finally being recognized. It’s important for us to be able to see ourselves on stage.”

Actor Vishal Vaidya has been in several plays, including Merrily We Roll Along, Groundhog Day, and The Light in the Piazza. Neal Joshi is one of the leads in Cottage. Nehal Joshi is an Indian actor who has landed important roles in several Broadway shows, including All My Sons, Flying over Sunset, and Les Miserables. He also played the final Phantom in the all-time favorite Phantom of the Opera, the longest-running show on Broadway. Nikhil Saboo played Connor Murphy in Dear Evan Hansen, the first time a South Asian actor had taken this vital role.

CoverStory_17_04_24.jpgAward-winning designer Neil Patel has designed some fantastic sets for Broadway, Off-Broadway, and operas, and he has received two Obies for “sustained excellence.” His latest work was seen in the magnificent sets of Mughal-e-Azam and in the inaugural production of the Nita Mukesh Ambani Cultural Center, which had a grand opening in Mumbai last year.

With the South Asian American population growing, there comes better representation in green rooms and boardrooms. Devanand Janki, after 34 years on Broadway, is now the artistic director of Live & In Color, a creative incubator with diversity and inclusion as its mantra. He says that despite all the changes, 90 percent of the decision-makers are men and white men at that. “Ultimately, it's not their priority to bring South Asians to the stage. It's my priority.” Meaningful roles for ethnic actors on Broadway can’t materialize unless the power balance changes, with more people of color making decisions—from producers to directors to stage managers passionate about telling their stories.

[Right] Rajiv Joseph, an Indian-American playwright whose Broadway debut in 2011, Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo, starred Robin Williams and was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for Drama. (Photo: Jessica Johnston)

In a changing America, the colors and tastes of Broadway are changing too. The bottom line, however, is the mighty dollar, for, in the end, Broadway is a commercial enterprise and its success depends upon ticket sales. The cost of putting on a show is prohibitive, and sold-out theaters are mandatory for big success. That may be good news for the Indian diaspora. With its enormous consumer market, India and all things Indian have become a lucrative market segment.

In bustling Times Square, the siren song of Broadway shows lures thousands of tourists from home and the world. In a changing world with new players, stories and faces from the subcontinent are increasingly being reflected in the marquee lights of the Great White Way.


Lavina Melwani is a New York-based journalist who writes for several international publications and publishes Lassi with Lavina (www.lassiwithlavina.com). Follow her on Instagram.
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