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How Anisha sang for the Queen

November 28, 2003 16:16 IST

A still from Bombay DreamsLike the proverbial American artists, Anisha Vaishnavi Nagarajan did not have to wait tables before she was signed for Broadway.

In fact, she did not even have to complete her degree in theatre at New York University. She got to play the lead in Andrew Lloyd Webber's Broadway extravaganza, Bombay Dreams in her sophomore year.

"It sounds so surreal," she says, speaking from her Pittsburgh home. "One day, I am worrying over my homework and the next day, I am shifting gears and singing with Manu [her co-star Manu Narayan] for the Queen in London."

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"Let alone going to London, I could not imagine being on Broadway," she says.

Nagarajan was referring to her London trip -- she was invited by Lloyd Webber to sing composer A R Rahman's Bombay Dreams showstopper, How Many Stars, for President George W Bush, Prime Minister Tony Blair and the Queen.

When she met the artists in the West End version of the show, she had opportunity to meet with writer Meera Syal, who wrote the musical. She pulled Nagarajan aside, and quoted a line from the musical: 'Are you sure you want to be famous?'

"I just laughed and laughed," says Nagarajan. "At the moment, all I want to do is to concentrate on doing a great job." 

The New York version of the show, which is significantly altered from the hit London version, is also set against the backdrop of Bollywood. It focuses more on the journey of a slum dweller Akash (Narayan), who goes to become a Bollywood star but is soon disillusioned. The show is expected to cost $12 million, nearly the double of the original's cost, making it one of the most expensive of Broadway shows.

Nagarajan plays Priya who could help make Akash's dreams come true. Ganesh Sriram plays the hijra called Sweetie, who also loves Akash. Madhur Jaffrey plays Shanti, the wise woman in the shantytown. Ayesha Dharker, who performed the show's sexy Shakalaka baby number in London, will also make her Broadway debut.  

While Jaffrey is a seasoned character actress in the movies and Narayan has appeared in the television show, Law & Order: SVU, Nagarajan is an absolute newcomer.

That is if you don't count her work in the stillborn children's musical Eleven about teaching the young a few lessons about tolerance. She and lyricist Michael Mitnick wrote the musical more than a year ago. The two have known each other since their school days in Pittsburgh.

"She has an amazing voice, and is a wonderful composer, too," says Mitnick who has postponed work on Eleven because of Nagarajan's work on Bombay Dreams. "And she is absolutely dedicated to everything she takes up."

Daughter of Nandu Nagarajan, a business professor and Geetha, a special education expert, Anisha has been enamoured by music (piano in particular) and theatre since her childhood.

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"We tried to veer her towards traditional careers," her mother says with a chuckle, "but when we realised how passionate she was about her career choice, we let her go to New York University."

Nagarajan says her parents trust of her decision was very important to her.

"Not many Indian parents would give their children the kind of freedom they gave me," she says. "They allowed me to go into a very risky business. I fully believe I must vindicate their faith in me."

Director Steven Pimlott, who also directed the hit London version of Bombay Dreams, also has a lot of faith in his New York artists. He had turned down suggestions of some people that he should look for non Indian artists, particularly big names, to minimise the risk on Broadway.

"We were absolutely lucky to find rich talent in the South Asian community in America," he says.

The New York version has Tony-winning book writer Thomas (The Producers, Hairspray) Meehan collaborating with Meera Syal, the author of the original London script.

"As a result of this collaboration, our parts have been strengthened and there is more drama in the show now," says Nagarajan.

"My character is complicated in the sense that it is very easy to play her as being melancholic and unidimensional all the time," she muses. "I am trying to look for the optimism that she has to offer and create a multi-layered personality who has the capability to find the humour in things as well as deal with the forbidden love aspect of the show."

She was auditioned for the show at the end of October. For her first appearance, she sang a love song from the hit Broadway musical Aida. Then she was given the music of Bombay Dreams. After another audition, she was asked to come back later. "When I heard I had got the part, I immediately called home," she says with gentle laughter. "My mother took the call and when I told her, she was so excited she put the phone down."

She suspects she has inherited quite a bit of stage talent from her parents. "My mom has a nice singing voice," she says. "And my father is the life of any party. He has so many funny stories."

Back home, she admires her maternal aunt, the classical singer Aruna Sairam. The most important gift she has received from her family can be described in one word, she says: confidence.

Diffidence and discouragement are some of the words not even whispered in her Pittsburgh home. Everyone there, including her younger brother Arjun, wants her to be a very big star.

"I still feel everything in my life right now is surreal," she says chuckling.

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