The last time they sang together in public, Manu Narayan and Anisha Nagarajan had President Bush, Queen Elizabeth and Tony Blair in the audience.
The lead players from the Broadway version of the London's hit musical, Bombay Dreams, sang two numbers in honour of Bush who was visiting London. Manu remembers the Queen asking him and Anisha if they were in the cast of the London production. She recommended the show to Bush who asked them where they were from.
In a few months, he will see them in the presumably more energised show that opens at Broadway Theater, one of the more prestigious addresses in New York's theatre district.
"It was a totally surreal experience," says Anisha of her London experience, adding that a few weeks ago, she was worrying about her drama class assignment, and now she was singing with Manu for royalty.
On the evening of December 18, they performed again. This was a first, too.
They were singing A R Rahman's hit songs from Bombay Dreams at the Indian Consulate in New York in the presence of some 200 invitees.
It was the first preview in America of what the two artistes will be doing in the 1,750-seat Broadway Theater, starting March 29. The musical, with a reported budget of $13 million, is one of the most expensive shows in America. It opens a month after the previews.
Carrying themselves with easy confidence and subdued enthusiasm, the two first sang a duet, How many stars, and then Manu sang the stirring solo Journey home.
"These are kids," one of the invitees whispered, "and they are soaring."
"I don't think the young man there will need any amplifying devices," she added. "His voice could crack the ceiling."
Later, one of the publicists for the show said, "They have not even started. I am sure it will be even more amazing to hear them once the rehearsals begin."
Right now, every public performance is a "humbling experience," says Manu, adding that it is important for him and the cast to validate the confidence Andrew Lloyd Webber and director Steven Pimlott have in them. The artistes know that New York critics can be as savage as their London counterparts. And a show which is a proven hit in London is scrutinised more when it arrives in New York, especially when its book (originally by Mira Syal) has been updated by Tom Meehan, who also worked on two of the biggest recent hits on Broadway, The Producers and Hairspray.
While Anisha plays a glamorous part in the musical that was conceived by Shekar Kapur and produced by Andrew Lloyd Webber, Manu is the slum boy with Bollywood dreams. His passion makes him a movie star but as Sweetie, the hijra reminds him, he is making a mistake.
Sriram Ganesan, a Temple University psychology student, plays the complex part of Sweetie.
Coincidentally, all the three are from Pennsylvania. Manu and Anisha also happen to be from Pittsburgh, the city well known for its Sri Venkateswara Temple.
Anisha's father Nandu, a professor at the University of Pittsburgh business school, and her mother, Geeta, who works with people with disabilities, pray there. So do Manu's parents, Badri, an engineer and Vatsala, a former teacher who works at a bank.
You may also add that Manu, Anisha and Sriram are Tamil.
"We did not plan that way," says Sriram with chuckle. "We did not know each other at all."
But surely Sriram and Anisha, who is studying drama at New York University, must have heard of Manu. A co-founder of Rasa Theater, Manu played a key part in the national tour of the hugely popular musical Miss Saigon. He also played Romeo in Romeo and Juliet for the Missouri Repertory Theater.
Manu, who went to Carnegie Mellon University, graduated eight years ago with a double major in saxophone and voice. There had been some talk of his going into engineering or medicine, Pittsburgh Post Gazette reported, adding, 'But CMU's Robert Page, who directed him in the Junior Mendelssohn Choir and was a respected mentor, urged his parents to give him a shot at music, and they agreed.'
Later, Manu also studied Carnatic Music in Mangalore, India, with Sri Kadri Gopalnath. He is also a saxophonist and has appeared in Law and Order: SVU.
"It was a very tough search but we have surely found two wonderful artistes," said Anita Waxman, a co-producer of Bombay Dreams.
Pimlott had said in an earlier interview that right from the start, Lloyd Webber and he were certain that there was enough talent in the South Asian community in North America. And there was no need for them to look for white actors to play Indian parts.
"We have a cast of brilliant young artistes and they are bound to go a long way," Pimlott said. "It was not easy to cast this show but we have been very lucky."
Photo: Paresh Gandhi
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