Will Rahman taste the sweet smell of success?
The buzz on the musical Bombay Dreams
Arthur J Pais in London
The six young people at Millie Tharakkan's Kerala Restaurant at Oxford Circus, London, are animatedly discussing the hot musical The Full Monty.
Then they continue to discuss some of the other hot shows on London's Westend including Chitty Chitty Bang Bang and Mamma Mia!
Gingerly, I interrupt.
Are they planning to see Bombay Dreams?
"Perhaps," says the most articulate of the six. "I have been seeing ads for it everywhere." She dips the Kerala paratha into the fish gravy, adding, "I loved Monsoon Wedding. This could be fun, too."
I gently tell her that Bombay Dreams is a musical produced by Andrew Lloyd Webber. That it is not a movie.
I also hasten to add that it is a love story set in Mumbai and is directed by Steven Pimlott, who has directed many acclaimed Shakespearean plays in London. And that it is an expensive production; its $6 million cost is as high as that of Mamma Mia! or any other big Broadway show.
The six look at me with mild surprise. They had no idea what Bombay Dreams was about. They did not even know it was a West End musical, with hopes of making it on Broadway in New York. For some reason, the ads that grab your attention from train stations, and the top of the double decker buses don't mention Andrew Lloyd Webber.
Or for that matter, that it is a musical. Only when you look at the bottom of the ad, you get to know that it opens soon in one of London's best known theaters.
Lloyd Webber is aware of the low publicity (and advance sales), generated by his newest production which some newspapers have called his most audacious gamble in the past decade. This is the first time ever that the composer and producer behind such international hits as Cats (which ran for over 20 years in London as well as New York), The Phantom Of The Opera and Starlight Express has for the first time in his three-decade long career has used the work of another composer, in this case A R Rahman.
Rahman, who has worked on the show for nearly two years, told this writer that Lloyd Webber had heard his songs from Taal, Roja and many other films, thanks to Shekar Kapur, who would eventually suggest the rich-girl-meets-poor-boy story idea to novelist and actress Meera Syal, who then wrote the book for the show.
Lloyd Webber wanted to use 20 of Rahman's old songs for the musical, but the Chennai-based composer insisted he wanted to compose new songs. Eventually, he wrote about 16 new songs, and let Lloyd Webber chose four of his old tunes, especially from Taal and Nayak (Shakalaka Baby).
And for the very first time a story set in Bollywood has been produced in the West.
Bombay Dreams, which has London-based Preeya Kalidas and Raza Jaffrey in the lead, also features Dalip Tahil, Ayesha Dharker and Sophiya Haque.
It opens at Apollo Victoria Theatre, one of London's most prestigious theatres, where Lloyd Webber's Starlight Express concluded its 18-year engagement early this year. The theatre, which has about 2,000 seats, was also the home for The Sound Of Music for over a decade.
"It has one of the best acoustics systems in London," says Rahman.
Lloyd Webber, the richest producer in 20th century musical history, but who has also not had a success in a decade, has repeatedly said that the musicals in the West have become jaded. He hopes the refreshingly different score by Rahman will revitalise theater. Entertainment writers in London whisper that if the show becomes a hit, it could revitalise the career of Lloyd Webber, too.
Though Lloyd Webber was moaning at the lack of interest in the show about three weeks ago and even threatened to shutter it down after two or three weeks after it opened, he seems to be in an upbeat mood on the eve of its premiere on June 19. The show opened to previews on May 31.
He says he is still upbeat about the show, despite low advance sales. His first big hit, Cats, he says, began slowly, and despite many critical pans, went on to become a record breaking musical across the world. Cats too ended its run in England early this year.
The Phantom Of The Opera, another huge hit with Lloyd Webber's music, is still going strong in London and New York. It opened January 1988 at the 1,607-seat Majestic Theatre in New York and still draws about 80 per cent capacity audiences for its eight performances a week, with top tickets going for $85.
Bombay Dreams is priced at the same rate as some of West End's most popular shows, with top tickets going for 40 pounds (about $58). It opens against many hot-selling Broadway shows such as the revised version of My Fair Lady, and some of the recent hits such as Mamma Mia!, which are going very strong.
Meera Syal, who wrote the story and book, is convinced that the audiences are going to be on "an incredible journey" and that the show is a train that won't be stopped. "Lloyd Webber has done a very courageous thing," she says. "He has dared take an unknown composer [in the West] and produced this lovely show."
But much depends on how the reviewers will look at the show and how word of mouth spreads after June 19. In recent years, Lloyd Webber has not received very good press in England. In fact, Daily Mirror, the widely circulated tabloid asked this week if this is a vanity production for Lloyd Webber.
Broadway and West End shows with poor advance and bad reviews are often closed the week after they officially open as their producers want to cut their losses. Only in a few exceptional cases do producers keep a show going for several months, hoping for a box-office miracle.
In New York, The Sweet Smell of Success, starring John Lithgow, went on for about two months despite savage reviews. It garnered only one major award last month, a Tony for Lithgow, and the attendance kept dwindling --- it was time for the shutters. The show lost about $9 million.
You hear whispers that while the Brits won't mind shelling out 6 pounds (about $8.5) to see Monsoon Wedding, they may not be ready to spend 30 to 40 pounds to see a live musical with a cast of unknowns.
Cats did not have big name stars, says Lloyd Webber. So was the case with Starlight Express. Both were huge hits. The show itself, in this case, should be a big draw, Lloyd Webber says.
"It is a charming show; everyone will have a great time," says director Pimlott. "It is not just song and dance. Meera has given the show a sharp edge, and it tells a powerful story about dreams and ambitions and the ultimate need to know oneself."
Lloyd Webber and Pimlott are so convinced the audiences will take to the show sponatenously that they have included a live qawwali at the end of the show. "We trust the audience, who have travelled so long with us on this journey, will love the finale," says Pimlott, who says the best Bollywood movies are like Shakespearean plays --- entertaining and offering moral lessons.
Akash, the young slum dweller of Bollywood Dreams, learns many life lessons about the dangers of fame by the end of the show.
If the show becomes a hit, it would offer some life lessons to the theatre world as well.