The story of Bombay Dreams begins with Andrew Lloyd Webber. Composer of the two longest-running musicals in Broadway history, Cats and Phantom of the Opera, Lloyd Webber became fascinated by the Indian film industry, whose nickname is Bollywood and whose home is Bombay. He loved the fact that movie musicals are produced regularly in Bombay, and that millions of moviegoers worldwide flock to theatres for the sound of Bollywood music and the spectacle of Bollywood romance.
He was particularly intrigued by one composer — A. R. Rahman, a native of Madras and a household name in India, where he is called the Asian Mozart. Rahman, 38, has written scores for more than 50 films and sold more than 200 million albums.
And so Lloyd Webber developed, in his own words, an "obsession to bring this melodic genius to the West End musical stage."
Thus was Bombay Dreams born. It has been a smash hit for nearly two years in London. Ben Brantley of The New York Times wrote that Rahman's music "vibrates with a vocabulary of emotion-defining techniques new to Western musicals." Now Bombay Dreams has arrived on Broadway with a cast of 39, two new songs, some new lyrics, a revised book, lavish Bollywood-style production numbers and a budget of $12.5 million. Eight times a week at the Broadway Theatre, the sun rises over the slums of Bombay as its teeming inhabitants awake. One of them, a young man named Akaash, dreams of escape, of miraculously becoming a glamorous Bollywood star.
The idea for the musical and its book came from both Lloyd Webber and the Indian movie director Shekhar Kapur.
"Andrew called me," Rahman says. "I had never done a stage musical before. I realized that London musicals have this kind of typical sound. He wanted to go further, to bring in elements from another culture. He said, 'Don't do anything that has been heard before.'"
Rahman says that at first the plan had been to do "a song-and-dance kind of thing like Riverdance. But we realized it would be more exciting to have a story based on Bollywood."
The most important thing was to create a score the audience would remember. "We wanted the audience to be singing the songs when they went out of the theatre." Within that goal, Rahman says, "we wanted to introduce the culture of India, the melodic structure of Indian ragas. They can have a peculiar sadness that goes with the slums and lifestyles of the people in Bombay, where the rich and poorest co-exist. And when you hear the melody, it sticks with you."
The lyrics for Rahman's music are by Don Black (Sunset Boulevard). The director is Steven Pimlott, a Royal Shakespeare Company veteran. The British writer and actress Meera Syal wrote the book for London and collaborated with Thomas Meehan — whose Broadway credits include three Tonys, for Annie, The Producers and Hairspray — on the New York libretto.
The stars are Broadway newcomers. Manu Narayan, a recent graduate of Carnegie Mellon in Pittsburgh, plays Akaash; Anisha Nagarajan, a sophomore at N.Y.U., left school to portray Priya, an ambitious young assistant film director.
Meera Syal says the story is simple, "but becomes complex because it's Bombay, which is a major character. It's an extraordinary place, with incredible energy, more like New York than anywhere else, but with the wish-fulfillment of Los Angeles, with 5,000 people showing up every day to search for their dreams in its streets. It's a city of contrasts, with centuries-old architecture and ultramodern skyscrapers, intense poverty next to the very rich."
For Broadway, Thomas Meehan and Syal attempted "to write a book that the American audience could get into and understand. We wanted to simplify things, make it all about a young man, an untouchable, the lowest caste, and we follow him on his journey to riches and fame. To achieve success he has to lie about his background, turn his back on his family and friends — because Indian audiences worship their film stars, but if they found that the person they are worshiping is an untouchable, it would be the end of his career."
In the end, though, he adds, "Akaash finds his way back to his true self — and he gets the girl. It's like Romeo and Juliet in modern-day Bombay."
Syal welcomed the opportunity to tailor Bombay Dreams for New York. "It's not often," she says, "that you get a chance to build on something that has been a success and make it a little bit better. Broadway is the home of musical theatre, and you want to get it absolutely right."