Lloyd Webber, who is producing — but not writing — the show, slipped through the crowd in the rehearsal hall overlooking the Ford Center and the New Amsterdam Theatre, and wrapped an arm around Indian composer A.R. Rahman, calling him "One of the greatest composers I’ve ever had the joy to be able to promote. This guy is a star."
Rahman’s musical, which tries to capture the spirit of wildly romantic and melodramatic Hindi film musicals, was a modest hit in London, where such films are better known than in New York. In a gesture toward the original film colony in Hollywood, the Bombay movie community is called "Bollywood," and forms the setting of the musical.
To help make the show more "accessible" — a word employed emphatically by nearly everyone who spoke at the press event — Lloyd Webber called up the current A-Rod of American musical librettists, Thomas Meehan, to help reshape the book for Broadway. Librettist of Annie, Meehan has been batting 1.000 in recent seasons with his Tony-winning books for The Producers and Hairspray.
Meehan, a pale and owlishly avuncular figure, surveyed the room full of young Indian-American dancers chatting with camera crews. "I am the perfect person for this project," he said. "I knew nothing about it [Bollywood]. I knew two words: ‘tandoori’ and ‘chapati’"
So he looked at the show the way a typical Broadway audience member might. "The show in London was a kind of parody of a Bollywood movie and tended to be a comedy," Meehan said. "I told them people in New York, 99 percent, don’t know the Bollywood movies, so you can’t do a parody and have any hope of succeeding. I said, what we have to do is make this into a Broadway musical that is set in Bombay and the background the world of Bollywood which we’ll try to explain a little bit as we go along."
Rahman, who is a Beatles-like pop star in his native land, looked a little bemused by the American reporters’ questions about him and his work. His father was a composer and sent him to music school to study classical piano. "Strangely, the first thing you learn in school is The Sound of Music, My Fair Lady and all this stuff. It’s like a nursery rhyme for us."
But since India has little in the way of a stage musical tradition, Rahman moved into composing for commercials and film musicals, where he found stardom—and where Lloyd Webber found him.
For reporters the cast performed three numbers from the show. "Bombay Awakes/Salaa’m Bombay" is the opening number and introduces not only the dance style and the leading character, ambitious tour guide Akaash (Manu Narayan), but also the steamy, crowded atmosphere of Bombay itself.
Narayan and co-star Anisha Nagarayan then performed the romantic duet "How Many Stars," followed by a big dance number, "Chaiyya Chaiyya," which is performed in Hindi to illustrate what a big dance number from a Bollywood film actually looks like.
Director Stephen Pimlott was eager to sooth perceived concerns among Broadway audiences, whose only other cultural reference to Hindus might be the character of Apu on "The Simpsons." "There’s nothing extraordinary or exotic or alien about a Bollywood musical. It’s a great all-singing, dancing show. It’s like the MGM musicals used to be. So there’s nothing utterly bizarre about it… It’s an old-fashioned love story about a poor boy who makes it big, falls in love with a girl from a different class, problems get in the way, he loses himself, there’s a tragedy involved, his best friend dies to save him, he rediscovers who he really his, so he’s able to become a hero and get the girl."
Pimlott compared the show to Rodgers and Hammerstein show, The King and I, South Pacific and Flower Drum Song. "There’s a great tradition of taking exotic subjects and exotic settings." But this one, he said, is more like a Fred and Ginger film.
Bombay Dreams previews March 29 and opens April 29 at the Broadway theatre.