Published in The New York Times
When "Bombay Dreams" opened on the West End in June 2002, The Times of London criticized the musical for its "trite lyrics," "cardboard characters," "dialogue that would test the patience of Mother Teresa" and "the lamest ending in West End history." The Guardian called the show's book "clumsy" and "overplotted." The Independent said the production was "crippled by formula and mediocrity."
Despite the criticisms — the reviews, over all, were mixed — the show has become a popular hit, recouping its costs in 14 months. But when the principal American producers Anita Waxman and Elizabeth Williams signed on to take it to Broadway, where it opens on April 29 at the Broadway Theater, they knew it needed a major overhaul.
Though it is typical to tweak London imports like "Mamma Mia!" for Broadway, the "Bombay Dreams" revision is one of the most drastic in recent memory, along with the Broadway flop "Taboo" this season. Andrew Lloyd Webber, who produced the London production, has announced that the Broadway version is such an improvement that he will close the London version on June 13 and reopen it next year, in a different London theater, with the Broadway revisions in place.
In a series of recent interviews, the creative team discussed the changes they are making for Broadway.
The Broadway producers hired the book writer Thomas Meehan (who won Tony Awards for "The Producers," "Hairspray" and "Annie") to help retool the story and to remove a number of Indian cultural references that would be more familiar to British than American audiences. Meera Syal, a well-known British Indian comedian who had no previous experience with musicals, wrote the book for the London production. "Bombay Dreams" tells the story of Akaash, an untouchable — the lowest level of India's caste system — who rises from the Bombay slums to become a star in Bollywood, the name for India's film industry in Bombay. He falls in love with Priya, an aspiring film director from a higher caste.
The creative team agreed that the London production had too many "side shows," as the director, Steven Pimlott, called them. "It was a bit of a potpourri," he said. "We threw a lot into the melting pot."
One tangent involved a Bollywood impresario operating from jail with the help of an organized crime boss. The script also had a smattering of quirky jokes, like one about "a woman getting curry stains off her cat."
At certain times during the London production, Mr. Meehan said, "people around me were laughing and I wasn't." Mr. Meehan streamlined the story to focus on the principal characters, especially the hero, Akaash. To bolster Akaash's back-story, his grandmother, Shanti, is now a full-fledged character. The writers thought audiences would identify with Priya and the celebrity actress Rani, a temptress who encourages Akaash to forget his past — so they beefed up those roles and sharpened Akaash's choice between the two women.
Mr. Meehan also brought out the show's universal themes, like India's stark class distinctions. They provide the same moral force as did the racial divide in "Hairspray," Mr. Meehan said, which made that show "more than just a lollipop musical."
"It's been a long time since there has been a score as good as this," said Lord Lloyd-Webber about the work of A. R. Rahman, 38, a leading Bollywood composer who wrote the music. To bring Mr. Rahman's work to the West, Lord Lloyd-Webber commissioned him to write the score for "Bombay Dreams," hiring his own frequent collaborator Don Black ("Sunset Boulevard") to write the lyrics. For the American version, the producers hired the songwriter David Yazbek ("The Full Monty") to help rewrite some of the lyrics. As the book changed, several songs were omitted and new ones added. Mr. Yazbek wrote a song in the style of bhangra, a hybrid of Indian folk and pop dance music, which Akaash sings on television, propelling him to fame.
Mr. Black tightened the lyrics in existing songs. "Songs in Bollywood movies don't really further the plot," Mr. Black said. "I have re-jigged a lot of the lyrics so that they do carry the weight of the story."
The London production uses only 10 musicians, backed by recorded samples. The Broadway version has 19 musicians — the minimum for the theater, as prescribed by the musicians' union's agreement with the producers. In London, the cast lip-syncs to three of the songs because, Mr. Pimlott said, they did not have time to learn the specialized form of Indian singing required. The Broadway version uses taped singers on only one of the songs — "Shakalaka Baby," the show's signature tune — in which the cast is portraying Bollywood actors, who often do not sing their own songs.
In London, Mr. Pimlott said, "there was more satire, more pastiche of a Bollywood movie." At times, he noted, the audience didn't know whether to laugh at the characters or to feel for them. Now, he added: "The tone is clearer. We do, I think, engage and sympathize with and go on a journey with the characters." According to Lord Lloyd-Webber: "We were going through an area that was probably less sensitive than I thought it was going to be. We thought we needed to spend a little more time tipping our hat to certain Bollywood traditions." He added, "We probably tipped our hat too much."
While British actors tend to be more ironic and reserved, Mr. Pimlott said, American actors are more "visceral" and "passionate." The new Broadway cast is no exception. "That serves us very well," he said, "because I don't think an ironic standing back is terribly useful if you're engaged in the full-blooded, rather gorgeous over-the-topness that Bollywood is."
The show's London home, the Apollo Victoria, had very little fly space or room in the wings for storage, said the show's scenery and costume designer, Mark Thompson. That meant the sets had to be small and horizontal. The Independent criticized the stage's "meager, empty look."
In New York, the Broadway Theater had enough room to store a helicopter for "Miss Saigon." The main set piece for the slum in which the hero grows up is a tall, anthill-like colony that comes down from the fly space.
To bolster the book's new focus on Akaash, Mr. Thompson designed a new series of sets — Akaash's cramped slum hovel, Rani's apartment (where Akaash lives as her lover) and his palatial mansion — to reinforce his journey from rags to riches. "It was the notion of home to home to home," Mr. Thompson said. "It's my way of subliminally controlling the visual thought process."
Mr. Thompson recently visited Las Vegas, where the fountains outside the Bellagio Hotel, he said, "made me cry — they were so fantastic." The fountain that splashes the actors during "Shakalaka Baby" now has 32 nozzles, as opposed to 13 in London — to keep up with Broadway's glitz factor.
The lighting designer Hugh Vanstone tailored his cues for this production's more direct approach, dimming the lights, for example, during a sorrowful ballad sung by Priya.
As far as finances are concerned, the Broadway producers have reason to worry. The London version recouped its capitalization of 4.2 million pounds ($7.6 million), two-thirds of which Lord Lloyd-Webber financed, but the Broadway version costs $14 million. The show has a modest advance of more than $5 million, with group sales adding another $1 or $2 million.
Early on, Lord Lloyd-Webber said, a vast majority of the London audience was South Asian. "Without the Asian community in London, it would have closed within three weeks," he said. But the crossover factor kicked in and now, Lord Lloyd-Webber estimated, the audience "is probably 95 percent white on most evenings."
The Broadway version, however, cannot fall back on a South Asian audience. According to the United States Census Bureau's Web site, New York City has 241,000 residents of Indian descent, while Britain's equivalent site says London has 437,000, plus a larger Bangladeshi and Pakistani presence.
Ms. Williams's main goal, therefore, is to bring in non-South Asian audiences early. She wants them to view the show as a descendant of "Fiddler on the Roof" or "The King and I" — musicals with an ethnic milieu that have universal appeal.
For example, while posters in London used Bollywood icons — a villain surrounded by snakes — in New York they depict more universal scenes, like a smiling Indian couple. They also point to India's exoticism, with the tagline, "Somewhere you've never been before."
Broadway preview audiences have been only 15 percent to 20 percent South Asian, Ms. Williams estimated. On Broadway, Lord Lloyd-Webber observed, the reception has been good so far. One reason is that in New York the "white audience," he said, has been "wanting it to work, embracing the thought that it is musically from a different culture."
Or perhaps, as he has already recognized, it's that the show is better.