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Andrew Lloyd Webber's <i>Bombay Dreams</i> Heads to Broadway - 2004-04-14

Andrew Lloyd Webber's megahit musical Bombay Dreams is heading to Broadway where it is being adapted for American audiences. New songs, a streamlined plot and Indian-American stars are designed to appeal to Americans and the East Coast's large Indian immigrant population.

Bombay Dreams is coming to Broadway with an impeccable pedigree. The idea originated with Andrew Lloyd Webber, the driving force behind Broadway's two longest running musicals, Cats, and The Phantom of the Opera.

Composer A.R. Rahman has sold more than 100 million albums worldwide and composed soundtracks for more than 50 movies, but Bombay Dreams is his first stage show.

"We had certain numbers that were probably forced into the musical in London so we removed them and made numbers which are friendlier to the script and to the audience," he said. "The end is much more exciting now with the new number."

Thomas Meehan, who wrote the books for two of the biggest hits currently on Broadway, The Producers and Hairspray, tailored Bombay Dreams for the American audience. Mr. Meehan says he loved the London show, but was confused by many of the references to India and its vibrant musical film industry, called Bollywood.

"I said I am not here as a writer," he added. "I am here as a typical audience member and I do not get it. I am an American. I don't understand a lot of it. So I said I think I am the perfect person to write this for America."

Mr. Meehan streamlined the show, eliminating subplots, changing lyrics, adding new songs and throwing out characters that did not drive what is now, essentially, a love story set against the backdrop of Bollywood.

It is a sort of rags-to-riches story of a young untouchable in the slums who rises to be a movie star, meets the girl. A lot of the focus is on the love story. That song that we sang today, "How Many Stars," is their big love song. Director Steven Pimlott said the production team has fine-tuned Bombay Dreams, but also sought to keep it authentic.

"We certainly went to Bombay and got lots of flavors of the city, but we felt that on Broadway we wanted to make the story more truthful, more believable, more engaging, more moving than perhaps it is in London," he said.

Anthony Van Laast, who choreographed Mama Mia, another international hit, went to India and worked with a Bollywood choreographer in order to create cross-cultural dance numbers.

"I have incorporated all those steps, but I've given it a Western sensibility, a Western style," he said. "In the movies themselves, the steps are all choreographed very much for camera, they're not choreographed for stage. So what I've had to do is take camera steps, and then give each number a story, a theme, a dramatic purpose within the musical structure."

The producers are betting that A.R. Rahman's huge international following and the show's emphasis on authenticity will help attract the region's large South Asian community. The South Asian population in New York is estimated at about one-half million people. Publicist John Barlow said he has made sure to include the South Asian media in all events for the show.

"There is also a marketing initiative with all the South Asian newspapers in the States, in terms of advertising, display advertising, and some radio," he added. "So we are doing outreach on both the publicity front and the marketing front."

Bombay Dreams has given young Indian American actors a rare chance to star on Broadway. Leading man Manu Narayan and leading lady Anisha Nagarajan both grew up in the Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Manu had already embarked on a career as an actor when he auditioned for the role of Akaash.

"It is really incredible," he said "It is living out a dream. Just being an actor in New York City and [knowing] how often we are struggling. There are so many people who are more talented than me who are struggling. I feel very lucky to get the opportunity."

Several years ago, when the collaboration between Andrew Lloyd Webber and A.R. Rahman was in its initial stages of creation, Anisha Nagarajan read about it in a magazine article. Now she has been plucked from her second year as an acting student at New York University to be a Broadway leading lady.

"I thought, 'when it comes to Broadway I have to audition for it,' because I have been such a big fan of their music from the time I was really little," she said. "So the whole idea of being able to perform A-R Rahman's music and be involved with such an incredible production was a dream come true."

Bombay Dreams officially opens on Broadway at the end of April. But it has already set off a craze for all things South Asian, from fashion to music, creating a buzz of free publicity that most producers can only dream about.