You're invited to 'Monsoon Wedding' — a musical nearly 15 years in the making
Updated May 10, 2023 at 12:06 PM ET
Monsoon Wedding, the 2001 film, was set on the eve of a big fat Indian wedding – messy relatives arrive amid monsoon rains and painful revelations. Director Mira Nair had returned from America to her home city of New Delhi to make what she imagined as an "intimate family flick" about a bride still in love with her ex, and about India at the turn of the century. Her small independent family film made on a shoestring budget won the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival, and remains one of the highest grossing international films in American box office history.
But even as Nair has continued making films including The Namesake and The Reluctant Fundamentalist, she says she became consumed following the global success of the film with the idea of turning the fictional Varma family wedding into live musical theater.
"I cannot say that I was a huge fan of American musicals," she says. "But when I had the idea to make my film into a musical, I did think 'everyone here flocks to Fiddler on the Roof. Everyone here looks at their stories in different ways on the stage but where are our stories? Where are the brown folk, where's the Verma family?' "
So now, after almost 15 years in development, Monsoon Wedding has opened as a musical at Brooklyn's St. Ann's Warehouse with Nair as director. In a crowded and competitive New York season, the piece is an ambitious experiment in bridging Indian musical styles with a Broadway-style songbook. While this is an off-Broadway production scheduled to run through this summer, the team hopes for a Broadway run. It is not the first such effort.
Bombay dreams, shattered
The first big Indian musical to reach Broadway was Bombay Dreams and it remains the last. Set in the neon spectacle of Bollywood, the 2004 production was a critical and commercial failure that closed in less than one season. It was criticized for, among other things, trying to appeal to a broad audience in a way that felt inauthentic to South Asian stories and viewers.
Anisha Nagarajan, who stars as Alice, the family maid in the new Monsoon Wedding musical, played one of the leads in Bombay Dreams. "There was a lot of concern about whether the audience was ready for what we are bringing to the table," Nagarajan says of the new show. "Maybe they weren't ready then but they are now and it's been so gratifying to be part of a show that is so unabashedly and unapologetically South Asian."
Monsoon Wedding is certainly arriving in a very different era. The success of Hamilton, A Strange Loop, and others has shown that leaning into cultural difference can work, both commercially and creatively. Masi Asare, who co-wrote the lyrics for the current production and is a professor of musical theater at Northwestern University says she wants to "push the envelope" with Monsoon Wedding. "We have a beautiful score that doesn't sound like your typical American musical ... it's really exciting to see the form grow and stretch in other directions."
Stretching the form was also a goal for Nair. "I did not want to go down the assembly line of Tony Award-winning Broadway creators, however good they may be, to make Monsoon Wedding," she says. "I wanted to do what we did in the film, which was to go back home to Delhi and to India." And she says she has not held back — the audience for this show will be "literally dipped in the vat of stunning classical Indian singing."
Melding musical styles
Most of the new music on stage is by acclaimed Indian composer and filmmaker Vishal Bhardwaj, who is both rooted in the classical Indian Raga tradition and a star of Bollywood soundtracks. For this staging, the cast is accompanied by two visible ensembles — an Eastern and Western mini orchestra. "This is what the current India is," Bhardwaj says. "We are the combination of the traditional and the modern. We don't let go of our values and yet we dance in tandem with the West."
Integrating those forms has meant years of drafts and revisions. The play's associate director Arpita Mukherjee says the process wasn't about "taking our Indian tradition and just pigeonholing it into the musical theater where it doesn't work. It's really a melding and that's taken a lot of careful time."
The musical was first staged in Berkeley, Calif., in 2017. It was described by a Variety critic at the time as lacking the charm and subtlety of the film. Since then it has been rewritten dramatically and workshopped in New Delhi, London and most recently in Doha during the World Cup. "It's almost needed international development to find that right marriage in the orchestrations," Mukherjee says.
An additional challenge for the creative team has been finding a way to preserve the depth of the film within the norms of a musical spectacle. With bright colors and saris – tubas and bejeweled brides – the show certainly has the rush of a big band experience. But the film was celebrated by critics because of how it blended exuberance with a very dark edge of family trauma, and a critique of the rigid lines of caste, religion and gender in modern India.
"I always thought of the film as an accordion," said Nair. "Something that expands your heart and then squeezes it. It's only because one can laugh, that one can cry ... and that is really what I wanted to sustain after the Berkeley play. That's what I wanted to aspire [to] — that depth and that layering.
Hoping to get it right
Essayist and critic Pico Iyer wrote the accompanying liner notes for Monsoon Wedding's DVD release as part of The Criterion Collection. He describes Nair as a "queen of bridges" who closes the gap between her many cultural identities and artistic inspirations, the high and low, the comedic and the dramatic, the joyful and tragic. "I invoked Shakespeare," he says "because of the way that Shakespeare drew on all of the commercial tools of theater which has to do with broad comedy and storytelling and things that are attractive to the crowd and yet would infuse that with a subtlety and sophistication which made it something much larger. [Nair] has that rare gift that every artist craves and it comes to its finest conclusion in Monsoon Wedding."
Nair hopes the musical adaptation arrives at a similar culmination as the film that inspired it.
"It's been a rollercoaster getting here but I feel genuinely excited," she says, noting that when they began searching for a cast in 2017 "South Asian actors were full of talent but not enough experience to carry ... a whole show." But, she says, things have changed since then and she is "genuinely excited."
She calls this moment a major dream coming to fruition: "I am hoping the audience will feel this fruition and inshallah the critics, too, but that I will see that in the week to come."
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