Grease, the 1978 American musical, which follows the love story between a working-class youngster, Danny, (John Travolta) and Sandra (Olivia Newton John), who hails from a richfamily, is memorable even today, thanks to its evergreen songs and foot-tapping music. But very few people know that the movie, touted as the highest-grossing musical in the United States till date, was actually based on a 1971 play by the same name. Over four decades after the production was first presented in Chicago, it continues to be revived on Broadway and Westend. A revived version will open at Brisbane later this year too. But Indian theatre aficionados don’t have to fret as they will get an opportunity to see their own version when director Raell Padamsee’s Grease opens in August.
Padamsee’s grand production isn’t the only musical that will entertain audiences. In the next six months, Rahul da Cunha’s Rage theatre company and ad guru Alyque Padamsee will revive their respective versions of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s 1971 musical Jesus Christ Superstar (JCS). Interestingly, both of them had staged this production earlier. While da Cunha’s piece was performed in 2000, Padamsee’s production ran to packed houses in the 1970s.
Over the past few years, the Mumbai theatre scenario has seen musicals such as Raell Padamsee’s Sound Of Music, Razzmatazz Retro And More, Broadway and Beyond; while Sunil Shanbhag’s Stories In A Song, Maro Piyu Gayo Rangoon and Atul Kumar’s Piya Behrupiya were performed in 2012. While critics and people from the theatre circuit are upbeat about the recent and forthcoming musicals, all of them agree that getting too upbeat about ‘the return of the musicals’ would be jumping the gun.
The trajectory of musicals
Deepa Punjani, editor of the website Mumbai Theatre Guide, says, “Usually, when we speak of musicals, our immediate reference point is the Broadway or the West End musical. But this is a very Western centric point of reference. While urban theatre directors like Alyque Padamsee in Mumbai or Arjun Sajnani from Bangalore have staged what might be called replicas of the West End and the Broadway prototypes, the idea of the musical in the Indian context is different in every region.
Explaining further, she says, “Music has always been an integral part of our folk theatre as well as our classical theatre traditions. In Maharashtra, the Marathi Sangeet Natak, for example, was a unique genre of theatre. Gujarati theatre had the Bhangwadi and some modern Gujarati theatre productions have been musicals too. Similarly, up North, down South and in the Eastern states of India, there are distinct traditions of music, which have percolated to the plays from these regions. Children’s theatre in India has also used music, and sometimes to great effect,” she adds.
Having said that, she explains the musical scene in Mumbai has undergone a drastic change. While earlier productions such as Evita and JCS, to name a few, were staged quite often, now the number of musicals presented has gone down over the years. “Two Shakespearean productions from Mumbai were commissioned for the Globe festival in London last year. Sunil Shanbag’s theatre group Arpana did a Gujarati adaptation of All’s Well That Ends Well (Maro Piyu Gayo Rangoon) and Atul Kumar’s Company Theatre did Twelfth Night (Piya Behrupiya). Both have been very successful. But these are rare examples.”
She elaborates there are many factors that play a crucial role in a musical. “The director needs to have a ear for music. Also, in the urban theatre context, it’s not easy to find actor-singers. We have very few of them. Singing requires training and discipline. Acting does too but while one can get away being an average actor, it is not possible to get away with average or bad singing. Most generic theatre workshops include movement and even music. But almost none include singing. This is because it is not possible for an actor to fool around with singing.”
Deepa Gahlot, theatre critic and head programming of films and theatre at the National Centre for Performing Arts (NCPA) feels stories that lend themselves to musicals play a crucial role. “Every year at least one or two musicals are staged in Mumbai. But it’s challenge to put up a musical here as it’s tough to find musicians who can play live, actors who can sing and also stage the production in a limited budget. There are many plays where recorded music is used. But they can’t be termed as musicals. Musicals are essentially productions where live music plays a key role. Also there are very few stories that lend themselves to this criteria.”
Alyque Padamsee, who has staged memorable musicals in the past such as Man Of La Mancha, Cabaret and Tarantular Tanzi over the last three decades, explains that staging such mammoth productions is an expensive process. “Today, live orchestras charge a huge amount as they are paid extremely well by Bollywood music composers. One needs to do at least 10 technical rehearsals. Venues charge more than R one lakh for each rehearsal. Also musicals boast of mammoth casts and advertising expenses. With the escalating costs, the musical scenario won’t change.”
Rather than being deterred by so many challenges, directors try to combat them by conducting auditions and roping in sponsors to realise their dream projects. Raell, who started working on Grease since last July, conducted auditions across several colleges in Mumbai and also cast children from eight non-government organisations. She says, “We started auditioning in August 2012.
After handpicking the cast members, they underwent extensive singing sessions. I cast youngsters from NGOs to give them an opportunity to showcase their talent. Also, it’s better to cast fresh faces as they can give total commitment to my production. Working on Grease has been an endless process. I had to co-ordinate with choreographers, set designers and sponsors to execute the project.”
For JCS, Alyque is currently conducting auditions across the city. He has also roped in Shiamak Davar for the choreography and Louis Banks for music while ace designer Tarun Tahiliani will design the costumes. The director says, “The cast members will undergo extensive workshops and I also plan to rope in a singing coach from London to train them.” Da Cunha concurs that for his production of JCS, he will scout the country and also strive to keep the costs low.
Striking a chord
Despite so many challenges, what draws directors to musicals? Raell says, “Audiences love musicals as these productions break the fourth wall on the stage. Actors enter and exit through the viewers and also involve them in the piece by asking them questions. The viewer is not just a spectator but becomes part of the whole experience. ”
For Alyque, the reasons are manifold. He explains, “JCS is my most remembered production. Every show ran a full house. Over the years I was inundated with requests to stage it again. Now that my Death Of A Salesman is running well, I’m focussing my energies on this musical. Despite so many hurdles, directors still continue to stage musicals because India is a musical nation. There is music for very occasion whether it’s a festival or a funeral. Every Bollywood film has at least two-three hit songs.”
Da Cunha feels that in spite of the obstacles, now is the correct time to present musicals. “Thanks to Coke Studio and talent hunt shows today the audience is exposed to different kinds of music and singers.”
Prod him about lessons learnt from his earlier tryst with JCS and he guffaws, “The biggest lesson was that I shouldn’t attempt it again. But I’m still doing it as a musical is the most exciting form of theatre. Indians love live performances. Internationally Hollywood actors are returning to theatre. After all, there is no greater high than performing in front of a live audience and taking a curtain call.”