Ayesha Dharker, star of Bombay Dreams
Rahman-Lloyd Webber musical premieres in London
Arthur J Pais
Ayesha Dharker was the critics' darling in The Terrorist, with her performance as a young woman agonising over violence as a political tool.
"Who was that girl?" several people in the audience were heard asking during the intermission, as they hurried through their production notes to read about the cast.
"The show could have opened with that number," said one viewer, referring to the number that appears nearly an hour after the show starts, complaining that it had taken a long time to warm up.
Today, Dharker will be better known as Rani, the seductress.
Dharker, who plays a movie actress in the musical Bombay Dreams, belts out the seductive Shakalaka baby number (and many raunchy lines), in the musical, as if possessed by Madonna or one of those sexy divas.
Bombay Dreams, the first production by legendary composer Andrew Lloyd Webber without a single note of his own music, opened amidst speculations whether the composer had gambled big time in trying to mount a show with a Bollywood background. For the first time, Lloyd Webber has chosen a relative unknown [in the Western world] composer, A R Rahman, to score the music for his latest production.
Dharker brought the West End audience at Apollo Victoria Theatre, one of London's most prestigious theatres, to their feet June 19 when the musical premiered there after three weeks of previews.
'Is there place for Bollywood in West End?' asked the influential Time Out magazine, while announcing the premiere of the show at Apollo Victoria. Calling the $7 million musical production, composer and producer Lloyd Webber's 'biggest gamble yet', the publication also added, 'there is no rush yet for tickets'.
Lloyd Webber, composer and creator of such international hits such as Cats and The Phantom Of The Opera, chose the Apollo Victoria for several reasons, particularly since his own Starlight Express ran there for a record-busting 18 years. He may not expect that long a run for his newest show, but in recent days, he has been grumbling a bit about the lack of a decent advance for Bombay Dreams.
But if the enthusiasm of the audiences on June 19's premiere is any indication, Lloyd Webber has a hit.
Lloyd Webber, arguably the richest composer and producer in 20th century theatre, has lost quite a million in the last decade on several musicals. This story about a starry-eyed Mumbai slum boy Akaash (played by London-based Raza Jaffrey), who goes on to become a movie star only to be disillusioned and seek out his roots, could end his recent streak of bad luck.
But experts say that Lloyd Webber's 'gamble', scheduled to run at Apollo Victoria till September 29, may not recoup its investment even if it plays to capacity. Only an extended run and licensing of the show in other cities, particularly New York, will make it profitable. On the other hand, if the reviewers trash it, curtains will come down fast and furious, and Lloyd Webber might have to write off his entire investment.
His reputation for audacity grew following the premiere of Cats, which ran for a combined 40 years in New York and London, without stars or well-known actors, solely depending on the musical score, scenic design and emotional appeal. He has said he expects people to slowly 'discover' Bombay Dreams just the way they embraced Cats and many of his productions over the last two-and-half decades.
It is important to remember that a substantial number of premiere show audience were invitees. While they might have genuinely enjoyed the show, there is no guarantee that the audiences on June 20 would embrace it with similar enthusiasm.
Reviews, which will be published within days of the premiere, are also paramount to the success of any show, especially those like Bombay Dreams which open with a meagre advance. Apollo Victoria seats about 2,000 and tickets range from $21 to $50. (There was a plan to sell some tickets at $60.)
"There is a lot of energy in this show," said a young woman, who confessed she was seeing the show because she has many Indian friends. Even then, she could not get many things in the show. "Why is so much being made of the eunuchs?" she asked an Indian sitting in the next row.
Sweetie, one of the most important characters in the show, is a hijra who has a soft corner for fellow slum-dweller Akaash, the would be movie star. "Why does she --- I mean he, or is it she --- get to sing the beaufitul song?" the young woman asked.
Directed by Steven Pimlott, helmsman of many a successful Shakespearean play in London, Bombay Dreams stars London-based Preeya Kalidas, besides Mumbai-based artistes like Dalip Tahil and Sophiya Haque. The show is produced by Shekhar Kapur and Andrew Lloyd Webber.