| Preeya Kalidas and Raza Jaffrey in the West End production of Bombay Dreams
Britain’s first all-Asian musical — Bombay Dreams — is to be rewritten with new white characters to make it more “accessible” to American audiences.
Andrew Lloyd Webber, the producer of the £4.5-million Bollywood extravaganza, believes that the additions to the cast are essential for its transfer to Broadway, where it opens in January.
The characters — two American tourists who explain the mysteries of Mumbai life to the audience — have been introduced by Thomas Meehan, the writer of Broadway hits such as The Producers and Hairspray.
Meehan has been brought in to help with the revamp in cooperation with Meera Syal, the actress and author who wrote the script for the West End production. He has also suggested changes to lyrics and dialogue. The Broadway production will include three new songs (A.R. Rahman wrote the music for the play).
The white characters are first-time visitors to Mumbai. They will wander in and out of the show interacting with the main characters and “interpreting” the sights, sounds and language of India for Broadway audiences.
Syal said the changes were vital to help Americans understand the show, which tells the story of a slum-dweller who is given a chance of film stardom.
“The device of having an American tourist is very helpful because our main character talks to them and tells them about Mumbai, the slums and the glamour,” she said.
“British audiences, and we take this for granted, now know a huge amount about Indian culture compared to the average American. Our presence here is much more visible. There has been a genuine cultural exchange between the Asian community in Britain and the host community.
“However, it became clear to me, having been to the US and also liaising with Tom Meehan, that there were certain cultural references — and certainly some parody — that a New York audience may not be familiar with.”
Modelled on Bollywood’s boy-meets-girl formula, Bombay Dreams, which has just celebrated its first anniversary, is the most successful new musical in the West End with a weekly box-office reportedly in excess of £1 million.
Don Black, the show’s Oscar-winning lyricist, said: “The idea of the tourists is simple but effective. Changes are necessary because although Bollywood is part and parcel of British life, it is only just becoming known in the US. Bombay Dreams will be unique for Broadway but I think audiences will be receptive.”
He added: “You have to remember that, when it was first announced, some people thought the show risky for Britain. It ranks alongside Cats and Starlight Express as something very different. People thought Andrew Lloyd Webber had gone around the bend when he announced details of all of those shows but he proved them wrong.”
However, Ismail Merchant, the Indian-born film producer who has a home in New York, said he could see no need to change the show for the benefit of Americans.
He said: “There is much more evidence of Asian culture in New York than there was. I don’t think that it’s necessary to change the show because, if people are going to like it, they will like it on its own terms.
“When we were making Room with a View, the American studios tried to get us to change some of the British actors into Americans. We ignored them and proved them wrong — and won three Oscars. It’s nonsense that American audiences will only like things American. It is diluting something good for something nonsensical.”
Matt Woolf, the London theatre critic for Daily Variety, the American entertainment publication, said he believed the quality of the show rather than the colour of the cast was the key to its success on Broadway.
He said: “I personally don’t think an all-Asian cast is a problem for Broadway, but if the show is to succeed, it will need a much stronger cast. I know a lot of American critics feel that the London production is weak in terms of talent and that it simply will not work on Broadway. There is also a lot of pressure to scrap the designs. One critic thought they looked like day-old curry.”
The transfer to Broadway follows the unexpected success in America of Bend It Like Beckham. The film was initially given only a limited release in America because cinema bosses feared it would struggle to find an audience. It has since taken more than £10 million. However, the film does have several white actors in lead roles.
THE DAILY TELEGRAPH