LONDON — "Musical theater can't just go on and on being revivals and compilation shows," Andrew Lloyd Webber muses. "I've long thought there must be something else--something that would unlock a new, younger audience for musicals."
Whether you like his work or not, Lloyd Webber has been the most commercially significant name in musical theater for the last three decades. And wouldn't you know that he might just be the one to have found that elusive something new?
His new show, "Bombay Dreams," opened here in mid-June at the cavernous 1,900-seat Apollo Victoria Theatre, replacing "Starlight Express," another Lloyd Webber show. The "Starlight Express" cast finally roller-skated its way out of the Apollo in January, after an astonishing run of almost 18 years.
"Bombay Dreams" is a very different kind of Lloyd Webber show, mainly because Lloyd Webber wrote not a single note of its music. Its composer, AR Rahman, is a legend in India, where he has been responsible for the soundtracks of some 50 films, including last year's foreign-language Oscar nominee "Lagaan." Sales of his soundtrack albums exceed 100 million worldwide.
But "Bombay Dreams" is also crucially different in other respects. Of its cast of 42, almost all are Anglo-Indian, "all except for a couple of Malaysians," as Lloyd Webber puts it. Rahman's score ensures a strong Indian music influence. The story is set in Bombay, home to the most prolific film industry in the world--and that includes Hollywood.
A visit to the Apollo Victoria in early July served to underscore the differences. On this Tuesday night, the theater was completely full: an achievement during this difficult period for London's West End. But most startling was the constituency of the audience. Slightly more than half were Anglo-Indian, and many among them were young, sharply dressed and enthusiastic, applauding and cheering wildly, with a few female screams reserved for the show's appealing young male lead, Raza Jaffrey. This Asian audience is one the West End has failed to attract in sizable numbers until now. (The British usually use the word "Asian" to mean immigrants of Indian, Pakistani and Bangladeshi descent who settled in the U.K. in the 1960s and 1970s, and their families.)
"Intriguing, isn't it?" says Lloyd Webber, two days after that performance. "When the show opened, the audience must have been 95% Asian. There was a hurdle, and we didn't know how it would work out: would the show happen with a white audience too? But it has, and among the white audience, there's a lot of traditional theatergoers, as well as younger people."
"Bombay Dreams" is a boy-meets-girl story with Bollywood as a backdrop. Akaash (Jaffrey) is a young boy from a Bombay slum who can carry a tune. He realizes his ambition of becoming a Bollywood star, but he also falls for a girl who seems beyond his reach: Priya (Preeya Kalidas), the educated daughter of a wealthy film producer. In the course of pursuing his true love, Akaash thwarts the Mafia villains trying to demolish his slum and learns a lesson about not forgetting one's humble roots.
The book, written by Anglo-Asian novelist and comedy writer Meera Syal, pokes gentle fun at Bollywood films and their odd conventions: hammy acting, song-and-dance interludes unrelated to plot, modesty about all things sexual. "Bombay Dreams" features extravagant production numbers with gushing fountains and wet saris, silk-clad dancers undulating in unison, even a Busby Berkeley-style routine in a parade of beauty pageant contestants. The staging is amazingly colorful, all oranges, purples and hot pinks.
With a couple of harsh exceptions, reviews have been positive, or at least tolerant. "A few critics have said we're helping reinvent musicals," Lloyd Webber says happily. "And 'Bombay Dreams' has received better reviews than either 'Cats' or 'Phantom of the Opera' ever did."
Indian reviewers have generally been less negative than some of their British counterparts, according to Amit Roy, an Indian journalist based in London. "The notices from the Indian critics were mixed, but leaning toward the favorable. None of them was scathing."
Some Indian critics, in fact, were wildly enthusiastic. Sanjay Suri of the national Indian newsmagazine Outlook India, wrote of "the dazzle that is at the heart of the musical" and affirmed that "Bombay Dreams" works primarily as a spectacle