'Monsoon Wedding' the musical: The indie darling has been adapted for the stage Back in 2001, Monsoon Wedding was an indie darling turned international success. Now, the stage adaptation is an ambitious experiment in bridging Indian musical styles with a Broadway-style songbook.

You're invited to 'Monsoon Wedding' — a musical nearly 15 years in the making

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In 2001, the Indian filmmaker Mira Nair released "Monsoon Wedding." It was the story of a Punjabi wedding in New Delhi. There's rain and dancing and big family drama. The movie became one of the highest-grossing international films in American box office history. Two decades later, "Monsoon Wedding" has been turned into a musical, and it just opened in New York City. NPR's Bilal Qureshi takes us backstage.

BILAL QURESHI, BYLINE: St. Ann's Warehouse is a black box theater located directly under the Brooklyn Bridge. And inside, during this final rehearsal, more than two dozen actors are all singing both their Western and Indian scales as director Mira Nair hums along.

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP #1: (Singing in non-English language).

MIRA NAIR: I cannot say that I was a huge fan of American musicals. I did see a lot, but when I had the idea to make "Monsoon Wedding," 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? You know? Where are the brown folk? Where is the Verma family?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character, singing) Fine monsoon weddings profit from love (ph). Rain is coming, Ria.

QURESHI: So Mira Nair created "Monsoon Wedding" the musical.

SHARVARI DESHPANDE: My name is Sharvari Deshpande. I play Ria.

ANISHA NAGARAJAN: My name is Anisha Nagarajan, and I play Alice, or Ay-lice (ph), as she calls herself.

QURESHI: They share the stage with the whole ensemble for the play's big closing number.

NAGARAJAN: The most iconic "Monsoon Wedding" song - (singing in non-English language).


UNIDENTIFIED GROUP #1: (As characters, singing in non-English language).

QURESHI: "Monsoon Wedding" the movie was not a musical. Released in 2001, it was an intimate family flick, as Mira Nair calls it, the story of a bride still in love with her ex and an exuberant portrait of New Delhi. Critic Aseem Chhabra says it was brilliant and authentic.

ASEEM CHHABRA: Our weddings are what is shown in that film. And there's music, and there are dances, and there are relatives coming from across the world. Some you like. Some you don't like. Some are creepy uncles and gossipy aunties. Everything gets shown in that film.

QURESHI: Given the film's success, Nair decided to turn it into a musical. That was 17 years ago.

NAIR: We have a joke hashtag, #AurKaroTheatre. Whenever the challenge is too hard, somebody will tell me, aur karo theatre. Do more, and then you'll suffer more - you know, that type of thing. It's a joke, but I have been stewarding this for years.

QURESHI: Masi Asare is the musical's lyricist, and she's also a professor of musical theater at Northwestern University.

MASI ASARE: Musicals, different from film, are very expensive to make. They don't always make back their money. I don't know that I should be saying all of this, but, you know, there can be a situation where the producers or the stakeholders or kind of the powers that be in the U.S. theater industry will say, this is too risky. Please do it the way it's always been done.

QURESHI: The last big Indian musical to be done in New York was almost two decades ago. It was glitzy. It was loud. And it was called "Bombay Dreams."


PREEYA KALIDAS: (As Rani, singing) Shakalaka, baby. Shakalaka, baby. This is how it's really meant to be.

QURESHI: It was also a critical and commercial disaster and closed in less than one season. From the set of "Monsoon Wedding" now, Anisha Nagarajan looks back at once playing the lead in "Bombay Dreams."

NAGARAJAN: There was a lot of concern about whether the audience was ready for what we're bringing to the table, and I think they are. Maybe they weren't then, but they are now.

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP #2: (As characters, singing in non-English language).

QURESHI: "Monsoon Wedding" is certainly arriving in a very different era. "Hamilton," "A Strange Loop" and others have shown that leaning into difference can work on the stage.

NAIR: I did not want to go down the assembly line of Tony Award-winning Broadway creators. You know, I wanted to do what we did in the film, which was to go back home to Delhi and to India. And I did think only of Vishal Bhardwaj.

QURESHI: Vishal Bhardwaj is an acclaimed composer and filmmaker in India. He based most of the musical score and songs on the Indian Raga system.

VISHAL BHARDWAJ: It's a combination of notes which creates a spell and a mood. There's very, very, you know, strict rule in Indian classical music.

NAMIT DAS: (As PK Dubey, singing in non-English language).

NAIR: It is something deeply unusual, what we are attempting to do.

DAS: (As PK Dubey, singing) Is she not a sight, goddess of the light?

NAIR: I have really not held back for the audience to be literally dipped in the vat of very stunning classical Indian singing.

DAS: (As PK Dubey, singing in non-English language).

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character, singing in non-English language).

QURESHI: On stage, those strict Indian melodies also have to merge with the narrative demands of an American musical.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As character, singing) Why does no one see, in Delhi or in Hoboken, I'm still the same me?

NAIR: This cast has been extraordinary and hard to find when we began in 2017. South Asian actors were full of talent but not enough experience to carry sometimes a whole show. And just to find our actors has taken us, without exaggeration, more than three years.

QURESHI: The first draft in 2017 was described by Variety as lacking the charm and subtlety of the film. Since then, it's been workshopped in London, Delhi and Doha, says associate director Arpita Mukherjee.

ARPITA MUKHERJEE: It almost needed international development to find that right marriage and the orchestrations. You know, it's taken so many goes at that marriage, and that's very difficult.

DAS: (As PK Dubey, singing) Alice, come here.

NAGARAJAN: (As Alice, singing) No, no, no, not here.

NAIR: And I always thought of the film as an accordion, something that expands your heart and then squeezes it. It's only because one can laugh that one can then cry, you know? And I really believe that in life. And that is really what I wanted to sustain. That's what I wanted to aspire for - that depth and that layering that can take you from one place and then into another place.

DAS: (As PK Dubey, singing) OK, I will start. Something, something's happening here in this heart.

QURESHI: Essayist Pico Iyer wrote the liner notes for the DVD release of "Monsoon Wedding" on the Criterion Collection.

PICO IYER: I remember when I was writing about "Monsoon Wedding," I invoked Shakespeare because of the way that Shakespeare drew on all the commercial tools of theater when he was living, which have 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 that made it something much larger. And I think she has that rare gift that every artist craves, essentially. And it comes to its finest culmination, almost, in "Monsoon Wedding."

QURESHI: Mira Nair hopes the musical also reaches a similar culmination and finally finds its home.

NAIR: To be opening in New York City and to be opening in what I consider the temple of inspiration for me of theater, which is St. Ann's Warehouse, is like a fruition of a major dream and a major amount of work. And I'm hoping, of course, that the audiences will feel this fruition in the best way possible and, inshallah, the critics, too, which will always make my life easier. But that I will see in the week to come.

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP #3: (As characters, singing in non-English language).

QURESHI: Bilal Qureshi, NPR News.

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP #3: (As characters, singing in non-English language).

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