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The Magic of Musicals

Friday, May 25, 2018

As Mughal-E-Azam, the epic drama, enters its tenth season, Tanmaya Vyas reflects on how the age of the large format Broadway-style spectacle is upon us

Mumbai is warming up to the culture of Broadway-styled musicals. The thunderous response to the grand musical Mughal-E-Azam is proof enough; all the previous nine seasons ran to packed auditoriums, and received high praise from audiences across the spectrum. The 10th season, which began yesterday, on May 24, is already sold out, with tickets for the epic drama ranging from `500 to `8,500, and no scope for current booking.  By popular demand, the shows have now been extended by an additional four days, upto June 10.

Along with Mughal-E-Azam, the city has also experienced many musicals such as Disney’s Aladdin, Beauty and the Beast, and ACE Production’s The Sound of Music-Season 2, which is being presented eight years after the first season. Balle Balle is another first-of-its-kind musical presented in Mumbai. The musical had a fresh script, star cast and approach. A story that revolves around a big fat Punjabi wedding had over 12 Bollywood chartbusters incorporated. Despite having a fresh star cast and a new script, the response was above average and sold over 50,000 tickets for the entire season. The play was unveiled in Mumbai on November 10 2017 and now moves to its Delhi season in mid 2018.

For Mumbai, the culture of musicals is not new, as the city has witnessed the magic of musicals in Marathi or what is popularly known as Sangeet Natak in the past. However, a comparison cannot be drawn between the two.

Theatre veteran Anant Panshikar shares his thoughts: “The economies are vastly different. The upper limit for tickets for Marathi plays is set at `300, where rates for English plays start. The booking of an auditorium for a Marathi play is a few thousands, whereas for English plays the booking amount is nothing less than `2 lakh. Therefore, the scale is different. Also, for Marathi musicals, the audience is restricted to Marathi-speaking people. And the audience that turns up for the play is working class, so for them to shell out 15,000 (for minimum two people) requires a second thought. When I did Matysagandha, one of the well-received plays in the past, the response was lukewarm despite a young, fresh star cast.”

However, now the Marathi audience is opening up to such experiences and is willing to spend a little more. “Recently, Zee Entertainment has come up with a new production called Hamlet (not a musical) and possibly has the highest ticket rate for a Marathi play, `800. When a corporate supports a concept like this, then the equations change. Since the sets are elaborate, setting it up takes two sessions, and hence till now only six shows have been done,” adds Panshikar.

Most of these recent musicals have had iconic films in the past and this makes recreating it both complicated and subject to prejudice. Mughal-E-Azam, a 1960 Indian epic historical drama film, broke box office records in India and became the highest-grossing Bollywood film—a distinction that it held for 15 years. However, the experience of live singing, dancing, and grand sets with spectacular mounting, makes watching plays like these an event more than just a play.

Priyanka Barve, the lead actress of the play Mughal-E-Azam, who portrays Ankarkali shares, “While we were rehearsing for the play, we didn’t know we were making history. In fact, a week before the show opened for the first time, we were not confident about the response and thought of extending the rehearsals by another 15 days. I personally was skeptical of who would buy a ticket worth `10,000 and watch it. But during the dress rehersal, my husband, who was in the audience, told me what an epic it looked like. We never thought of it from the point of view of the audience.” The play has a mammoth star cast of 350 people, costume changes involving 550 costumes, and 200 lights dazzling the stage. The glitz quotient is high, with ace costume designer Manish Malhotra doing the costumes and Feroze Abbas Khan being at the helm of affairs.

The musical has been appreciated and admired by the likes of Mukesh Ambani, Anil Kapoor, Sonakshi Sinha and many more. At the same time, the layman has loved it too. Sharing the feedback received by the audience, Priyanka remembers one response in particular, “While everyone has only good things to say, I remember this gentleman who was brought backstage by a crew member. He told me he has seen the play nine times till now and since he could not afford to buy high-priced tickets, he sits in the seats right at the back. This, however, did not let him experience my expressions, therefore he got binoculars to watch it the next time.”

Audiences vary, from the uninitiated to the seasoned to a wide base of a repeat audience and they have embraced the musical experience with open arms.

There is also a segment of audience that has been a die-hard fan of the movie and has watched this musical. Sanjay Rammoorthy, who has seen the movie innumerable times, saw the musical Mughal-E-Azam in the first season and was impressed. “I have been a great fan of the movie, so I wanted to see how they have turned it into a play. I wasn’t disappointed at all with what I saw. Each character was well etched and presented. And each performance is brilliant, mainly because the actors have not aped the legendary actors in the original movie. To sustain such a high energy performance is highly commendable.”

Now, according to the buzz in  trade circles,  Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s re-interpretation of the Sharatchandra Chattopadhayay classic novel Devdas, may be the next great show to hit the city’s theatre circuit. Clearly the age of the large format Broadway-style spectacle is upon us.

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