Onstage in Brooklyn, 'Monsoon Wedding' tries to capture the film's spirit
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Onstage in Brooklyn, 'Monsoon Wedding' tries to capture the film's spirit
Mira Nair, left, with one of the “Monsoon Wedding’s” book writers, Arpita Mukherjee, center, and its costume designer, Arjun Bhasin, during rehearsals at St. Ann’s Warehouse in Brooklyn on May 4, 2023. Nair’s long-gestating musical, based on her 2001 hit indie film, arrives at St. Ann’s Warehouse. (Lanna Apisukh/The New York Times)

by Juan A. Ramírez

NEW YORK, NY.- The director Mira Nair was standing inside St. Ann’s Warehouse last week, pointing at a marigold-covered archway that was being assembled near the entrance. Conscious of the wedding photo shoots that often happen just outside the space, she was talking about the musical adaptation of her 2001 film, “Monsoon Wedding,” at the theater, which, situated along the Dumbo waterfront and a stone’s throw from where the East and Hudson Rivers merge. “That’s what our show is about,” she said. “Confluence.”

Like the film, the show centers on an arranged marriage that brings together two vastly different Indian families, wedding planners and domestic workers. In the musical, the joyfully chaotic nuptials form a mosaic of questions of genuine attraction (the bride must deal with a scorned secret lover), diaspora (the party, notably the New Jersey-born groom, assembles from all over the world) and relationships across castes and religions.

First staged in 2017 at Berkeley Repertory Theater, where it received mixed reviews, the show has made a “beautiful odyssey” to New York, as Nair put it. (It’s actually a return of sorts: Rehearsals for that first staging took place in Manhattan — Anisha Nagarajan reprises her principal role as the bride’s maid, along with Palomi Ghosh as an auntie.) Since then, “Monsoon Wedding” has been retooled, with new choreography, movement direction and scenic design. An additional writer was brought in to help work on the book, and the show was workshopped for friends and family in New Delhi in 2019, where Gagan Dev Riar joined as the bride’s father. Although plans for performances in Britain in 2020 were canceled because of the pandemic, it was staged in Doha last year as part of the cultural programming for the World Cup in Qatar.

At St. Ann’s last Thursday, just two days before the musical was to begin previews, Susan Feldman, the theater’s artistic director, walked by at one point. Minding her step amid sections of a yet-assembled wedding tent, she chimed in that the production “has pushed the Warehouse farther than it’s ever been.”

A visual validation of that claim might be Jason Ardizzone-West’s imposing Brutalist set, which runs the length of the large performance space. “It’s a holistic design in the way that the audience relates to the scenery,” Ardizzone-West said during a video call earlier that day. Inspired by the domestic courtyards found in India, he added, the set is a mix of “ancient stepwell structures and modernist architecture, specifically inspired by Le Corbusier, who has a lot of buildings in India.”

Nair explained that she always wanted audience members to feel like guests at the wedding, calling the new scenic design “the fruition of many a dream.”

“In India, when you have a wedding in a home, it spills out into courtyards, in canopies, under tents,” she said. “It’s an open door for the community to come celebrate this wedding, and that was the feeling I wanted.”

The concrete stateliness of the set, which audience members must cross to get to their seats, is balanced by Arjun Bhasin’s colorful, culturally specific costumes. (“India is like Japan,” Nair quipped, “everything is coded.”) The men’s turbans are a particular shade of lilac, for example and, following tradition, the bride is never seen alone the night before the wedding. Bhasin, who worked on the film and thus considers himself “one of the oldest members of the production,” said the key to preserving its DNA was preserving its focus on character.

“When you eliminate the close-up and get to these tableaus, it becomes about people,” Bhasin explained. “The show is about the interactions of these people together; the upstairs versus the downstairs, the bride’s family versus the groom’s family, all these different love stories.”

Work on the adaptation began in 2006, with Nair and the film’s screenwriter, Sabrina Dhawan, collaborating with the composer Vishal Bhardwaj and the lyricist Susan Birkenhead. Nair said she’d been inspired by the 2004 Broadway revival of “Fiddler on the Roof,” a show built around cultural traditions adapting to survive. The film, like the musical, touches upon the fallout of India’s 1947 partition, brought to life in the characters’ religious, social and economic differences.

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“We’d made a movie that was our version, in a sense,” Nair said. “It’s about our families, but so deeply universal — this essential story of understanding a whole society and movement through a very personal story.”

That specificity meant weaving into the adaptation the concept of jugalbandi performance, a type of Indian duet. This is felt, not only in the score, which now also features lyrics by Masi Asare (a Tony nominee last year for “Paradise Square,” which similarly dealt with cultural cross-pollination), but in the placement of the band on the sides of the stage.

“I think of it as a call-and-response between the music and the actors, and that has shaped it very deeply,” Nair said. “That is why the musicians are on par with the actors, and you see the sitar player and the trombone. It’s a real combination of a brass band and the big full heft of an Indian wedding sound, distilled and very exquisite.”

Arpita Mukherjee, the book’s co-writer, was Nair’s assistant before being promoted to associate director and dramaturg during the Berkeley run. She moved to the United States from Delhi when she was 12 and brings an understanding of the emigrant experience to Dhawan’s updated book, which reconfigures the groom’s family as second-generation Indian American.

“At the time the film came out, there were still some really antiquated notions about what India was, and no understanding of what a globalized India looked like,” Mukherjee said on a video call. “There’s a great story here about what home, and belonging, means.” She continued: “The really exciting thing is all these different types of brown people who have very different experiences of brownness because of class, or upbringing.”

Nair’s work has never shied away from examining cultural distinctions, as in “Mississippi Masala,” an interracial romance between a Black man and Indian American woman, or exploring her native India’s underexposed aspects, like “Salaam Bombay!,” a drama about children living in the slums.

For the musical, this quest to reflect the times meant revising one of the film’s subplots about a relative’s grooming and sexual abuse of two younger family members. Where the film’s family grants the wealthy patriarch some degree of amnesty, the musical condemns.

“We’ve made a concerted effort to have the women question the patriarchy and speak up,” Nair said. “Other characters who are afflicted by this don’t shove it under the rug; they make decisions in their own lives that reflect that they will not accept this behavior, which we didn’t have before.”

Mukherjee echoed that sentiment, calling the women “the stewards of a new way of thinking and being.”

“They all have a voice in the show, which is looking at what the musical form can do to capture the spirit of the film, but go deeper,” she added. “Music is at the core of that; who gets to sing, who gets to have a voice? There’s a great theme of wanting things to be different from generations before, and it’s all led by women.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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