Mira Nair Brings Broadway-Bound 'Monsoon Wedding' into the Trump Era

Kevin Berne/Berkeley Repertory Theatre
The cast of 'Monsoon Wedding'

The director’s stage musical based on her bittersweet 2001 screen comedy has been a long time coming — but its new iteration feels right at home in 2017.

"Now we've got a different world," says Mira Nair.

"We have embraced full-on the complexity of today's world," continues the director of the 2001 arthouse hit Monsoon Wedding. "When the film came out, it was almost the first portrait of globalization that people outside India had seen. Now, in the time of Trump, the doors are literally closing between borders. What we are bringing to you in Monsoon Wedding, the play, is a portrait of two things: an India that is complicatedly becoming a sort of real power, but also a portrait of America, since half our story is about America — an America that may not even let us in."

Monsoon Wedding, the musical, will begin previews May 5 at Berkeley Repertory Theatre before the production sets its sights on an anticipated move to Broadway.

The film presented a timely snapshot of middle-class Indian society with humor, warmth and all the tension that arranging a huge wedding entails. Over a manic four-day period, as a Delhi family prepares for the wedding of their headstrong daughter and the Indian-American fiance she's never met, Nair crafts an interwoven web of stories — between anxious patriarch Lalit Verma and his level-headed wife; between the comically brash wedding planner Dubey and soft-spoken maid Alice; and between a troubled young cousin of the bride and a rich family uncle with an ugly secret.

Multiple Tony winners Margo Lion (Hairspray, Angels in America) and Stephen and Ruth Hendel (Hedwig and the Angry Inch, A Raisin in the Sun) are producing, along with Nair.

One of Bollywood's leading composers (and an award-winning director himself), Vishal Bhardwaj, wrote 30-plus original songs for the show, with lyrics by Broadway veteran Susan Birkenhead (Working, Jelly's Last Jam) and a book by Monsoon Wedding's original screenwriter, Sabrina Dhawan. The cast is headed by Bollywood regular Jaaved Jaaferi, with Anisha Nagarajan (Bombay Dreams, NBC's Outsourced), Namit Das, Michael Maliakel and Kuhoo Verma.

The stage adaptation was first announced in 2002 and originally was aiming for a 2004 Broadway bow. But Nair said the development process was slowed by her busy schedule as a filmmaker (Queen of Katwe, The Reluctant Fundamentalist, The Namesake, Vanity Fair) and by the complications of arranging time when she and her creative team could get together. (Nair splits her time between Uganda and New York City.)

"It was made in Bombay, it was made in New York, it was made in Kampala, wherever we could all gather," she explains. "Live theater exists — and only can be tested — in front of an audience. It has to have that. If you don't put the scene up on its feet, anything you do on paper ain't gonna help you."

To make room for its songs, Nair and Dhawan pared down the film's five subplots ("all to do with versions of love") to four and invested more stage time in the story of the bride and groom. They are committed to presenting an authentic picture of modern India without "dumbing it down" for American audiences, she tells The Hollywood Reporter.

"We want to make something we feel is not just authentic for its own sake, but also truthful and fun," says the director. "We are treading that thin line of keeping it real but hoping it's not going to be distracting to someone who doesn't understand."

Nair lets out an exuberant "Arre, hello ji!" in Hindi by way of example. "Anyone can get that, instead of [her voice turns demure and drops an octave] 'Hello, good afternoon.'"

That authenticity extends to some quite filthy language as well — in fact, the very first line of the musical is "Behnchod!" (sisterf—er), which the anxious Lalit barks at a laborer setting up a tent on his lawn.

"We've introduced it in English, too, which is even more beautiful," says Nair with a laugh. "'C'mon, let's start with the sisterf—er!' So now 'sisterf—er' will soon become part of the Berkeley vocabulary."

Her choice to premiere the play at Berkeley Rep, in the heart of the city's downtown arts district, was an easy one, she said. "I love that they support radical voices in American theater, and they have a real political point of view." The venue has served as a pre-Broadway testing ground for a number of productions over the years, including the Green Day musical American Idiot and this season's Amelie.

Standing in front of the theater one evening, Nair looked down and noticed small bricks set into the pavement, each inscribed with a quote.

"The brick right in front of the foyer was in Hindi," she recalls. "It said the most beautiful phrase — 'Kalakari karo.' It is the most exquisite old Indian phrase, which means 'Create art.' I felt it was a bit of a sign. I felt immediately and instantly that this was going to be our home."

Monsoon Wedding opens May 19 at Berkeley Repertory Theatre and runs through June 25, 2017. Previews begin May 5.

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