Wednesday, May 12, 2004

Speaking of Dreams Deferred

Yeah, the Tony Awards. I don't know how many people tune into this one. Hugh Jackman hosts on June 6th. After a semester chock-full-of-theatre, it's hard not to be interested in the goings-ons of this wacky world. Gothamist has a nice tid-bit responding to the NYT Public Editor who gripes about an "artistically meaningless, blatantly commercial, shamefully exclusionary and culturally corrosive award competition." I dunno. Broadway. It's a strange place where Cats can run for gazillions of years, Pulitzer-winning plays, and an amazingly funny, edgy production like Avenue Q can all reside, with audiences running about saying "Fabulous!"

But besides rooting for my personal faves, there's the issue of Bombay Dreams . We saw this a couple weeks ago, during previews, and I got a kind of Andrew Lloyd Webber bad taste in my mouth. In fact, a matter of taste might just be what all this is about. Maybe this just isn't my thing, the splash and glitter of Broadway musicals might be too damn "mainstream" for my snobbily up-turning nose?

Critics generally reacted pretty unfavorably to this production. This Wall Street Journal review gets rather energetic about it: "It won't be enough if 'Bombay Dreams' flops — I'd like to see it removed from the Broadway Theatre with bulldozers at high noon. Not since 'Urban Cowboy' have I endured a show so irredeemably stupid as this backhanded 'tribute' to the musicals churned out in boxcar lots by "Bollywood," the Bombay-based Indian film industry."

Despite negative reviews and a shut-out from the big categories of the Tony nominations, audience response seems to be generally favorable. Bringing the production from London's West End to Broadway has involved numerous changes, anticipating New York's much lower population of South Asians and heavy dependence on traditional B'way audiences (white. tourists. white. white.) I am no Bollywood expert, but really, Bollywood and Broadway seem to have kind of a lot in common that would make this sort of thing work excellently. Stock plots and characters and big dance and song numbers. But what? Why the dissatisfaction??

Yes. Hurrah for exposing a "new" culture into the Broadway scene and all that. They don't call it the Great White Way for nothin. This production is accessible. Maybe that's all that matters. People looking for glitz and glam and a glimpse either into a world probably not their own, or to see their own, actually visible wow! on a big stage will get some satisfaction and their money's worth. The cast is for the most part South Asian, and the people working on the creative side of Bombay Dreams are a mix of traditional theater people and respected people in the Bollywood world like A.R. Rahman. (Dare I say, fusion? What a useless term.)

Still, is this just the next Miss Saigon? Is there that angry-word exotification going on here? What's the deal? That's what I've been puzzling about. I'd like to think this is not some cultural-flavor of the month thing going on, and it does seem to me that intentions are generally in the right places. Bombay Dreams might actually have been parodying Bollywood conventions. I think that's what was going on, but really, I just couldn't be sure whether I thought it sucked and then felt guilty and upgraded it to "it was just okay - go see it for yourself." I'm rather curious to hear the response of Indian audience members but personally, I wasn't familiar enough with the genre to comfortably recognize and appreciate possible self-poking.... iiiii dunno. Isn't this maybe a problem?

BUT, here's the kicker. Make sure you're sitting down, as I hope you carry out your computerly practices as such. This was overheard from one of the students on the program amongst the chit chat. "Wait, so is Bombay a place?"

WHAAAAAAAAAAAAA-AAAAT?!!!?!?!?!?!?!?! Who are you!?!? Where are you from!?!?!? For the love of God do not procreate! This, from a student of a nationally top-10 ranked (thanks US News) university. AUGH!!!!!!! It's not like she was confusing it with the name-change to Mumbai. Why can't people freaking pick up a newspaper or a book?!?! Rant rant rant. So despite all this mumbling-jumbling I've done in the paragraphs above, they are all null and void. Because of SUCH lack of visibility of Asians in the media (seriously, if you can come up with more figures than there are fingers on your hands, throw me an e-mail and I'll come up with some kind of prize. Hopefully you will not have lost any fingers. Err. I meant that in a nice way), including the live theater, I have to take what I can get.

I didn't really think Bombay Dreams was fabulous fabulous. I, at first, thought the Wall Street Journal bit was pretty damn funny. But in the end, I don't agree. Keep the bulldozers far away. Even if this is an Andrew Lloyd Webber project. Even if one of the tunes had a suspicious resemblance to the chord progression of "Memory" from Cats. Even if the audience members will never attempt to see an actual Bollywood movie.

Because there are people out there who do not know that Bombay is a place.

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