When British musicals king Andrew Lloyd Webber and the great Bollywood film composer A.R. Rahman announced their plans for a stage musical two years ago, the Indian media went wild. Lloyd Webber had been captivated by Rahman's music, so he traveled to Bombay to meet the Asian master. If Rahman had been female and Lloyd Webber Indian and single, it could have been the perfect Bollywood film plot. A deal was struck, and Bombay Dreams, composed by Rahman and produced by Lloyd Webber and his Really Useful Group at a reported cost of $7 million, will open at London's Apollo Victoria theater on June 19.
Rahman, 36, may not be a household name to Westerners, but he is every bit as much a musical monarch as Lloyd Webber is, having sold well over 100 million CDs. A little perspective, folks: that's about the same as Madonna and Britney Spears combined. And he comes to a London seemingly besotted with Bollywood. In May Selfridges department store had a $1.69 million tribute to the genre, complete with visiting stars, movie-set replicas and Bollywood-inspired clothing. The British Film Institute meanwhile is running Imagine Asia, at eight months' duration England's largest Bollywood film festival ever. "Hindi cinema is incredibly popular here at the moment," says Cary Sawhney, the festival's director. "Since 1998 Hindi films have been regularly breaking into the British Top 10 helped by the increasing frequency of English subtitles. Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham [Sometimes Happy, Sometimes Sad] got to No. 3 on the British film charts. It's happening in America too. Lagaan this year was the first Hindi film to be Oscar-nominated since 1958."
Ashutosh Gowariker, director of Lagaan (for which Rahman composed the music), agrees. "Western eyes are now looking to India as an emerging power, and that includes its cinema and music," he tells TIME. Music is central to Bollywood, with composers often given equal billing alongside directors and soundtracks released four months before the movie. But even without such exposure in London, Gowariker expects Rahman to succeed: "He is among the top five Indian composers of all time, and his range stretches across all forms, from folk to Western classical music. It touches everyone."
Bombay Dreams is a star-is-born tale of an actor from the slums who finds love, glamour and corruption in Bollywood. Lloyd Webber is selling it as something totally new, which London theater could certainly use. "The West End desperately needs new writers," he says, "yet it's all going on in Asia, where these film musicals get a huge audience. I hope that Rahman will be the sort of composer to make young people want to write for theater, because his rhythms and melodies are so exciting."
Giving TIME a sneak rehearsal tour, Lloyd Webber rushes around the production's South London offices dispensing advice and suggestions. "Producing someone else's work is a joy, and I can bring quite a bit to the party," he enthuses. In the main rehearsal room, around 40 casually clad actors are ready for daybreak in a Bombay slum. This, notes Lloyd Webber, is the show's opening: "You see the sunrise, Bombay slowly comes to life." The sequence is thrilling, with one man loudly selling chaya (tea), two women praying silently at a shrine, street sweepers, everywhere individual characters convincingly integrated into a complex society all underscored by rich, insistent piano chords.
Really Useful's marketeers know that Britain's large population of South Asians are not known as theatergoers and are also notorious for booking at the last minute. To reach even the expected $1.4 million advance modest for a big musical the Really Useful team realize they will have to entice a white audience too.The show's scriptwriter Meera Syal, who starred in Britain's Asian-centric TV comedy hit Goodness Gracious Me, knows about crossover. After the series' vast popularity she famously remarked, "Brown is the new black." Can that sense of Asians as cool spread to this show? Syal is optimistic: "I think all audiences will get this."
Syal, born in Britain, may not work with an agenda, but Rahman is a man with a mission. In an era, he notes, when racial tensions are high, he feels a sense of purpose. "Every true musician's goal must be to bring spiritual harmony to the world," he says. "Where words fail, music still communicates. It's a blessing." For this reason, he wants his music to have universal appeal. "The chance to reach London is a dream come true." An advance listen to five tracks from the show reveals an intoxicating aural world. Agile melodies twist and turn to patently Indian rhythms, while mostly retaining the formulaic structure of Western musicals. "I've tried not to write West End," laughs Rahman, "but it's got to be accessible."
It will not just be London theatergoers who will hear these songs. Rahman's huge following back home will want the album (released in the U.K. in June and due in India by year's end). Lloyd Webber has an eye on New York and, if a suitable venue can be found or built, Bombay. First though, they must win over London. "It's the same feeling I had with Cats," he says of his 1981 hit, which finally closed in London May 11. "We all know we're doing something extremely unusual, and we won't know what we've got until we've seen it in front of an audience." Theatergoers, Bollywood fans and Rahman followers will be anxiously waiting to find out and that's one heck of a lot of people.