Most Americans may never have heard of bhangra, the energetic and expressive form of Indian folk dance and music. But the creators of a new bhangra-centric musical at La Jolla Playhouse hope that will change.
Sam Willmott, the composer of “Bhangin’ It: A Bangin’ New Musical,” believes the show has the potential to transform the future of musical theater as an art form. The Genre Show at the Performance Hall’s Mandell Weiss Theater, which premieres and officially opens Sunday, March 20, blends the structure of traditional American musical theater with a story about second-generation Asian Americans exploring their cultural heritage through competitive intercollegiate bhangra dance and music.
“I’ve shared the show’s work with my closest music writer friends and they’re laughing and they’re crying and they’re getting involved and they have no idea how to evaluate it,” Willmott said. “They struggle with it because of the range of sounds and styles and how it’s in the weird valley of being a musical but manifesting in a way that they don’t recognise. There’s this learning curve, and it’s new to them.
“Bhangin’ It” is the story of Mary, a half-white, half-Indian American student who quits her university’s bhangra team in East Lansing, Michigan, after her ideas for change are rejected. Undaunted, she and her roommate form a ragtag bhangra team to take on her former teammates at a national competition in Chicago.
The musical stars San Diego native Ari Afsar as Mary. The daughter of a Bangladeshi father and a German-American mother grew up in Rancho Peñasquitos, played the role of Cindy-Lou Who in the Old Globe musical “Grinch” as a child and graduated from the Westview High School before earning a degree in ethnomusicology at UCLA. From 2016 to 2018, she starred as Eliza Hamilton in the Chicago production of “Hamilton.”
Afsar said she deeply identified with Mary’s journey to embrace her identity as both American and South Asian descent, and was thrilled to be part of such a spectacle.
“I think it’s such a beautiful and fun story that talks about something really big that hasn’t been talked about before,” Afsar said. “I’m learning about myself through Mary’s ongoing investigation of herself and how she can belong. It allowed me to see myself in a way that I had never seen before.
Bhangra (pronounced “BAHN-gruh”) originated in the Punjab region of northern India and Pakistan and was popularized and modernized in Bollywood films. In recent years, it has transformed under the influence of hip-hop and reggae. Since the early 1990s, bhangra teams have formed on college campuses across the country, as well as many major competitions.
Rehana Lew Mirza, who co-wrote the ‘Bhangin’ It’ book with her husband, Mike Lew, said she became a ‘super fan’ of bhangra early in her college years, offering to teach writing classes at colleges across the country in exchange for free tickets to their bhangra festivals. In her twenties, she wrote a screenplay on bhangra but then put it away in a drawer to focus on playwriting.
In 2005, she met La Jolla native Lew at the Ma-Yi Writers Lab, a New York development space for Asian American playwrights. Lew is Chinese American and Lew Mirza is half Pakistani, half Filipino. She introduced Lew to the world of bhangra and they worked together on his bhangra game script. When they married in April 2011 at the San Diego Museum of Contemporary Art in La Jolla, there was bhangra dancing at their wedding.
The storyline took a leap forward in April 2013 when the couple teamed up with composer Willmott for the “24 Hour Musicals” competition in Manhattan. The trio were tasked with writing a one-act musical in 24 hours, which they called “The Shotgun Wedding”. Sometime in the wee hours of the night, the subject of the couple’s bhangra piece came up and Willmott was intrigued to read it.
“It was so obvious to me that it was a musical,” Willmott said. “Music and dance are integrated into the world. There was such potential for multiculturalism in the score. In many ways it was modeled after the musicals I loved growing up, but it talked about what it means to be someone living in America today and grappling with the American experience and all its complexities.
Lew said he and his wife found an easy chemistry with Willmott that helped the story grow beyond their initial imagination.
“There’s a lot of hybridity in the script,” said Lew, whose comedy “Tiger Style!” premiered on the West Coast at the La Jolla Playhouse in 2016. “Early benchmarks were Sam’s love of Golden Age musical theater, while Rehana and I are new to musicals but steeped in Asian American politics and identity politics and playwriting.”
Six years ago, Deep Singh joined the creative team of “Bhangin’ It” to bring more musical authenticity to the project. The London-born, New York-based musician, producer and recording artist is a globally recognized expert in Indian classical, folk and pop music styles.
Singh not only adds nearly a dozen traditional Indian instruments to the score, but he will also perform with the orchestra and take the stage during dance numbers each night to play the two-sided Punjabi dhol drum with the 18 cast members.
The four creators claim that the synergy of their skills has allowed them to build bridges between various disciplines.
“We had to fight to find the overlap in our conversation,” Willmott said. “The joy in this is [that] the trust we have for each other is so one-sided.
The project has garnered much praise and anticipation from theater industry leaders. In 2015, Willmott won the Jonathan Larson Fellowship for his score “Bhangin’ It”. In 2019, the play won the prestigious Richard Rodgers Prize for Musical Theatre. And in 2020, Lew and Lew Mirza won the Kleban Prize as the most promising librettists of the year for their script “Bhangin’ It”.
La Jolla Playhouse has been attached to the project for four years and had planned to produce the world premiere much earlier, but the pandemic got in the way. Playhouse art director Christopher Ashley called “Bhangin’ It” “an utterly charming and dynamic new work about finding your identity and building community”.
The musical’s director is Stafford Arima, an Asian-Canadian who directed “Allegiance,” a Broadway musical born in the Old Globe about Japanese American internment camps.
The choreographer is Rujuta Vaidya, a globally acclaimed Bollywood choreographer whose credits include the dance performance “Slumdog Millionaire” at the 2009 Oscars. Bhangra dance specialist Anushka Pushpala also joined the team.
“This show always surprises me with how the dance feels,” Willmott said. “It’s not like ballet or [Bob] Pit. You walk into the room with it and it looks like something else. It wakes up another part of you that you didn’t know you had.
‘Bhangin’ It: A Smashing New Musical’
When: Previews until Saturday, March 19. Official opening on Sunday March 20 and until Sunday April 17. Show times are 7:30 p.m. on Tuesdays and Wednesdays, 8 p.m. on Thursdays and Fridays, 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. on Saturdays and 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. on Sundays.
Or: Mandell Weiss Theater, 2910 La Jolla Village Drive, La Jolla
Information: (858) 550-1010, lajollaplayhouse.org
COVID-19 protocol: Proof of full vaccination or a negative Coronavirus PCR test result within 48 hours of performance is required, along with ID. Masks are mandatory for everyone inside. ◆