La Jolla Playhouse breaks new theatrical ground with ‘Bhangin’ It’ musical
World-premiere production explores the world of bhangra Indian folk dance and music.
Most Americans may have never 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’s about to 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-bending show at the playhouse’s Mandell Weiss Theatre, which is in previews and officially opens Sunday, March 20, blends traditional American musical theater structure with a story about second-generation Asian Americans exploring their cultural heritage through competitive intercollegiate bhangra dance and music.
“I’ve shared work from the show with my closest musical-writing friends and they laugh, they cry and they get involved and they have no idea how to evaluate it,” Willmott said. “They struggle with it because of the array of sounds and styles and the way it’s in the uncanny valley of being a musical but manifested in a way they don’t recognize. There’s this learning curve, and it feels new to them.”
“Bhangin’ It” is the story of Mary, a half-White, half-Indian U.S. college student who quits the bhangra team at her university in East Lansing, Mich., after her ideas for changes are rejected. Undaunted, she and her roommate form a rag-tag bhangra team to compete head to head against 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 German American mother grew up in Rancho Peñasquitos, starred as Cindy-Lou Who in the Old Globe’s “Grinch” musical as a child and graduated from 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 identifies deeply with Mary’s journey to embrace her identity as both an American and a South Asian descendant, and she’s excited to be part of such a show.
“I think it’s such a beautiful, fun story talking about something really big that’s never been talked about before,” Afsar said. “I’m learning about myself through Mary’s continuous inquiry about herself and how she can belong. It has allowed me to see myself in a way I’ve 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 been transformed with the influence of hip-hop and reggae. Since the early 1990s, bhangra teams have been forming at college campuses nationwide, along with many large competitions.
Rehana Lew Mirza, who co-wrote the book for “Bhangin’ It” with her husband, Mike Lew, said she became a bhangra “super fan” in her early college years, offering to teach writing classes at colleges around the country in exchange for free tickets to their bhangra festivals. In her 20s, she wrote a screenplay about bhangra but then tucked it away in a drawer to focus on playwriting.
In 2005, she met Lew, a La Jolla native, 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 on her bhangra play script together. When they married in April 2011 at the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego in La Jolla, there was bhangra dancing at their wedding.
The script took a leap forward in April 2013 when the couple were teamed with composer Willmott in the “24 Hour Musicals” competition in Manhattan. The trio was tasked with writing a one-act musical in 24 hours, which they called “The Shotgun Wedding.” Sometime during the wee hours of the night, the subject of the couple’s bhangra play came up and Willmott was intrigued to read it.
“It was so obvious to me that it was a musical,” Willmott said. “The music and dancing is baked into the world of it. There was such potential for multiculturalism in the score. In so many ways it was modeled after the musicals I grew up loving, but it spoke to what it means to be somebody living in America today and grappling with the American experience and all of its complexities.”
Lew said he and his wife found an easy chemistry with Willmott that helped the story expand beyond their initial imagination.
“There’s a lot of hybridity built into the script,” said Lew, whose comedy “Tiger Style!” made its West Coast premiere at La Jolla Playhouse in 2016. “The early reference points 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 “Bhangin’ It” creative team 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 is adding nearly a dozen traditional Indian instruments to the score but he’ll also perform with the orchestra and step onstage during dance numbers each night to perform on the two-sided dhol Punjabi drum with the 18-member cast.
All four creators say the synergy of their skills has enabled them to build bridges among diverse disciplines.
“We’ve had to fight for finding the overlap in our conversation,” Willmott said. “The joy in that is [that] the trust we have for each other is so unilateral.”
The project has attracted much praise and anticipation from theater industry leaders. In 2015, Willmott won the Jonathan Larson grant for his “Bhangin’ It” score. In 2019, the play won the prestigious Richard Rodgers Award for Musical Theatre. And in 2020, Lew and Lew Mirza won the Kleban Prize as the year’s most promising librettists for their “Bhangin’ It” script.
La Jolla Playhouse has been attached to the project for four years and had planned to produce the world premiere much sooner, but the pandemic got in the way. Playhouse artistic director Christopher Ashley called “Bhangin’ It” an “utterly charming and vibrant new work about finding your identity and building community.”
The musical’s director is Stafford Arima, an Asian Canadian who led “Allegiance,” an Old Globe-born Broadway musical about Japanese American internment camps.
The choreographer is Rujuta Vaidya, a globally recognized Bollywood choreographer whose credits include the “Slumdog Millionaire” dance performance at the 2009 Academy Awards. Bhangra dance specialist Anushka Pushpala also joined the team.
“This show still surprises me with the way the dance feels,” Willmott said. “It’s not like ballet or [Bob] Fosse. You get in the room with it and it feels like something else. It awakens another part of you that you didn’t know you had.”
‘Bhangin’ It: A Bangin’ New Musical’
When: Previews through Saturday, March 19. Officially opens Sunday, March 20, and runs through Sunday, April 17. Show times are 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays and Wednesdays, 8 p.m. Thursdays and Fridays, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays and 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays.
Where: Mandell Weiss Theatre, 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 the performance is required, along with ID. Masks are required for all indoors. ◆
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