May 6–June 25, 2023
In 2006, when director Mira Nair’s agent suggested she adapt her Indian dramedy Monsoon Wedding into a musical, she felt like “a penny dropped.” The lauded film, now part of the Criterion Collection, “has music in its bones,” Nair said. Indeed, the colorful, sprawling family drama is fit for the stage.
“It was made as an intimate family flick, and I had no expectation, nor any knowledge, that it would run away like it did—and keep on running,” said Nair with a laugh. The film’s popularity gave her the courage to musicalize it, and its next run will be at the New York debut at St. Ann’s Warehouse in Brooklyn, from May 6 to June 25.
Monsoon Wedding follows the Vermas, a Punjabi family in Delhi busily preparing for a lavish wedding. As event planners string marigold flower chains and pitch a pole tent for the festivities, mania ensues. The bride-to-be, Aditi, is torn between her feelings for her ex-lover and her soon-to-be husband, the wedding planner falls in love with the family’s maid, and buried family secrets come to the surface during the days-long celebration.
As in the film, Nair wanted to find a creative team for the musical that authentically tells the story of a globalizing India. “That’s what led me to find this pretty extraordinary and unusual creative team, piece by piece, to make what we now have as our musical,” she said. The team comprises book writers Arpita Mukherjee and Sabrina Dhawan, composer Vishal Bhardwaj, and lyricists Masi Asare and Susan Birkenhead.
The first challenge to musicalizing the film was finding its sound. “Vishal Bhardwaj knows the classical music tradition as I do, but has a real sense of his finger on the pulse of Indian pop,” said Nair. Setting the film’s emotional beats to music was a powerful approach to the storytelling. “I shaped the film like an accordion, like the human heart. It is so expansive and then the heart is squeezed by abject pain, loss, or whatever is the drama of the moment,” she said. The musical’s singing, dancing, and exuberant sets help to bring moments of levity to balance the story’s sorrow.
The film was famously made for a song, with borrowed saris and set pieces, and being able to collaborate with scenic and costume designers for the stage adaptation gave Nair the opportunity to build upon a larger creative vision. Despite coming from a background in theater (Nair first arrived in the United States from India to pursue a stage career), the process of putting all the pieces together onstage proved challenging. The musical’s first mounting at Berkeley Repertory Theatre in 2017 offered Nair a crash course in how to direct a musical.
“It’s more pressured than filmmaking, because you cannot change things on a whim,” she said. “The only way to see whether it’s working or not is when it’s up on its feet and live, right in front of you. That is a challenging and a pretty exciting process, but it’s also a humbling process, because you really have to know what you want.”
A workshop production, with added songs, bowed in Delhi in 2019. During the pandemic, a planned 2020 production in the UK was halted, so the creative team continued to make revisions to the musical via Zoom. Last fall, the musical was staged at the Abdul Aziz Nasser Theatre as part of the FIFA World Cup 2022 in Doha, Qatar.
In many ways, Monsoon Wedding’s arrival to Brooklyn feels like a homecoming of sorts, and Nair is thrilled the musical will be making its New York debut at St. Ann’s Warehouse. “Every time I go to St. Ann’s Warehouse, I get shot in the arm with inspiration,” she shared, recalling thrilling productions of Oklahoma! and Brief Encounter. “I’m so honored to be there.”
The institution’s physical location along the East River, nestled between the Brooklyn Bridge and Manhattan Bridge, feels pertinent for the musical’s themes of crossing continents and cultures, and, as any visitor may notice, it is also a popular gathering place for throngs of families of various cultures taking wedding photos.
“It’s at the point of bridges and water and connection. I always look at maritime influences. What has made us who we are is really the comings and goings—the crossing of oceans,” said Nair. Multiple actors from India will perform in this fourth iteration of the show, three of whom have never been to the United States. “They’re crossing borders at this moment.”
Ultimately, Nair has her sights set on the musical traversing the East River and making its way to Broadway. Her hope is that Monsoon Wedding can shine a light on Punjabi culture and move audiences in the way classics like Fiddler on the Roof affected her as a young girl.
“I want Monsoon Wedding to be in that tradition of opening one’s eyes through joy and sorrow, as a mirror to our own selves,” she added. “This story is universal. It is not something that belongs to only one part of the world, but we rarely see our visages on that Broadway stage.”