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#SingIndiaSing: Rahul DaCunha and Bugs Bhargava on staging India’s first all-original English musical

The musicals that leave us kind of staggering on our feet are the ones that really reach for a lot.
— Lin-Manuel Miranda (Hamilton)

When #SingIndiaSing opens on Friday, it’ll be nothing short of historic. India’s first all-original English musical will make its debut as part of the Aditya Birla Group’s theatre initiative Aadyam.

This Nadir Khan-directed production is an ensemble cast of the best names in the indie music, theatre and television scenes. Starring Uday Benegal, Siddharth Basrur, Sarosh Nanavaty, Naquita D’souza, Abhishek Krishnan, Asif Ali Beg, Brian Tellis, Delraaz Bunshah, Tavish Bhattacharya, Suchitra Pillai and Kamakshi Rai, the musical promises to treat the audience with a riveting storyline that traverses through 28 songs.

From #SingIndiaSing

From #SingIndiaSing

One would think that in a country saturated with films following the song-and-dance routine, it’s almost absurd that the production of English musicals hitherto has largely remained adaptations of others. Says the musical’s co-writer Rahul DaCunha, “Finding a singer-actor-performer is not a very easy task. And then to have an entire cast do the same poses a greater challenge to this search. With musicals, you need singers who can act and emote and actors who can sing. It is not always that you get the perfect balance.”

If the casting for a musical is prone to being problematic, why would playwrights want to employ the technique in the first place? DaCunha’s co-writer in the #SingIndiaSing creation process, theatre veteran, ad man and actor Bugs Bhargava Krishna, believes that the resources, in fact, are not the determining factor for the format of a play. “Because the story we want to say matters the most. We did have an idea who some actors would be, and we accordingly wrote keeping them in mind. That said, we knew we wanted to write a work of musical theatre and wanted to be true to the vision of it.”

From #SingIndiaSing

From #SingIndiaSing

The vision of this play had been in DaCunha’s mind for a year before he decided to collaborate with Krishna. He knew he wanted to write a musical. Some of his favourite works of theatre have been musicals — Jesus Christ Superstar, Les Miserables and Hamilton — and he was itching to write one too. It was in 2009 that he first thought about how the Indian English theatre scene had not yet worked on a ground-up musical. “I felt at that point that we’re ready for it. It would be interesting if the musical centered around what is naturally music. Class of 84 was my first play and I realised the easiest way to write a play would be about your own personal experience. Similarly, I thought that to write a musical — it would be fun and possibly an easier way to do so — by setting it in a world where there’s naturally music. At that stage, it was still a rough thought in my head about a talent contest with various characters…pitting themselves against each other.”

When Krishna had heard where he was at with it, he asked if he could be in on it. DaCunha also realised that he’d reached a stage where there was no other way for him to do this but collaborate. “Also, though I had directed a musical like Jesus Christ Superstar, I hadn’t had the experience of writing one, in the creation of a piece like this. Bugs had written lyrics before, he has acted in a musical (played Cogsworth in Disney’s Beauty and the Beast). There was something that he brought to the table already. I thought the combination of us working together would be quite interesting.”

From #SingIndiaSing

From #SingIndiaSing

Neither being widely experienced with songwriting, the process of writing the musical actually began after they narrowed down on how they were going to structure it. With musicals, one either follows the format of interspersing scenes with songs or one writes it in the operatic manner where song after song after song carries the story forward. While the songs are an integral part of the musical, their purpose is so much more than punctuating a plotline with melodic breathers. “It’s not just songs being delivered. Even when you’re singing the songs, you still have to emote and act out the song. That’s how the characters and the plot are delivered. Unlike a pop song where the character of the song is the singer, in a musical, it’s the character played by the singer who is delivering that song,” says Krishna.

With limited experience in the songwriting department, DaCunha and Krishna went about writing a play in the operatic format, a decision they knew would only make their work tougher. This partly has to do with their mutual love for this form of musical theatre even though DaCunha admits that setting it in a space where music is already around, was probably an easy entry point. “The thing about a musical compared to other forms — why it makes it double as hard — is in a play you set about writing the dialogue and that becomes your structure and your play. In a musical you still have to get the story down very clearly. Then you have figure out how many songs would roughly be written to narrate the story. Within each song, you have to ask yourself: What is being communicated? Who is singing it? When is it solo? Is it a duet? Or a three-way? When is it a speak-sing?” says DaCunha. 'Speaksing', he explains, is melodic speaking, which has the essential function of communicating the plot. He adds, “Songs in principle are more to communicate intent and emotion of character. Speaksing replaces dialogue in order for us to bridge songs and characters. So, we may have reduced the talking lines, but for rookie lyricists, we made our jobs so much more difficult!” laughs DaCunha.

From #SingIndiaSing

From #SingIndiaSing

DaCunha even suggested that they bring a lyricist on board to assist in the process. Krishna talked him into believing in his nascent songwriting skills instead. “We’re writers, we know a thing or two about this,” said DaCunha, quoting Krishna. Bringing in Clinton Cerejo—noted music director and composer who is renowned for the range of genres he dabbles with—infused a new perspective into the writing process of #SingIndiaSing. Krishna adds, “Sometimes we’d take verses we’ve written and gone to Clinton, telling him what kind of scene it is and what our musical reference point was. Watching Clinton turn those words into songs gave the musical the soul that we had envisioned. Sometimes he’d pick the chorus that we’d written and say that this is a better intro to a song. It was fascinating how our words and ideas, and his music was giving shape to the play. With Nadir coming in to helm the production, it just fit the grand idea we had envisioned for the play.”

Compelling performances on stage, enchanting songs and intelligent use of technology will drive the story of three contestants and a masked girl in a singing reality competition, in #SingIndiaSing. It promises to be a grand affair, the kind that can leave the audiences yearning for more.


Updated Date: Oct 14, 2018 10:21 AM

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