Most Americans may never have heard of Bhangra, the energetic and expressive form of Indian folk dance and music that has swept the country for the past 30 years. But the creators of a new Bhangra-centric musical, currently premiering at La Jolla Playhouse, hope that will change.
Sam Wilmott, the composer of “Bhangin’ It: A Bangin’ New Musical,” believes the musical has the potential to transform the future of the art form of musical theatre. The genre-bending show, which officially opens 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,” Wilmott 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 ways they don’t recognize . 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 their own 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, Afsar grew up in Rancho Peñasquitos, starred as Cindy-Lou Who in the Old Globe musical “Grinch” 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 deeply identified with Mary’s journey to embrace her identity as both American and South Asian descent, and was thrilled to be a part of such a groundbreaking show.
“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 with the influence of hip-hop and reggae music forms. In the early 1990s, students from a handful of East Coast American universities with large South Asian populations began forming Bhangra teams to build community and perform at cultural events. In 1993, George Washington University in Washington, DC hosted the first Bhangra demonstration competition, the Bhangra Blowout. Since then, Bhangra teams have exploded onto college campuses across the country, as well as into many major regional 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 on their first dates, they worked on her Bhangra play script together and when they married in April 2011 at the Museum of Contemporary Art in La Jolla there was Bhangra dancing at their wedding.
The storyline took a big leap forward in April 2013 when the couple teamed up with composer Wilmott 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”. Somewhere in the wee hours of that night, the subject of the couple’s long Bhangra play came up and Wilmott was intrigued to read it.
“It was so obvious to me that it was a musical,” Wilmott 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 Wilmott that helped the story grow beyond their initial imagination.
“There’s a lot of hybridity in the script,” said Lew, whose daring 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.
In a joint interview during a rehearsal break last month, the four creators spoke enthusiastically about their collaboration, often laughing and praising each other’s contributions. The quartet says 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,” Wilmott said. “The joy is that the trust we have for each other is so one-sided.”
The uniqueness of the project has garnered much praise and anticipation from theater industry leaders. In 2015 Wilmott won the Jonathan Larson Fellowship for his score “Bhangin’ It”. In 2019, the musical won the prestigious Richard Rodgers Award for Musical Theatre, which counts “Grey Gardens”, “Hadestown” and “Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812” among its past recipients. 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, the Asian-Canadian who directed the Old Globe-born Broadway musical about Japanese American internment camps, “Allegiance.” Singh not only instrumentalizes the score with almost a dozen traditional Indian instruments, he will also perform with the orchestra and take the stage during the dance numbers each night to perform on the two-sided Punjabi dhol drum with the 18-member cast.
The show’s choreographer is Rujuta Vaidya, a globally recognized Bollywood choreographer whose credits include the dance performance “Slumdog Millionaire” at the 2009 Oscars. And Bhangra dance specialist Anushka Pushpala also joined the team.
“This show always amazes me with the way the dance feels,” Wilmott said. “It’s not like ballet or Fosse. 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 today through March 19. Opens March 20 and closes April 17. Opening hours, 7:30 p.m. on Tuesdays and Wednesdays. 8 p.m. on Thursdays and Fridays. 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. on Saturday. 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. on Sunday.
Where: Mandell Weiss Theater, La Jolla Playhouse Campus, 2910 La Jolla Village Drive, La Jolla
Tickets: $25 to $87
Call: (858) 550-1010
On line: lajollaplayhouse.org
COVID protocol: Proof of full vaccination required or negative COVID-19 PCR test result within 48 hours of completion, along with proof of identity. Mandatory masks for all inside.