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Arts & Culture

La Jolla Playhouse hosts world premiere of 'Bhangin' It: A Bangin' New Musical'

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Carlos Castillo
Vinithra Raj as Preeti during a rehearsal for the La Jolla Playhouse world premiere of "Bhangin' It: A Bangin' New Musical." Feb. 24, 2022

Bhangra sets the beat for this energetic cultural mash up

Next week, La Jolla Playhouse hosts the world premiere of "Bhangin’ It: A Bangin’ New Musical." The play draws on competitive bhangra, a dance style that mixes Indian and Western influences.

The metaphor of America being a melting pot suggests that the diverse cultures pouring into the U.S. must lose their individual identities in order to be blended into one homogeneous mixture. Perhaps pop culture provides a better analogy with its idea of a mash-up.

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"I'm a big fan of the mash-up," that’s playwright Rehana Lew Mirza. Her new musical "Bhangin’ It" mashes up diverse elements in a way that allows audiences to experience something fresh.

'Bhangin' It' has world premiere at La Jolla Playhouse

Her husband Michael Lew co-wrote the play with her.

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"It's a blend of sort of classic Western musical theater and Indian, and sort of bhangra sound to it and the sound of it feels like it's our hive brain," he said. "All of our influences kind of poured together. And yet I think it sounds very coherent."

"We all work together to tell one story and that is what makes the collaboration of a musical so enthralling is even though we're coming at it from different points of view, we're all there to tell the story in the most succinct, in the most entertaining and the most inspiring way," director Stafford Arima said.

Part of that collaboration is Sam Willmott, who composed the music and lyrics for the play. He met Lew and Lew Mirza during 24 Hours Musicals, a project where teams pull an all-nighter and write a short musical.

"At three in the morning, he was like, 'I don't think either of you are idiots,'" Lew said. "So we decided to work on something longer form."

That longer form project began with Lew Mirza returning to a screenplay she had written, which transformed into "Bhangin' It."

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The cast in rehearsal for La Jolla Playhouse’s world-premiere production of "Bhangin' It: A Bangin' New Musical." Feb. 24, 2022

Lending inspiration to the show is bhangra, a buoyant and energetic folk dance and type of music that originated in the Punjab region of Northern India and Pakistan.

Lew Mirza quickly discovered that intercollegiate competitive bhangra can be addictive.

"I was trading writing classes for tickets to the shows, and I would follow teams around to different states," Lew Mirza said. "And then when I met Mike, I took him to basement bhangra and we danced the night away. So doing a bhangra musical together makes so much sense because it's been part of our relationship."

But the couple confessed, they love dance but can't do it at all.

"I think it's sort of like a fascination for us in terms of how can you move your body that way?" Lew Mirza said.

"If you haven't done bhangra, you've probably seen it, but it's just really infectious," Lew said. "And there's something about when you hear that sound that you want to get dancing and your shoulders start popping and you start nodding your head."

Lew Mirza found the intercollegiate bhangra competitions to be full of joy and energy and "just begging to be staged and dramatized. There was as much drama behind the stage as there was on the stage."

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La Jolla Playhouse
Poster art for the world premiere of "Bhangin' It: A New Bangin' Musical" at La Jolla Playhouse.

In the play, Mary is a young woman who, not unlike playwright Lew Mizra, is mixed race.

"She's white and Indian. And so in order to connect to her Indian culture, she's joined her college Bhangra team," said Lew Mirza.

Arima, who is mixed race and multinational, immediately connected with Mary’s story.

"We all know what it feels like to not quite fit in and it doesn't matter if you're from the United States or from Canada or maybe you're from another country," he said. "It's a universal idea of how to find one's place."

Mary uses dance as an expression of herself, her past, and her family. Bringing those elements together is another kind of mash-up in the play.

"We're constantly thinking about as Asian American artists, should our plays reflect our background? What is the politics to what we are doing?" Lew said. "And that actually felt like it lent itself to these intercollegiate teams that are doing bhangra. If we choose to blend in other forms, like hip hop, hat does that mean politically? And should we be doing the sort of traditional folk [style] that came out of the Punjab region of India, or should we be doing our own thing because we're in the U.S., and all of those kinds of questions in a college team's sort of echo chamber felt like it was ripe for marrying like a political-cultural inquiry to something that was just really joyous."

The joy of bhangra won Arima over. The director had never heard of bhangra before he joined the production.

"The music in 'Bhangin' It' has such an effervescence to it," he said. "It bubbles, it kind of sparks. It has elements of musical theater and then there is classic Indian sounds that are also in this score. So a very rich and diverse score that inevitably moves, touches and inspires an audience and tells the story through a dynamic way of song and dance."

"But one of the things that's really amazing about bhangra tradition is that there's like this component of teaching newcomers basic moves," co-writer Lew said.

So there's a sense of inclusion that makes it feel accessible like you are being invited to participate. And that’s what the play hopes to do as well, to send a message of inclusivity on multiple levels.

La Jolla Playhouse hosts world premiere of 'Bhangin' It: A Bangin' New Musical'

"I am working on a piece that is monumental for the South Asian community," said Rujuta Vaidya, the choreographer. "We are really setting a standard for South Asian actors and the youth to know that there is a place for South Asians in the musical theater space. I think anyone that comes to this show will just be able to understand how it is so easy to embrace this dance and this music because, as I said before, the root of it is to build communities. So anyone that walks into that theater is going to be part of our 'Bhangin' It' community."

An invitation to join that community awaits you at La Jolla Playhouse.

"Bhangin’ It: A Bangin’ New Musical" runs March 8 through April 17 at La Jolla Playhouse’s Mandell Weiss Theatre.

The guide to the music and dance is at the Playhouse's website. The guide also mentions the influence of Bollywood films and the country's tradition of musical cinema.

Cinema Junkie dedicated a pair of podcasts to exploring classic and modern Bollywood cinema with the Moviewallas podcasters.