BWW Interview: Michael Maliakel Hopes 'MONSOON' Takes Broadway by Storm
"Monsoon Wedding," the new musical based on Mira Nair's acclaimed 2001 movie, has been showered with praise at Berkeley Repertory Theatre in Berkeley, Calif. Karen D'Souza of the San Jose Mercury News writes: "You are swept up" by its "swirling typhoon of sound and color." This Indian musical has curried such favor with its audiences that it's been extended through July 16.
Michael Maliakel, who plays Hemant, the Indian-American groom in "Monsoon Wedding," says he's been blown away by the reception. Nair, who headed the film, has directed this updated stage version. The book is by Sabrina Dhawan, who wrote the original screenplay. Here's the plot: When Hemant goes to India for an arranged marriage with Aditi, family secrets spill out. Turns out Hemant's fiancée has been seeing a married man. Sexual abuse and religious conflicts complicate the saffron-colored and costumed festivities, and it's all set to spicy Indian songs by Vishal Bhardwaj and Susan Birkenhead. Add an astonishing South Asian cast that's the result of a 5-year, worldwide talent search, and "Monsoon Wedding" looks like the perfect storm of a show bound for Broadway.
When it came to casting the groom who is Indian but raised in America, Nair said: ''Michael is the real thing. And when I heard him sing, I was utterly transported. His voice is extraordinarily memorable, and the goodness in him shines. He has grown as an actor every day in this process, and I love that he is distinctive." And Lily Janiak of the San Francisco Chronicle raves: "Maliakel has a baritone so tender that your eyes well." Jay Barmann of SFist.com adds that the show's highlights include "Maliakel's fantastic voice."
Classically trained, the 6-foot-4 baritone has played the title role in Mozart's "The Marriage of Figaro," as well as Sky Masterson in "Guys and Dolls." He has done concerts, choral work and cabaret, and sung with symphonies. Last year, he won the gold medal at the American Traditions Competition, and he also took first prize at the 2014 NATS National Music Theater Competition.
I went to an open call for "Monsoon Wedding" that was listed on BroadwayWorld.com. I was a fan of the film when I saw it in high school. I had seen several Bollywood movies, and, to be honest, they're kinda formulaic. The song-and-dance numbers had little to do with forwarding the plot, even though they were beautiful. Then "Monsoon Wedding" came and flipped the whole genre on its head. It told real stories and asked tough questions; that's why it has such a huge following. Mira is fierce and unrelenting in her pursuit of authenticity, and she opened people's eyes to taboo topics, like incest. With this play, we hope to take it further.
When Mira made the film, she says it was "a portrait of a globalizing India,'' but this musical "is equally about today's India and today's America.'' She says the bride and groom's journey is a "beautiful collision that is at the heart of 'Monsoon Wedding.' "
Absolutely. Our musical shows how similar things are in India and America, with the tech boom and all of that. India's not this exotic, distant country. It's a real place with real issues. Incredible wealth exists with incredible poverty. Mira's been adapting this into a stage play for about 10 years, and in the musical, we find out more about Hemant and Aditi, and what makes them tick.
Why do you think a contemporary, young Indian-American guy, like Hemant, would want an arranged marriage?
Hemant grew up in America and did the whole modern dating thing without much success. Even though he once dismissed an arranged marriage as an archaic idea, he also thought: "Well, it worked for my parents, and they're happy." Maybe marriage isn't that instant spark, but something you grow into. In the show, Lalit, the father, says to the couple: ''You will learn to love each other."
If your parents wanted you to get an arranged marriage in India, what would you say?
That's a great question. I love my parents. They're so open-minded, and I feel I hit the jackpot. They've allowed me to pursue a career in performing with their love and support. They come to see everything I do, and they loved "Monsoon Wedding." In terms of who I want to marry, they were totally hands-off. As it happens, I'm engaged, so this show is a little bit like life imitating art. We're getting married next year. Her name's Sarah, and she's a teacher. We've known each other for years and we make a great team, so I'm excited.
Hemant's an Indian-American guy from New Jersey, and so are you. Do you have much in common?
I identify with Hemant a lot, and in the show, he says: ''When I'm in America, I'm from India. When I'm in India, I'm from America." I grew up in Hamilton, N.J., just outside of Princeton, and there were maybe two other Indian kids in my large public school. Most of my friends were white. We'd go to India every couple of years to see my father's family in Kerala [in southern India]. We'd meet our first cousins, and sometimes it was hard to make conversation with them, even though we're all related. There was a cultural divide. Honestly, I can be walking down the street in Bangalore, and people can tell that you're not from India.
Your character says he was called names as an Indian kid. Were you ever bullied like that?
No. But bullying can take different forms. When I walk into an audition, they might expect me to speak with an accent. Or they're surprised that I studied music, as if that's the most ridiculous thing in the world. I also lived through 9/11, and that was particularly rough. I remember my dad encouraging my brother to shave his beard, so people wouldn't look at him the wrong way.
Is "Monsoon Wedding" the first time you've been in a cast that's all South Asian?
Yes. And this is the first time I've ever played an Indian-American. It's extraordinary to see all these beautiful brown people who look like you. And we're led by Mira, this icon of the Indian community. She's so grounded and nurturing as a director. Our cast is such a family. As Indian-Americans, we rarely get to make art with other Indian-Americans. There's a sense of renewed pride in that, and a little embarrassment in neglecting that part of our identity for a long time. But it's an amazing culture. Why not celebrate it? There's an Indian restaurant called Viks, and the owner [Amod Chopra] loves our show, so he's been offering us free dinners. It's amazing. Lots of chicken biryani, saag paneer, fish curry. We love to hang out, and inevitably [our meals] turn into mini-Bollywood dance parties.
I asked Mira what it was like to work with you, and she said: ''Michael is open, deeply receptive and completely disciplined. He is a great team player and ... has great chemistry with the bride." So tell me about Kuhoo Verma, who plays Aditi.
Working with Kuhoo is an amazing rollercoaster. She's incredibly confident, intelligent, fearless and insane. She's a total bowl of fun. Kuhoo's pursuing a degree in classical voice, which I also studied, so we both bring that classical training to this pop-py music.
You've sung Mozart, Menotti and musical theater, so what's it like performing these Indian songs?
Hemant's music is interesting. Vishal [Bhardwaj] wrote the score, and most of his songs are based off of classical Indian raags, which are the scales of Hindustani music. He wanted to meld the East and West, with Dubey's beautiful, melismatic singing and my character's music, in showing how globalized India is today. My classical background informs what I'm doing, yet it all has this Indian flavor.
East also meets West in how this Indian musical is making its world premiere at Berkeley Rep.
I can't think of a better theater to incubate this piece. Everyone has been so receptive, and most of our audiences are white. So many of them tell me that "Monsoon" reminded them of a friend's wedding. And the Indian community here, which is the largest in terms of density outside India, has responded so well, too. I've spoken to many who've never seen a piece of theater. They'll say: ''Thank you for sharing my story" or "I can't tell you what it means to hear our music in a place like this." It's mind-blowing. One young Indian-American boy came up to me and asked if I had sung choir in school. I said, "Yes, I was a big choir nerd." And the boy said, "Well, I sing in choir, and I really liked your show." It gave me goosebumps. If I can be a role model in some small way, that's incredible.
As you probably know, the first Indian musical to play Broadway was "Bombay Dreams" in 2004. A.R. Rahman, who won two Oscars for "Slumdog Millionaire," wrote the score, and it ran for over 300 performances and starred Manu Narayan.
Yes, and in fact, Anisha [Nagarajan], who is Alice in our show, co-starred with Manu. "Bombay Dreams" was an amazing first step.
Forbes reports that "Monsoon Wedding" is being groomed for Broadway after its Berkeley run. So what do you know?
We're all cautiously optimistic, but it's very promising. It's been so successful here that we've been extended three times.
Finally, what would it mean to make your Broadway debut in this show?
That would be a dream come true: to create a role and put a little of yourself in a show that hopefully will have a life for years to come. But when I was a kid, Broadway never seemed like something I could be a part of, because I didn't see anyone who looked like me. I would love to play Billy in "Carousel," but how would that work? We're at a crucial turning point: Not only in what stories are told, but who deserves to tell them. "Monsoon Wedding" is the tip of the iceberg in creating opportunities for actors of color in the post-"Hamilton" era. And I'm a huge fan of "Hamilton." I'd love to play Washington; that would be another dream come true!
''Monsoon Wedding'' plays now through July 16 at Berkeley Rep, 2025 Addison St., Berkeley, Calif. Box office: (510) 647-2949. Website: berkeleyrep.org. Tickets, $40-$125. For more info, visit: michaelmaliakel.com