Point of Q: The New Musical

Posted on 20 February, 2017 by Team Wishberry

Picture credit: Dakota Arsenault

India has a long tradition of musical theatre. In most of our classic and folk forms, song, dance and narrative are inseparable. However most of the singing is done directly to audience. Very rarely does one actor sing to another. That only began to occur after exposure to western musicals, where people sing to each other instead of speaking…and it seems to still work and make sense. That has been the case for many decades, but with the ‘indie’ explosion of music, it seems that many artists are venturing out to change the relationship of music and theatre.

Last week I caught Aadar Malik’s show (full disclosure, I was actually the lighting director on the show). Aadar is a fine musician. He has been a regular on theatre stages for a while, primarily for his singing prowess. On the other hand, he is also an accomplished stand up comedian. So it made complete sense to merge his two skills. The result was Aadar Malik’s Musical Stand Up. The show was a collection of humorous songs about love, pets, growing up and everything in between. What was most remarkable was the fact that he sang long narratives and took us on marvellous journeys. We guffawed as he fell in love with his girlfriend’s sister, identified with his fixation for wifi, and even cheered his rap about wrap. Each short story was like a little play-let, where the lyrics heightened the experience and the music added to the emotionality.

In a similar vein, Aisi Taisi Democracy has also taken the musical form and turned it on its head. The show merges comedy and music, except with a satirical bite. While the show is not a conventional musical (where the narrative is sung), live singing is a very substantial element of the show.

This month Canadian show, Brotherhood: The Hip Hopera will tour India. The play is a musical: complete with singing and dancing. Except that the style of music is rap and hip-hop. This is a tremendous departure from what we are traditionally used to. However, it is one story teller, telling us a tale of two brothers who live the Hip Hop life of excess. To see how unique the show is, check out the trailer.

The play has been created and performed by Sebastien Heins who is part German, part Jamaican and fully Canadian! In the Trump era, he is like a fuck you to the establishment. As is his show. It is unique, uplifting, and magical, yet it is hip-hop, a form not often associated with theatre.

However, if you think about it, it really does make sense. Rap (post Eminem) has been all about story telling. It’s the one form where the pitch and tone of singing is not the forefront. The words and energy are. Therefore, it was only a matter of time before it crept into theatre. But what it has done is bring the raw visceral energy of hip hop to a form that had become much more about restraint than vibrancy.

Brotherhood uses all the craft that theatre has to offer; lighting cues that complement the story, video screens that create context and stage craft that excites the imagination. Through the show, Sebastien manages to create violence and beauty almost simultaneously.

However as with most things that break new ground, the right context is important. Therefore Brotherhood is not being staged in regular theatres on its India tour, but instead at venues known for both music and theatre. Little grunge or fringe venues that deny the audience the baggage of preconceived notions. The convention of formal venues often influences how an audience receives work. Therefore Sitara Studio in Bombay and Humming Tree in Bangalore are the venues chosen. (Tickets here)

Brotherhood might end up being a great template for the next generation of musicals. It is likely to become a popular form as can be seen by the ridiculous success of Hamilton on Broadway. This is perhaps because the singers don’t need to be as adept at singing, as they need to be at conveying emotion. In the Indian context, it immediately increases the number of people who can participate in this kind of theatre as performers. It speaks almost to the heart of our folk forms.

Did someone just say that trends are ‘cyclical’?

Quasar Thakore Padamsee

Artistic Director, QTP

About the writer:

Quasar Thakore Padamsee is the Artistic Director and Founder of QTP. He is also a founder of Thespo, an annual youth theatre festival. Quasar has directed and produced many a play since the late 1990s and has been on the forefront of bringing in something new and fresh to the theatre scene. 

Quasar Thakore Padamsee is also a theatre columnist for a variety of publications. For the Wishberry Blog, he writes a monthly column called 'Point of Q'. 

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