Legit lord looks to the east

Lloyd Webber backs new Bollywood tuner in London

LONDON — Ask Andrew Lloyd Webber what’s different about “Bombay Dreams,” the $7 million Bollywood musical he’s producing on the West End opening June 19 (previews from May 31), and the answer comes quickly: “I’ve obviously not written it, so I suppose that’s the most distinctive feature.”

But at a time when the Lloyd Webber lineup seems to be ebbing — “Starlight Express” is gone, “Cats” is going and the Broadway “By Jeeves” quickly bit the dust — the world’s most commercially successful composer sounds far from ready to call it quits.

From his own creative point of view, he seems prepared to move forward. “I think I’ve found a new subject for a musical — I can’t say what it is at the moment because I need to find a writer, but it’s a good subject, too.” So good that he is putting on ice an album of 14 new songs so that some of them can be folded into the as-yet-unwritten show.

But until that happens, Lloyd Webber is happy to play impresario-producer, shepherding on to the West End via “Bombay Dreams” the first large-scale London show ever to put Asians centerstage. (Rather more conventionally, Really Useful is co-producing with Clear Channel Entertainment a West End revival in May of “Daisy Pulls It Off,” which was a London long-runner during the 1980s.)

While plays such as “East Is East” and companies like Tara Arts showing Asian-themed work can get aired in London and elsewhere, such shows tend to be the province of the subsidized sector and/or the touring market, not the same commercial West End playhouse where “Starlight Express” closed in January after nearly 18 years.

“This is other,”says Steven Pimlott, the musical’s director, a Royal Shakespeare Co. and opera world darling who hit paydirt some years back helming the Really Useful-backed revival of “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat.”

Returning to the world of musicals for the first time since “Dr. Dolittle,” Pimlott says “Bombay Dreams” “for better or worse is a one-off, an experiment.”

“After all these other shows running 16 or 17 years or whatever” — 21 by the time “Cats” scratches its last perf at the New London on May 11 — “it’s great to have something new,” he adds. “And this is a very proper project; it really is.”

Lloyd Webber and entourage (among them lyricist Don Black and choreographer Anthony van Laast, who did “Mamma Mia!”) met the press recently to present four songs from the show, including a pre-existing number — its Hindi title is “Chaiya Chaiya,” or “Paradise” — that, says Pimlott, “is almost a signature song for A.R. Rahman,” the musical’s Madras-based composer. (The song will be featured at the top of the second act.)

The show’s 11 o’clock number is a track entitled “Closer Than Ever” that sounds a lot like Lloyd Webber himself, albeit gone vaguely Eastern.

“I wondered whether or not we should do that one,” sighs Lloyd Webber at the suggestion of a musical affinity, “because there’s a wonderful one called ‘The Journey Home.’ ” That song, he insists, doesn’t sound like him at all.

Nonetheless, there’s something clearly audacious about bringing into the stage-musical fold a theater novice in the 35-year-old Rahman — in person, he barely looks 20 — whose soundtracks for more than 50 films have sold 100 million-plus albums; on keyboard, his collaborators have included David Byrne and Michael Jackson.

As it happens, Rahman had just seen the film of “Evita” back in India when he was put in touch with Lloyd Webber via Shekhar Kapur, the Oscar-nommed film director (“Elizabeth”) who had been holding his own meetings with Lloyd Webber regarding the movie version of “The Phantom of the Opera.”

Credited alongside Lloyd Webber for the original idea of “Bombay Dreams,” Kapur saw his creative pairing quickly bear fruit. “Getting this call was almost like fate — destiny,” says Rahman, an evidently shy if endearing interviewee who tends to punctuates his remarks with a nervous giggle.

Lloyd Webber goes further, telling Variety: “All I can say is at the end of the day, I believe Rahman to be a great composer.” Not, he adds, that “you can take these things on one sitting. I believe that if I were going to hear a new musical, I couldn’t clock a great song if there were more than two of them, and if there were 10 of them, I’d get one.”

Such mutual admiration aside, the practical task now consists of spreading the word about the show and building an audience among a sizable sector of Britain — the Asian populace — that is traditionally resistant to going to the theater.

To help matters, “Bombay Dreams” will have a separate Asian publicist to cater to that community, while Sunday matinees starting July 7 should, says Lloyd Webber, “appeal hopefully to an Asian audience for whom Sunday is a very important family day.”

While looking ahead, Lloyd Webber allowed himself a moment or two to look back, remarking, for instance, that the imminent closing of “Cats” was “a very close call; it could have been marketed on, I think” — as, he maintains, “Starlight Express” could have been as well.

And having led a British consortium that collectively lost $1 million in the fast Broadway fade of “By Jeeves,” Lloyd Webber takes the blunt view: “We got a lousy review in the New York Times” (from Bruce Weber), “and it’s the same old story. I just think it was a little bit sad that there wasn’t more good will for it.”

And what of the global prospects for “Bombay Dreams?” Too early to say, says its producer.

Adds Pimlott, in a separate interview, “I don’t think it’s a production you would instantly think is going to be cloned all over the world, but who knows?”

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