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Why is the Playwright Starring in the Show? Ayub Khan Din's strange journey with his new musical at The New Group

By RAVEN SNOOK

It sounds like something out of an old Hollywood screwball comedy: A madcap new musical is about to bow on the boards, but after just a few preview performances, the lead injures himself and is forced to quit. The creative team frantically convenes. They have two choices: Cancel the show, or get the writer to go on.
That's exactly what happened last month when doctors ordered actor Erick Avari to withdraw from the New Group's Bunty Berman Presents. Left with no other options, book writer/lyricist/co-composer Ayub Khan Din stepped into the title role.

Unlike most playwrights, however, Din is no stranger to acting. Best known for his autobiographical dramedy East is East, about culture clashes within a Pakistani-British family, Din first came to prominence as a performer. After studying drama at the Mountview Academy of Theatre Arts, he starred in the controversial 1987 indie Sammy and Rosie Get Laid, as well as a number of British television series. But he traded acting for writing in the late '90s and hasn't appeared on stage in more than two decades.

"The last time was 22 years ago at the National Theatre," he says, chuckling in that I-still-can't-believe-this-is-happening way. "So it's been a bit scary. I worried my vocal technique was no longer there, and even though I'd written the script, I hadn't memorized it. I've been up until 3am every night learning lines just to be able to get through the show. A few times when I have forgotten them, I've just made them up. Thankfully I've got the support of a fantastic cast who nudge me in the right direction. Plus I've never sung in front of anyone in my life!"

Something else Din has never done? Write a musical. In fact, Bunty Berman Presents, about a has-been '50s Bollywood director/producer trying to mount a comeback, initially began as a play with music. "I came up with the idea when I was researching Rafta, Rafta…," says Din, referring to his adaptation of Bill Naughton's 1963 sex comedy All in Good Time, in which he recast a pair of British newlyweds as working-class Indian immigrants. "I ended up watching all of these fantastic clips of Indian films from the golden age of the '50s and '60s. [For Bunty], I originally wanted to do a kind of Dennis Potter Pennies from Heaven thing and use the actual old songs. But I worried that might alienate a Western audience, who probably find Indian voices piercing to the ears. It made me start thinking about my mixed cultural identity. Broadway and Hollywood musicals have been as much of an influence on me as those Bollywood movies I saw as a kid. So I decided to set Bunty in an Indian film studio but with old-fashioned Broadway numbers."

In a musical scene currently dominated by pop-rock scores and contemporary pop-culture references, Bunty Berman Presents feels like a throwback. It's intentionally zany, preposterous, and corny, as Bunty and his cohorts scheme to save the studio through shtick, slapstick, and songs.

Din originally began working on the show for London's National Theatre. After delays, he sent the script to Scott Elliott, the artistic director at the New Group, which had mounted the U.S. premieres of East is East and Rafta, Rafta…. Almost immediately, Din had both a slot in the company's season and an American collaborator: co-composer/ orchestrator/music supervisor Paul Bogaev.

Since Din and Bogaev live on different continents, their process was unique. "I would sing melodies into a tape and then send them to Paul," remembers Din, who lives a low-tech life. (Until recently, his home in Spain didn't even have regular internet or cell access.) "From the beginning I told Paul and Scott, this is not a Bollywood musical. It's not Bombay Dreams. And Paul was like, 'Thank god!' since he'd worked on that show," which was a critical and commercial disappointment.

Din continues, "I actually know [Bombay Dreams co-book writer] Meera Syal. She said that her big problem with writing the book was that the songs had already been written. I found with Bunty that the songs worked best when they came organically from the scenes as opposed to just placing preexisting numbers. I had to cut a few goods ones I had written because they didn't fit."

Although Bunty Berman Presents is fictional, Din admits there are personal elements. "There are aspects of all of the characters in me: My tenaciousness and ambition is Bunty; my ego is Raj [the long-in-the-tooth romantic lead]; my burning ambition is Shambervi [the ingénue], and my youthful innocence when I first started out is Saleem [the underdog hero]. They're all parts of my history being an actor and a writer. In that sense, the show is autobiographical. There are also vague situations that I've been in that I sort of used. Like when Raj appears out of an elephant's ass. I never did that exactly, but I remember doing a play at drama school where I was wearing this hat with bells on and all this makeup and I had these puppets on my hands and I thought, 'What the hell am I doing?' I put in a lot of moments like that."

While Din is slowly letting go of his stage fright and enjoying himself, he's not sure he wants to restart his acting career. ("Never say never," is all he'll say on that subject.) But he is glad that his two daughters will finally get a chance to see him perform. 

"My family's coming for the last two weeks of the run," he says. "It will be the first time my kids have ever seen me on stage. They asked to see one of my films once but quickly got bored and switched it to Cinderella." Hopefully this time they won't walk out at intermission to see that musical. 

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Raven Snook regularly writes about theatre for Time Out New York and has contributed arts and entertainment articles to The Village Voice, the New York Post, TV Guide, and others

Photo by Monique Carboni