Bhangra Is Big on Campus. Now It’s Inspiring a Musical.

“What’s happened before is that writers of color were expected to have two jobs — you’re the writer of the show, but then you’re also the cultural ambassador,” Mirza said. “This show is meant to show the large breadth of experience within South Asian American culture, and the large breadth of experience within college lifestyle. So how do you include as many different voices as possible in the room, so you can actually show where the dissonance and where the friction comes in, because that’s what’s of interest to me.”

The friction in the musical is over how much traditional practice should bend in a diverse society. “The question is, ‘Is it all tradition, or is fusion OK?’” Arima said. “This piece is not just about collegiate bhangra — that is the vessel for this story of understanding tradition versus modernity.”

The diversity gives the show richly complex music and dance — the instrumentation includes a rhythm section, strings and keys, as well as harmonium, bansuri flute, sitar, tanpura, tumbi, tabla, dhol, daf and ankle bells.

“Some of the initial numbers were thinking about tropes of Western musical theater and how to make that through a lens of a South Asian American college student,” Lew said. “It was taking two strong reference points, from South Asian culture and American musical theater, and intersecting them. The palette is wide.”

The choreography includes not only bhangra, but also kathak, a classical Indian dance form, as well as Bollywood, hip-hop, jazz and ballet.

“It’s a great story to tell right this minute, with the intersectionality: I am not one thing, I am multiple things,” said Christopher Ashley, the La Jolla Playhouse’s artistic director, who frequently works on Broadway. “And that intersectionality makes for a really interesting dance musical.”

Ashley said the production had benefited from pandemic restrictions by opening the doors to online auditions, which in turn made it easier for the show to look beyond New York and Los Angeles as it searched for young performers, many of South Asian ancestry, who, Ashley said, “were not going to be all the people you always see on Broadway.” Among those in the cast is a member of the U.C. San Diego bhangra team (Da Real Punjabiz).

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