Manu Narayan – interview with star of Broadway musical Getting’ the Band Back Together

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Manu Narayan. Photo: Peter Konerko.

NEW YORK – The multitalented Manu Narayan, who’s a versatile actor, singer, film producer, songwriter, composer and saxophonist, is back on the Broadway stage, 16 years after he made his debut as lead actor in ‘Bombay Dreams’.  Narayan, an Indian American, who turns 45 later this month, is acting the role of Dr. Rummesh ‘Robbie’ Patel, in the highly entertaining and hilarious original musical, ‘Getting’ the Band Back Together’, which is playing to packed houses at the Belasco Theatre.

Gettin’ The Band Back Together, a $13 million venture, directed by Tony Award winner John Rando and choreographed by Chris Bailey, will officially open on August 13.

The musical revolves around the character of Mitch Papadopoulos (Mitchell Jarvis), an aspiring musician in high school, who quit his dreams to become a banker. After he’s fired from his job in New York City, Papadopoulos, who’s now hit 40, is forced to head back to his hometown of Sayreville, in New Jersey, and live with his mother (Marilu Henner). A challenge from a former rival who holds a grudge against Mitch for winning a music competition forces the ex-banker to regroup his old band, which comprises of the character played by Narayan too, for a historic rematch, which might change everybody’s lives.

Narayan, in an email interview to News India Times and Desi Talk, expounded on the rigors of his new role, and doles out some sagely advice for aspiring actors and musicians. Excerpts from the interview:

What drew you most to the character of Rummesh ‘Robbie’ Patel in ‘Getting’ the Band Back Together?

I have been working on this project for about 8 years – since music was first incorporated into the original script. This Broadway musical comedy celebrates everyday people from a small town in New Jersey (in this case: doctors, teachers, police officers, small business owners, mothers, waitresses, and bankers) who get excited about the upcoming local battle of the band festival. In a fun way, a group of 40 year old Americans in the town get to relive their childhood fantasies of being rock stars by getting their High School band back together.  It is a very funny show. One that was developed in a Saturday Night Live / sketch-comedy style – through improvisation. I like to say it is like a Will Farrell movie but with live singing and dancing.

I love my character, Robbie. Much like many first generation Indian Americans, he has followed his father’s path by becoming a doctor in spite of being talented in other non- traditional areas.  In Robbie’s case, he is a fantastic musician who plays keyboard, clarinet, saxophone and sings rock and roll. In the show, I get to play all of those instruments live every night, as well as dance, act, and sing my own song.  Even 14 years after Bombay Dreams on Broadway, we still don’t often see first generation Indian American actors starring in Broadway musicals. As Indians and Indian Americans, it is important to tell our stories in all mediums and even though the doctor rebelling against his father may seem cliche, it is not often seen in the world of the Broadway musical.  In Robbie’s story there is an echo for every immigrant and members of tradition families. The questions of whose dreams are we living: did we choose our career paths and life partners because of our own desires or our parents’ desires for us. Also, what do we do in midlife when those desires and dreams change as we get older?

I do not think that most people know how grueling rehearsing a Broadway musical is.  We rehearse six days a week 8 to 12 hours a day with minimal breaks. The dance numbers in most Broadway shows are not easy and require a level of fitness and stamina.  So does being able to sing that many hours everyday. Our show is no different. Practicing for any role in a musical is a much more involved than doing a play or film. In those two mediums, to prepare as an actor, you learn the inner life of the character, you dive deep into your imagination to build the psyche, the physical life, and create the look of the character. Of course, you learn the lines and build a healthy working relationship with your colleagues so that you can accomplish the telling of the story in the best way.  In a musical, you do all of that and in addition, you also have to learn the choreography with the other actors and dancers; you have to be able to learn to sing multiple songs and sing them while you do that choreography, and you have to be able to make multiple costume changes in seconds to make the next scene or number. All Broadway shows are performed live 8 shows per week, with only one day off every week. We do not take shows off unless we are not well. So, in order to hit the high notes and have the energy to do the dances every day and twice a week for two show days, you have to keep in good shape, eat and sleep and not get sick.  In our show, because I also play my own instruments onstage, I have the additional challenge of playing saxophone and clarinet in the show every night. In that way, I welcome and love the different layers of challenges that I have to accomplish every night.

On celluloid and stage, a storyline like that of ‘Gettin’ the Band Back Together’ is fascinating. But what are the odds of success in real life?

Well in our show, no one becomes a rock star on the global level, but we do have the success of accomplishing the goal of becoming a great band for one night to win the local contest.  In tight lens, the odds of success are what our parents always said: “Work hard and you can achieve anything.”

You have come a long way since your debut on Broadway in ‘Bombay Dreams’, and done films and TV series too. What appeals to you more, appearing on screen or on stage, and why?

I love acting in film, but my true love is being onstage.  I am at home in front of people. I have been onstage my whole life and truly feel at home there in all ways.  I enjoy creating a character in a film, but onstage I love the fact that there is no editor of my performance. It is just me, my fellow actors onstage, and most importantly the audience that attends.  the differences night to night are the great challenge and fun.

I believe you will soon appear in the revival of ‘My Fair Lady’. What role do you play in that Broadway musical, and how do you intend to juggle the roles, if ‘Getting’ the Band Back Together’ has a long run?

I actually left playing Zoltan Karpathy in the new Tony nominated revival of My Fair Lady to join Gettin’ The Band Back Together.  It was a very hard decision because I was the original Karpathy in that revival and working for Lincoln Center Theater and director Bartlett Sher was a dream come true.  Heck, I worked with Dame Diana Rigg every night. Wow. But, my decision to leave was because I thought it was important to see GTBBT to fruition since I had worked on it for years and it offered the challenges that I have already stated.

Juggling the two roles is one of the hardest things that I have done to date, because for most of the early performances of MFL, I was also rehearsing Getting’ The Band Back Together.  Broadway musicals rehearse for at least a month in a rehearsal room then have about a two week technical rehearsal process onstage (where the set, lights, sound, orchestra, costumes all are implemented).  Then, we add the audiences for our first public performances. What many people do not know, is that on Broadway, the first four weeks or so of public performances are in advance of the official opening night (ie, pre-critical reviews) and are called previews.  During these previews, we do 8 shows a week for audiences but also rehearse an extra 5 to 6 hours per day before each performance. In those rehearsals we can change entire numbers or add scenes and dialogue, that will go in front of that night’s audience for the first time.  It can be grueling and stressful. So from mid-March through mid-June, I was basically doing two Broadway shows at the same time. Rehearsing and performing MFL in previews and rehearsing GTBBT, then performing MFL, while rehearsing GTBBT. Also during that time, we did take a three week break from GTBBT, but that was when we started rehearsing the Tony award performance for MFL.  So there were a lot of twelve to thirteen hour days for weeks at a time and a lot of juggling on my part. But to be honest, I am so thankful for both opportunities. Not many actors get a chance to create a lead in the original cast of one new Broadway show. This year, I have gotten to create two roles in the original Broadway cast of two shows in the space of 6 months. I am very lucky and thankful.

You were one of the best-known Indian American actors in the US when you made your debut in ‘Bombay Dreams’. Since then, a lot of Indian Americans have made an impact in the entertainment industry. Has diversity taken firm root in the entertainment industry, or is it still a struggle for actors out there?

It is always a struggle for actors to be seen and to get jobs.  Unfortunately, that is the name of the game. That being said, broadly, things have opened up nicely for Indian Americans in the American entertainment industry. There are more stories being told, and more writers and producers of Indian descent telling more diverse stories.  But yes, it will always be a struggle out there.

Any interest in Bollywood? What do you think of Indian films?

I am currently working on a film with my Tamil film hero Kamal Haasan and his daughter Shruthi, called Sabaash Naidu / Saabash Kundu.  I have a huge role in it. It is for the Telugu, Tamil and Hindi markets. We have shot much of the film in LA last year, but because of Kamal-sir having broken his leg in an accident and now the scheduling conflicts, it has been on hold.  There is talk that we will be resuming soon. My fingers are crossed, because the script and cast is awesome.

You’ve done a gig with Russell Peters in ‘Quarterlife Crisis’, broadcast on Showtime. Your comic moments in ‘Getting’ the Band back Together’ is done with aplomb, with great timing. You obviously enjoy comedy.

I do enjoy comedy very much!  I especially enjoy it onstage, when you can feel the rhythm and can adjust the timing of a line every night to suit the audience.  I love that. That being said, I loved working with Russell and also with Mike Myers when we did the ‘Love Guru’ together. He taught me that comedy is a real science.

You are a graduate of Carnegie Mellon’s drama school, studied music here and in India too. What is your advice to young Indian Americans out there who aspire to be musicians and actors?

I am actually a graduate of the school of music at Carnegie Mellon University which is world class. The school of drama is like the Harvard for undergraduate collegiate drama programs in the US. I love the university and cannot say enough about world class it is in every aspect – computer science, engineering, business, music, drama, art, economics, the list goes on and on.  To answer your question, I think that the most important thing to become a professional musician or actor is to study, study, study and network. It is important to study with the best teachers at the best schools – or if you are lucky enough to work with the best people that you can. Your network is going to be important to get you jobs, and by studying with the best teachers and surrounding yourself with the best students, and then colleagues, will allow you to create relationships that can open all kinds of doors. But only if you work hard and become the best that you can.

(Sujeet Rajan is Executive Editor, Parikh Worldwide Media. Email him: sujeet@newsindiatimes.com Follow him on Twitter @SujeetRajan1)

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