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Encore: New musical 'Bhangin' It' centers a competitive college bhangra dancer

ROB SCHMITZ, HOST:

There are musicals about fairy tales, musicals about Founding Fathers and now a musical about one woman's journey through competitive college bhangra dancing. NPR's Hafsa Fathima recently caught up with the show's writers and brought us this story.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ISHQ KO KAL MEIN KHOJIYE")

ARI AFSAR: (Singing) When I dance, I'm connected. When I dance, I'm here.

HAFSA FATHIMA, BYLINE: That's the sound of "Ishq Ko Kal Mein Khojiye," a song from the new musical "Bhangin' It." It had its first production this spring at the La Jolla Playhouse in San Diego. Bhangra is a Punjabi folk dance from India and Pakistan.

REHANA LEW MIRZA: As time gone on, it has become popularized in the U.S. through these intercollegiate competitions, where they honor the traditions of bhangra, and they put their own American flavor to it.

FATHIMA: That's Rehana Lew Mirza, who co-wrote the book for the musical. She's followed bhangra competitions around the country.

LEW MIRZA: I became obsessed with it shortly after graduating from college. And I would trade writing classes for tickets to bhangra competitions.

FATHIMA: She co-wrote the book with her husband, Mike Lew. Longtime playwrights, this was their first musical. And it explores similar themes they've brought to other plays.

MIKE LEW: Within our plays, there is a real bruising race politics. And, indeed, like, the way that our marriage was formed was from having a lot of conflict over what our responsibilities are as Asian American writers and as both individuals and kind of members of a community.

FATHIMA: Lew is third-generation Chinese American. Lew Mirza is the child of Pakistani and Filipino immigrants. The protagonist of their musical is a mixed-race college student named Mary, who joins her collegiate bhangra team in order to connect with her culture. But when Mary and her team disagree about how much their dancing should keep with tradition or embrace new styles, conflict arises.

LEW: That conflict is a larger sort of meditation on being multigenerational Americans and sort of, how do we hold on to our culture and yet let it evolve?

FATHIMA: Lew and Lew Mirza turned to composer Sam Willmott to write the music and lyrics.

LEW MIRZA: We wooed him by (laughter) taking him to Basement Bhangra as well and to Big Apple Bhangra competition in Queens. We basically rented a Zipcar and zipped him away (laughter).

FATHIMA: Willmott loves Golden Age musicals that put dance at the heart of storytelling, but writing in the bhangra style was new to him.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SAM WILLMOTT: I think the first thing to do was just to listen, listen, listen, listen. You know, we went to bhangra competitions, but also just, like, broad strokes research.

FATHIMA: Over time, they added other styles of music - poetic recitations from India and Pakistan called ghazals, Bollywood numbers, and, of course, pop music. Willmott says it was important to give the music cultural depth and scope, so they brought in Indian classical musician Deep Singh to co-orchestrate.

DEEP SINGH: There's a moment where we go from, like, ghazal - but there's still a theater aspect to it. But then we go, like, suddenly into this classical world with tanpura and lira and classical tabla playing, and then we go back into theater again. It's the coolest thing ever to hear.

FATHIMA: Hafsa Fathima, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SCHMITZ: The show has closed in La Jolla and heads to Boston later this year.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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