Monday, November 17, 2014

Making People Smile

Theatre Director Leila Alvares has made Indian audiences enjoy feel-good Broadway musicals like 'Grease', 'My Fair Lady', 'Sound of Music' and 'Fiddler on the Roof'

By Shevlin Sebastian

Photo by Mithun Vinod 

A Bangalore-based singer Joshua Prabhakar took his wife Jessica to see the musical, 'Fiddler on the Roof'. Jessica liked it very much. The next day was her birthday. Joshua was planning to have a party. But Jessica told her husband she did not want it. Instead, she wanted to take the entire family to see ‘Fiddler’ again. So her husband fulfilled her wish. “When Joshua told me this after the show, it brought tears to my eyes,” says the Coorg-based director Leila Alvares.

Indeed, Jessica is right. At a recent show at the JT Pac, Kochi, 'Fiddler' was performed with such gusto, charm and brio that the audience gave a standing ovation at the end.

It is unbelievable to know that Leila has had no training in drama. Her life changed when she went to do her Masters in Management Science at the Stevens Institute of Technology at Hoboken, New Jersey, USA. “Since the college was close to Manhattan, I used to watch a lot of shows on Broadway,” she says. One of them was Andrew Lloyd Webber's 'Joseph and The Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat'. “When I saw it, I was so amazed,” she says. “I decided I would do it when I returned to India.”

And she kept her word. In 1997, she put up her first production in Bangalore, and it became a success. From then on, she has put up a musical every year. These include 'Grease', 'My Fair Lady', 'Hello Dolly', 'Sound of Music', 'Seven Brides for Seven Brothers', and 'All Shook Up'.

Asked why she focused on musicals, Leila says, “I want people to laugh and have a good time. And when they leave they should hum happy tunes.”

But these musicals are expensive to put up. “Getting finance is a headache,” says Leila. “No corporate group will promote local talent, but they have no hesitation to spend a lot of money bringing people from New York or London. So we depend a lot on ticket sales and advertisements in our brochures to get the money for our shows.”

However, even the rights are costly. For 'Fiddler', the rights had to be obtained from the New York-based Music Theatre International (MTI), at $900 (Rs 55,000) per show. On top of that, MTI charged rental fees, as well as handling and shipping of scripts. Overall, it is about Rs 1 lakh.

Despite the difficulties, Leila has also done her bit to help the downtrodden. In April, 1996, she set up the CAUSE Foundation. CAUSE stands for Co-operation of the Arts for the Underprivileged in Society and Environment. It is a non-profit organisation that donates money to charities that are struggling. “Whatever money is left over, after all the expenses, we give away,” she says. So far, CAUSE has given Rs 11 lakh to orphanages, female HIV patients, destitute homes, and the mentally challenged.

Because of CAUSE, the 35 member-crew which came to Kochi worked for free. One reason is because most have well-paying jobs,” says Leila. While the lead actor Arvind Kasturi is a professor of community health at St John’s Medical College, Prem Koshy runs the popular restaurant, 'Koshy's', and the music conductor Vivek Menzel is an architect.

But you have to hand it to Leila for the deft way that she handles the team, which ranges in age from 7 to 60. “Leila is able to bring out the best in people,” says Prem. “She also knows how to work with the script. She reduced 'Fiddler' from three to two hours without missing anything.”

Says Arvind, “Leila is able to take a group of amateur talent from one level to the next. And she does that all the time.” 

Leila Alvares, take a bow! 

(Sunday Magazine, The New Indian Express, South India and Delhi)

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