by Ron Fassler
I recently had the chance to chat with Manu Narayan, currently playing the role of Robbie in Gettin’ the Band Back Together, the new musical which has its official opening on August 13 at the Belasco Theatre. With a book by Ken Davenport, and music and lyrics by Mark Allen, the show is bringing together all of Narayan’s prodigious talents as an actor, singer and musician. He took time out from the busy preview process to answer a few questions about his career up till now, as well as what the future holds in store for him:
RON FASSLER: What circumstances got you involved with Gettin’ the Band Back Together?
MANU NARAYAN: Ken Davenport approached me in 2010 to come do a reading of what was then called Garage Band. It was the first time they were putting music with the script. I do think that I am a natural fit because all the Juggernaut band members have to be instrumentalists in addition to being triple threats (singers, dancers and actors). In this case, I play saxophone, a bit of keyboards, and now a bit of clarinet as well.
RF: You’re well-trained as both a singer and musician. Was it ever your goal to pursue that professionally, or was acting always the main thrust of your passion?
MN: I have always wanted to be an actor, but I do pursue music professionally as well. I am thankful to be able to do both. I sing concerts around the world with Grammy winner Frank London of the Kelzmatics. We recorded a fantastic album a few years ago called “A Night in the Old Market Place” based on a short story by the Yiddish writer Pieretz. I also have my own studio music project with rock star Radovan Jovicevic of the former Yugoslavia where we record all kinds of music for indie films with Balkan, Indian, and American melodies, lyrics and rhythms. I’ve also recorded original and cover songs for film soundtracks like The Love Guru, Cinderella Story: Once Upon A Song, Good Night/Good Morning to name a few.
RF: Would you like to be doing more straight plays? I notice that you had prominent roles in productions of Glengarry Glen Ross and Lisbon Traviata, two terrific plays. Can you speak about the challenges involved with those two specific shows?
MN: It is so funny, my return to Broadway after 14 years is really a return to doing musicals. For years, I thought people forget that I am also a singer and dancer. In that way I am thankful to Ken Davenport, whose father is Indian, for remembering that I am a musical theater guy and always wanting me to play Robbie in this show. On both Lisbon Traviata and Glengarry, I worked with Christopher Ashley. In New York, we all think of him as the director of these huge musicals, but he is as an amazing director of plays too (also I have never worked with him on a musical – by the way Chris, if you are reading, I would like to do a new musical with you).
Lisbon was a great experience because it was at the Kennedy Center and Terrence McNally was in the room rewriting what was to be the first big revival of the play. The play is beautiful and Malcolm Gets, John Glover, and Chris Hartl were all a joy to work with and play with on stage. I also was acutely aware of the stakes of that production. I think it was one of Terrence’s favorite plays and at the time I remember feeling as though he did not think the original production was received in the way that he wanted. I believe our production changed the perspective of that play. Being in the room with the best of the best and the fact that I was cast in a role that was intended to be portrayed by someone who was not Indian American was a true coup for me. I played Mike the doctor.
Glengarry was the same. I played Ricky Roma, and there is even a moment where Roma rails against Indians in the play. It worked because instead of it sounding like run of the mill bigotry, it all of a sudden had shades of self-hatred and first-generation bigotry against the old country. Glengarry was also a huge success. In that production, we had a black Jewish Aranow, a Chinese American as the office manager Williamson, and a fantastic group of white actors playing the other roles. I smile in my down times that the L.A. Times lauded our production in their review of the Broadway production with Pacino that was running concurrently.
I try to choose roles in my career (and really have been lucky that I have been cast in roles) that run against the cultural reductive stereotype of simply being seen as Indian. Talented actors, whether they are white, black, Asian, large, small, disabled, are all capable of much more than the boxes that we are constantly put into. The real challenge is seeing that ourselves first, making others see that, and working hard to prove that is true when given the opportunity. It is a constant struggle for everyone and really difficult to stay positive, but we must. It is moments like being a part of Lisbon and Glengarry that I hope help move the bar further for all actors in the cross-cultural casting fight. I am a HUGE advocate for casting across color lines because in my career, the opportunity for me to play roles like Mike in Lisbon or Roma in Glengarry (at La Jolla Playhouse) have done at least two things. It has broadened me as an artist, but more importantly it has shown audiences that the world has changed in some ways and the American sensibility and what it means to be American has changed as well. People who identify themselves as American from all regions of America look like people from all over the world. Casting people who look like they are from all over the world for American plays does work and can work if writers and directors take that chance.
RF: I would also love to know what performing the Stage Manager in Our Town was like for you (I think it’s the great American play).
MN: OMG what a fantastic experience. I love to interact with an audience. I love direct address and the ability to make eye contact with audience members, to directly talk with them. The stage manager is a dream role for that. We did this production at the Chautauqua Institution, which if you have never been is like an actualization of Grover’s Corners. We did it in a town hall Quaker meeting like set with people on both sides. There again, we had a cast that included a native American Mrs. Webb (Sheila Tousey) and a black Doc Gibbs (Michael Potts) and a diverse group of students playing the kids. To my earlier point, another proof that cross cultural casting works.
RF: Are there any career goals that are on a bucket list for you that you would like to mention?
MN: I would love to do a play on Broadway. Of course, just to keep working with amazing directors like our director John Rando on amazing projects.
RF: Are you writing your own stuff right now? Anything in the pipeline you would like to discuss?
MN: Yes, Radovan and I are collaborating with playwright Aditi Kapil on a new musical that we have been developing at Berkley rep, the playwrights center, and new Dramatists. David Schweizer, with whom I have worked many times, is our director and we are at the point of putting together a reading with music to get a full production on the books. It takes place in Belgrad around the time in 1999 that the Nato bombs were about to be dropped and is a story that fundamentally asks the question who owns the music of different cultures and who has the right to sing and perform them. It is all very exciting and we have high hopes. We had a reading last year just for us with the help of fantastic actors, and it was so emboldening. I am so happy (and terrified) to be on the creative side of something. It puts into perspective how difficult it is to get anything to the place that Getting the Band Back Together is now.
RF: I know that you are very involved with Carnegie Mellon, as an alumni and trustee. Can you speak about what teachers mean to you and how they have shaped your training and career?
MN: My teachers were everything for me, not just for the training they gave, but for the ability to watch how they lived their lives. My biggest influence was Robert Page who is Alexander Gemignani’s grandfather. He was the head of choirs at CMU but also the grammy award winning Choir director of the Philadelphia orchestra under Ormandy, the Cleveland orchestra under Michael Tilson Thomas, and the Pittsburgh Symphony under Previn and Maazel. I learned a work ethic from him. He was tireless and taught me something new every day with his high expectations of himself and his students. In my opinion, going to a world class program like Carnegie Mellon is so important for so many reasons. Though I was in the music department, I went to school and have relationships with people like Leigh Silverman and Patrick Wilson, because of the network of graduates from the school, I am good friends with people like Tamara Tunie and my fellow cast members in my current show, Brandon Williams and Mitch Jarvis. Because I went to Carnegie Mellon and because of the years of great people coming out of the school, I benefitted early in my career from the reputation of the school. I believe that me graduating from a school like CMU allowed people to look at me more seriously and take more chances on me. I never knew that when I went there, but I am so glad in retrospect that I did.
RF: You were born in Pittsburgh, but were your parents born in the U.S. as well? Or did they emigrate from India?
MN: My parents were born in India. My father in Madras (now Chennai) and my mother in Bangalore and the neighboring mining area Kolar Gold Fields. My father came to this country in 1963 and lived in Detroit, MI. He and my mother had an arranged marriage in 1968 and that is when she came to America. He was an engineer and we have lived in the Pittsburgh area (Delmont, PA) in the same house since 1970.
RF: What is on your wish list for the future, either as a songwriter, actor or writer?
MN: I want to share our musical with as many people as we can. I think Gettin’ the Band Back Together is such a blast. It is a fun time in a highly divisive, and pressure cooker of a political environment. What our show does is allow you to laugh to the point of aching and forget the stresses of life for a few hours. That is what entertainment should be for. I also want to continue to work. I spent the better part of the last five years in Los Angeles, waiting to work. Doing two Broadway shows in six months has been the best [Naryan is just coming off playing Zoltan Karpathy in My Fair Lady at Lincoln Center]. Exhausting but exhilarating. Also, I would love to do more concert / symphony work as a singer and most importantly, I want my musical with Radovan and Aditi to have a full production, that is on the front of my focus once Getting the Band Back Together opens.