February issue 2009
Behind the Scenes
It’s glitzy, sassy and just rollicking good fun! Broadway came to Karachi again last month with Chicago, a well-loved musical that was also turned into a Hollywood film in 2002. The Pakistani incarnation of this stylised, period-specific, tongue-in-cheek tale of glamour, deceit and corruption was made possible by Made for Stage Productions. The company is the brainchild of the very determined Nida Butt who is also the director, producer and choreographer of the show.
This was the second time that Chicago was being staged in Karachi and both runs were received with great enthusiasm by audiences. So just how did a small group of young people, without having any professional training in acting, dance or singing, take on this extremely challenging of genres and make it a success?
To some extent, it seems like fate. Nida, for instance, is a lawyer by training. After completing a degree in law from England, where she specialised in human rights law, she returned to Karachi to work briefly in the corporate sector and then for the NGO Aahung, which focuses on human rights and social uplift. Drawn inexorably to the performing arts, she initially attempted to juggle both her interests. But as her involvement with theatre increased and she established her own production house, dabbling in both fields proved impossible and Nida decided to switch careers completely. “I am foremost a dancer,” says Nida, who would often perform onstage during her college years. She is not a trained dancer (although she did spend a year in New York learning salsa and tango), but dance is something she says she is “supremely confident about.” It followed naturally then, that she chose the genre of theatre musicals as a venue for expressing that passion.
It takes nerve to tackle Broadway shows, rooted as they are in high calibre performances in singing and dance, in an environment where neither have flourished. But Nida says she never had any qualms about her performers looking shoddy or amateurish onstage. “I was sure of what I wanted from them and how it should all look.” And to their credit, each member of the Chicago cast is credible in his or her role, pulling off the histrionics as well as the song and dance routines with panache. They have completely bypassed the pitfall of looking and sounding like a high school performance, which English plays in Pakistan inevitably suffer from.
The key, according to Nida, is correct casting. “You have to wait very patiently. One must hold out for the right person and they will appear.” Once the casting was done, Nida worked with each of the actors, explaining the character to them. Then they were versed about their stage movements. Next, they were sent to the band to learn their songs and, of course, there was still all the dancing to be tackled. Nida is quick to describe herself as a hard taskmaster but the cast agrees that she drives herself hard as well. “She is very fair,” says Benazir, one of the dancers in Chicago. “So if she does criticise you, you know that you actually deserve it.”
One of the unique challenges of this kind of production was the fact that there were 40 to 50 people onstage at any given time. “Getting people to commit their time to the project was difficult with so many people involved. At many points a large number of them are idle but they still have to be there,” says Nida. “But that’s why you must create a professional environment. They are all getting paid a substantial amount. I’m giving value to their time and that’s what raises the cost of production. This also makes them accountable to give their best.”
Obviously, the musical score of the production was the most integral part of the whole project and Nida brought Omar Bilal Akhter on board as the musical director. Omar has his own band, with the quirky name Aunty Disco Project, which has recently recorded an album. He has also worked with various other performers and hosts a radio show. One would think that finding the right musicians would have been the toughest part but Nida identified the band very easily since some members were known to her family. “They have played at dinner parties at my parents’ home,” says Nida. “We gave the band the music, which they learned to play by ear since there was no written score. They are incredibly talented,” says Nida of the orchestra, whose members range in age from 21 to above 60. Both Nida and Omar agree that when they heard the orchestra play the music for Chicago for the first time, they were both floored. “It was then that I knew the show could be done,” recalls Nida.
Omar worked with each of the actors, tailoring the songs to their capabilities and getting the best from all of them. “We had very strong singers,” says Omar, “especially the choir boys. But it’s a matter of training and this is a specific style of singing. I was more like a band leader, rallying everyone on, saying you can do it, you can hit that note.” And hit the right note they did, starting with the opening number “All That Jazz” which makes the audience sit up a little straighter. “It was very rewarding to see the huge improvement the less confident singers made and how the stronger singers brought their own vibe to a song,” adds Omar with a smile.
One reason why Chicago manages to look authentic is the attention to detail. The costumes, for instance, are impeccable. “We had a huge budget for the costumes,” admits Nida. “People don’t realise how high our production costs are. We didn’t even have an auditorium, after the Arts Council showed us the door at the last minute. So we had to construct our own stage.” Another notable feature of the production was the lighting which is so crucial to how the show looks. “I designed the lighting myself,” says Nida. “I got some criticism in the first production of Chicago for the lighting and this time I read some books and have tried to educate myself. And I had an 18-year-old girl sitting at a panel and controlling the lighting during the show.”
Chicago has wowed Karachi audiences, from teenagers to grandmothers alike. But hasn’t the moral brigade raised its eyebrows? “Well, we have received some criticism but then, we have been very discreet in our posters and billboards,” says Nida. “I think the conservative element will just not go to watch the show,” says Faraz, who plays corrupt lawyer, Billy Flynn. “I have only got positive feedback. In fact, I am looking for constructive criticism. I much prefer to know what I did wrong,” insists Faraz, who is now known simply as Billy to many. Nida, on the other hand, admits that she has received some flak for not using the theatre platform to send out a social message. “Why does all the burden of social advocacy fall to theatre alone? Why doesn’t someone ask an industrialist what he is doing for society? I’m just doing what I love and I’m not obligated to do it a certain way. I am putting on a show that provides employment to 200 people. That’s my contribution,” says Nida.
But what relevance does a show like Chicago have in our cultural context? “None at all,” Nida is quick to retort. “But then neither does a Bollywood or Hollywood film. It’s pure and simple entertainment. During the last few performances in Karachi, I had stopped watching my actors and I would watch the faces in the audience, some people literally had their mouths hanging open. Looking beyond the blonde wigs and mini skirts, Chicago actually does have a social message which can be universally applicable to any society.” The fact also remains that this kind of entertainment only caters to a very narrow audience. “As an artist, I am completely selfish,” she states, “I am doing what I am interested in and that’s why it is working.”
Omar, however, hopes that as a team they can one day “put up something which is more accessible to a wider audience.” Faraz feels that the problem is lack of exposure. “Most of our audiences cannot handle a performance like Chicago because most people don’t have the background.”
For a while, at least, the team deserves to rest on its laurels, even though Nida is already planning her next venture. Perhaps, in the future, Made for Stage Productions can give Broadway musicals a local aesthetic. “Right now, I am still learning, I know nothing,” says Nida.
Whatever they do, they have set the bar high — for themselves, as well as for anyone else who may want to follow such an act.
Zahra Chughtai has worked and written for Pakistan's leading publications including Newsline, the Herald and Dawn. She continues to write freelance.