An original musical opens at the B Street Theatre’s Sutter Theater for Children
Lyndsay Burch was inspired to write Gandhi!, which the B Street Theatre premieres this week, while in India working on a production about the heroic holy man. That play was a chronological telling of Gandhi’s life, designed for an audience familiar with the story. Burch’s Gandhi! brings its hero into this time and place, using a clever narrative and an original score featuring both hip-hop and Indian classical music.
Not exactly an Indian Hamilton, this is, at times, a rap musical about a political figure—and a kid he ultimately inspires.
The young Mohandas (he goes by Mo) is an American of Indian descent; he’s named after the activist who liberated his parents’ home country—and he couldn’t care less. “He is mainly interested in just integrating into American culture,” Burch says, “so it creates a sort of identity struggle.” Mo is getting into fights at school, and so is instructed to prepare a presentation about his namesake. As he reads, the story comes to life on the stage.
Burch says she hit upon the idea of turning this story into a musical almost immediately.
“Music and dance can be such relatable ways of telling stories,” Burch says. “I think even more relatable than just text, because music and dance can convey different types of emotion through a different kind storytelling.”
Burch is an artistic producer at B Street who has directed nine Actors’ Equity Association productions, written and directed four touring productions and produced a three-city tour to India. This is her first musical as writer/director. “I did a ton of musicals as an actor,” she says. “And being in musicals helps you see the structure of musicals.”
Burch wrote the lyrics for Gandhi!’s 15 songs; the music was composed by B Street alum Noah Agruss, who is now based in Los Angeles. “I had a strong vision of where I wanted the songs to go,” Burch says, “and we worked together to create both this modern world, and then this very classic Indian world, and then those moments in which these worlds are integrated.”
Mehal Gulati, who plays Gandhi, says the music is key to the play’s feeling of authenticity. “It adds a cultural context,” he says. “By going into the Indian classical staples, pulling sounds from there, creating a fusion, it places us in both cultures.”
Gulati, who was born and raised in India and is based in Washington, D.C., resonates with elements of young Mo’s story—beginning with the young man’s refusal to use his full name. “Your name is such a basic thing for identity,” he says. “And when you travel to a different culture, that’s the first thing that gets destroyed by people unintentionally mispronouncing it.”
With a big grin, Gulati says he finds playing his home country’s hero “a big responsibility.”
“He’s a pretty big character in not just Indian history, but the history of the world, who changed the course of how we fight for things. I took to the teaching very early on, and I’ve been a big admirer of his philosophy. It’s so tough in today’s time, and I’m glad he’s still here living with us.”