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Chicago in Karachi opens new avenues to art, theatre and a 'wicked' world of possibilities
Who said theatre is stagnating in Pakistan? The performance of Chicago in Karachi proves that people are willing to go all out and do things the way they are supposed to be done. And this effort needs to gain momentum…

By Saba Sartaj K

"Theater is made by frustrated people for frustrated people. It needs a social situation, conflict in society. Otherwise, you see the same thing on stage as in life," the acclaimed Yugoslavian director Ljubisa Ristic once said. According to him, a happy country with smiling people has no room for theatre. "It's not a social event. You go to be touched, to think."

One cannot help but agree with him and one cannot help but think that if theatre is made by the frustrated for the frustrated, then Pakistan should be the perfect breeding ground for theatrics.

The acclaimed Broadway play Chicago, which has found its way to Karachi with an all-Pakistani cast is providing an outlet for otherwise entertainment starved people. There was a full house at the premiere and the play was predicted to have a packed auditorium all the ten days it will be staged. (It goes on till August 5)

During this otherwise tense situation in our country, anything that can uplift moods and provide an outlet for the people is welcome. With their outstanding performances and spectacular dance moves, the cast of Chicago has Karachi enthralled. Never before have we witnessed acting and dance by amateur performers such as this. The costumes are bold as are the dance moves and the acting blows one away. The decision to use non-singers and non-dancers is always controversial in musicals. More so because these days big stars are needed to headline expensive productions, but Sanam Saeed as Roxie Hart, Nida Butt as Velma Kelly, Faraz Lodhi as Billy Flynn and Momin Zafar as Amos Hart do more than justice to this internationally acclaimed musical.

When the curtain goes up and you see the orchestra taking up most of the stage, you wonder how they are going to move it away when the action starts. They don't move it, but the play moves you. Without being obtrusive we get the full effect of the brilliant band whilst the action takes place on a cleverly utilized, and focused, front of stage.

By local standards, Chicago is definitely a first-rate production put together with a generous and frequently astonishing acting ensemble. It is definitely one of the best musical productions ever created in Pakistan. Chicago is pure 'amateur' theatrical magic from start to finish with some brilliant songs like 'All That Jazz', 'Mister Cellophane' and 'Razzle Dazzle', which are performed with elegant choreography by Nida Butt and Sonu Dangerous.

However, having recently seen theatre performances in the metropolis of London, there are certain striking features that make one wonder how far behind we really are and how long it will take for us to attain the heights and glory in theatre that the west has. The answer to that question surprisingly is, not too long - provided certain conditions are met!
We definitely have the talent, and we definitely have the ideas, the only things we are truly lacking in are funds and the right infrastructure! Comparing London theatre performances or even Broadway to our theatre would be down right unfair, but in doing so, one realizes exactly how very close we are to achieving that kind of greatness. Plays put up in London or Broadway New York, are plays which often have budgets exceeding the cost of making an average Hollywood film. We're talking about thousands and millions in investment. With the extravagant set designs and brilliant special effects, the plays done abroad are bound to be roaring successes. The visual spectacle of theatre in the West has ensured that people don't stop going back for more. Which is why, Chicago is still performed as are plays by Shakespeare and Tennessee Williams.

The arts are definitely facilitated in every way possible. Europe and America have huge auditoriums and numerous theatres at their disposal. They have the space and time to experiment and put up a grand show. Theatre is taken very seriously and even more so because is the mainstay for many of the actors.


Wicked, a play that was staged recently at the beautiful Apollo Victoria Theatre in London has become a rollicking success. Much has to do with the brilliant performances of the actors but much also has to do with the fabulous and awe inspiring set design, special effects and comfortable, well planned out seating arrangements for the audience.

This 12 million pounds show, with slick pop music and lyrics by 'Godspell' composer Stephen Schwartz and witty lines by TV writer Winnie Holzman, is based on the popular 1995 novel by Gregory Maguire, 'Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West.' Both novel and show expand on the Wizard of Oz stories by imagining the psychological and near-tragic story of the two witches who form the yin and yang to Dorothy's adventures in the iconic film.

Wicked's staging is awe inspiring. The curtain is a dazzling map of Oz with a sparkling Emerald City in the middle. The stage is a rustic forest with a giant mechanical dragon that comes to life lurking above the stage, making the audience jump out of their seats each time. The witch's monkeys fly out over the audience, and in the climax of the first act , Elphaba, as the newly crowned Wicked Witch, defies gravity and soars over the stage on her broom, giving the audiences goose bumps! The world of Oz came to life with the phenomenal stage design and the beautiful costumes. Speaking of costumes, the Emerald city sequence should be sent down a fashion catwalk as soon as possible! The stage design is no mere design but a work of architectural engineering with enough eye candy to keep even the most jaded of theatre goers happy.

The story is nothing original, but the way it has been executed, the grandeur of the set, the stunning special effects and outstanding performances just makes the experience riveting.

Also playing in London was The Lord of the Rings - whose posters screamed 'Unleash your imagination'.

Held the Theatre Royal Drury Lane in London, and with over 25 million pounds thrown in for production, the play had everything one could ever imagine. The staging was incredible, the spectacle extraordinary, the lighting was astonishing and the effects, stunning. Both Gollum and Galadriel make spectacular entrances (Gollum crawls head-first down the curtain) and the incredibly windy climax to Act One almost took an actor's hair-piece to the back of the stalls. Such was the intensity of the make belief wind! There's also an impressive scene with a mammoth sized spider which creeps up behind Frodo with incredible fire popping out of its mouth, causing the audience to gasp and jump back in their seats.


The music is by the legendary A.R. Rahman and Varttina ('Finland's most successful contemporary folk group' - according to the programme). The best of the best were roped in for this production, after all, its 25 million pounds worth of production were talking about! These are the kind of plays one willingly dishes out a hundred pounds to see. Meanwhile, Wicked is still running a houseful since its 2006 premiere and has made over 50 million in pounds till date.

One was absolutely blown away by the special effects, mesmerized by the stage, and scared by bloody orcs who kept creeping up in the audience. All this, achieved with the help of a shockingly high production budget. No wonder the plays staged in the west see a full house every single night even if they are running for years!

Put in the money, throw in the infrastructure and whole lot of talent and you have the perfect sell out play. Chicago in Karachi is a sell out purely on the basis of the exceptional performances of the actors. Had they the infrastructure, a bigger stage and a bigger budget with sound technicals like sound and lighting, one could have easily expected a play on the same level as Broadway. Though the play had its shortcomings. The dances could have been tighter and the props could have been managed better, but all this was done with only four months of practice. Plays staged in London or Broadway take years in production and the budgets easily facilitate full time actors. The plays are what put food on the table for them. They can rely on it as a source of steady income. Here at home, with the lack of infrastructure, interest from the government and therefore a lack of a steady flow of plays, the actors cannot depend on theatre as their mainstay.

In our part of the world, a producer cannot even dream of having such a tremendous amount at his or her disposal for a full fledged film, let alone a theatre production. We have to make do with tight budgets and set design is usually kept to the bare minimum. Extravagance is something we cannot experiment much with given the severe limitations.
The fact that we do not have large production houses or private investors interested in investing in theatre is a huge hindrance to its growth and expansion. In the recent past however, large institutions have come into play. With Chicago, we saw Bank Alfalah investing in theatre. And the result was clearly obvious. With the costumes and set design, Chicago has managed to take theatre production to a new level in Pakistan. Though the set is not by any means extravagant or at par with western designs, the quality of theatre the production has certainly taken a quantum leap forward. Huge corporations such as banks and multinational companies need to come into play if we are to take theatre to a higher level.

Chicago the musical employed Nida Butt and Sanam Saeed. What if a play was put up starring Ali Azmat or Atif Aslam? Think of the crowd that could be pulled in. And rock stars singing in plays are not unheard of. Back in the 1970s, Andrew Lloyd Webber had come out with the rock opera Jesus Christ Superstar based on the life of Jesus. Everything was a rock song the lead was played by Ian Gillan of Deep Purple and Murray Head, who sang 'One Night in Bangkok' played Judas. Imagine if there was a Pakistani musical featuring Atif Aslam. It could run in cities in Pakistan and take India and the Middle East by storm and find an audience in places like London and the USA. It's just that someone needs to bring together the elements needed for theatre in our local context and give them a platform.
The main difference between the plays we see in the west and the plays we see staged at home is that we only really rely on the exceptional performances of our actors. So you have plays like Love Letters (starring Imran Aslam and Rehana Saigol) which is basically two people reading letters to each other. Or you have the Gripps theatre plays, that are more like skits with not many props or light and sound needed. With Nida Butt's Chicago and the productions of Shah Sharabeel in Islamabad, hopefully, the tables are turning. If large investors keep taking interest in the promotion of art and culture, we could start aspiring to the western standards of play production, and then what a vibrant place Pakistan would be.

We usually rely on 'borrowed' scripts, such as Chicago and The Producers, or local adaptations of western plays such as Habib Mamoon, but given the funds, producers will be encouraged to come up with fresh, original material. It is all one big cycle. With one element lacking, the others usually fall flat, but with all elements intact, theatre in Pakistan can find its feet and develop a language to call its own. We have the talent. We just need to hone it and give it support in the form of good infrastructure to learn, grow and experiment.

Theater, along with dance has sometimes been disapproved by the government of Pakistan and has rarely been given economic support. Regardless, it has continued to survive in some form or the other. The politically loaded theatre of the Zia era done by the likes of Khaled Ahmed, Sheema Kirmani's feminist plays, Madeeha Gohar's Punjabi theatre - Ajoka, The Rafi Peer Theatre efforts and Imran Aslam's tongue-in-cheek dinner theatre have made the spirit of theatre live on. Even the OGS plays are much awaited events. The rush of experiencing a live performance cannot be matched by anything else, even if you don't have the best lights and sound in the world.

No movie experience can even come close to the buzz and the rush one experiences at a live theatre performance. The energy in the air, the actors there, in front of us in the flesh, make it an insurmountable experience. The tangible relationship between actor and spectator can only exist in live theatre. The power of a real life theatre performance cannot be matched with any other form of art.

With young and budding producers/directors like Nida Butt and the financial backing of corporate giants like Bank Alfalah, one can certainly hope for theatre to come back with a big bang to a country and a culture where it is all more then welcome. The marriage of corporate with entertainment is a healthy and happy one, with mutual benefits like no other, and the only way to break ground in our other wise sagging entertainment scene. Roping in bigwigs like Atif Aslam or Ali Azmat can only happen with the backing of corporate biggies like banks, media giants and multinationals, and so far things do seem to be heading in the right direction.
We saw the magic Coke Studio wove with music and the phenomenal boost Bank Alfalah gave to theatre by sponsoring Chicago. If things keep moving in this direction, it can surely change the shape of entertainment and effective publicity in Pakistan. Hopefully then we will see theatre go to 'wicked' heights of light and sound extravaganzas in the West.
A country's art is said to reflect on and feed its people. Here's hoping theatre can do that and more for us in the future!