The rains have given way to the dreaded October stickiness, and all the air-blowers in the world cannot prevent beads of sweat forming on the foreheads of the actors and dancers rehearsing for the upcoming musical Beauty and the Beast at a venue in suburban Mumbai.

Perspiration and inspiration are both in evidence on the large covered stage. Next fortnight, Beauty and the Beast, an Indian production of the studio’s stage adaptation of the popular fairy tale, will open at the National Sports Club of India stadium in South Mumbai. A press release issued by the Indian arm of the Hollywood behemoth notes that the 130-minute production, which is in English and is based on stage versions of the animated movie from 1991, “will be presented to Indian audiences on the same scale as the mega-productions seen on New York’s Broadway and on London’s West End”. Disney is also planning a live-action version of the movie, which has been scheduled for 2017.

The Indian avatar has retained the basic story and music as the international production. However, it has a local cast and crew and original choreography, costumes and sets. The unlikely romance between Belle and a misshapen half-man-half-animal who is actually a cursed prince is being directed by Vikranth Pawar, a Mumbai-born stage veteran who has worked on several English plays as well as Jhumroo, a musical based on the life of actor and singer Kishore Kumar for the Kingdom of Dreams entertainment theme park in Gurgaon.

Pawar joined Disney India three years ago as the creative head of its Live Entertainment department, which hopes to replicate popular stage spin-offs of Disney movies in a country where this concept has barely taken off. The Indian version of Beauty and the Beast hopes to fill the chasm between threadbare theatre productions and the weekly Bollywood spectacles. It’s certainly possible in a culture with a weakness for razzmatazz. But Disney is taking it slowly. The company is testing the waters, and the success of Beauty and the Beast will determine whether it launches other Disney franchises.

Rehearsals and more rehearsals

At this point, Pawar could do with some sleep. “I have lost count of how many hours we rehearse,” said the 38-year-old director as Belle practises the song Marry Me with Gaston, the burly chauvinist from her village who wants her barefoot and pregnant. “You don’t have a show unless you have dark circles.”

Pawar hasn’t actually seen the Broadway production, which was a spin-off from the movie. “It is a recreation – apart from the music and the script, we have reinvented everything else,” he said. “We realised that here was a real chance to make the production experiential in every sense of the word, to stay true to the story and become a grand musical extravaganza.”

The large stage on which rehearsals are being held simulates the experience that will be available to ticket buyers, especially of the Rs 5,000 slab, who will file into Mumbai's National Sports Club of India and Delhi's Thyagaraj Sports Complex when the show travels there after its initial run in the commercial capital. (Disney claims to have already sold 14,000 tickets.) The audiences in the most expensive rows will be perched on seats that will swivel to give a complete sense of the main stage and its semi-circular wings, which contain the sets of Belle’s typically European village, including her home and a tavern.

The relatively poor souls at the back will not, however, be deprived of the production’s bells and whistles, which include a main stage that is the setting for the Beast’s forbidding castle, LED projections of various backdrops and dancers from the Terence Lewis company. “People have seen or heard the story, and there is already a recall value, so we have to magnify it and make it a never-before-seen experience,” Pawar said.

Dance is one of the major elements of the production, and much rests on the shoulders of Lewis, an established choreographer who balances movie projects with stage shows. The heat that permeates through the tent does little to dissuade the lithe men and women dressed in black from going through their paces under the stern but encouraging supervision of one of Lewis’s staffers. “Come on boys, show me your angel lifts,” she exhorts, and the boys obey, lifting their partners off their feet. “What is this hand here? Bend your arm!”

Even dancers who are off the stage are not idle – they practice pirouettes, hand-stands and somersaults in various corners.

The production has over 60 dancers, who began their training before the 18 lead performers were identified from among thousands of hopefuls across the country. Auditions were held in five cities over four months, and Mumbai and Delhi have contributed each of the leads.

Both of them have the experience required to sing, dance and emote in a venue this enormous. Mumbai resident Meher Mistry, who plays Belle, is a 26-year-old actor and singer who has appeared in such musical plays as Sunil Shanbag’s Stories in a Song and Alyque Padamsee’s Jesus Christ Superstar. Beast is played by Edwin Joseph, a 21 year old from Delhi who has been in amateur productions at St Stephen’s College and is a member of the Neemrana Music Foundation choir.

The leads have been given lessons by vocal trainer Suzane D’Mello, sessions in choreography, and intensive physical training. “I can now do a plank for three minutes,” Mistry joked.

Like Pawar, Mistry has not watched the Broadway musical except for clips on the internet. “I had seen the movie when I was young and I have always loved musical theatre, and it is great when opportunities like this come along,” she said. “There is a lot one can relate to in this love story, and what is great about Belle is that she is fearless.”

While Mistry has the basic training for the part, there has been as much unlearning as learning. “For instance, we worked with our vocals, and in terms of singing, I have grown a great deal,” she said.

Her co-star had an added skill to master: he has undergone aerial training for the climax, during which he will be transformed from a disfigured creature into the dashing prince of Belle’s dreams. “This eclipses everything I have done so far,” Joseph said. “An existing vocal technique helps, but the difference is that we now need to elevate our performances to cater to 2,500 people and make sure the performances reach the person in the last seat. The emotional graph is intense, and being able to do justice to it is very important.”

Poor box productions

Broadway-scale stage shows should be an obvious form in a country that adores spectacularly mounted stories with a grand sweep and happy endings, rousing music, flashy choreography and eye-popping visual effects. For years, popular cinema has provided these thrills. The theatre has rarely managed to deliver the visual sweep required to distract viewers from the charms of the big screen. Very few theatre companies can afford big dreams, and the efforts of such impresarios as Alyque Padamsee, who rolled out musicals such as Evita! and Jesus Christ Superstar in Mumbai and Aamir Raza Husain, who staged outdoor productions such as 1947 Live and The Legend of Ram, are the exception rather than the rule.

The success of glitzy stage shows at the Kingdom of Dreams theme park in Gurgaon, which has the long-running productions Zangoora and Jhumroo (which Pawar worked on) prove that the demand for live entertainment exists. It is only a question of setting up a supply chain.

Disney India, with its easily adaptable titles, deep pockets, and vast experience appears to be well poised to take on the challenge. The deeply brand-conscious company has a vast back catalogue to plunder. Beauty and the Beast was first staged on Broadway in 1994, where it ran for 13 years, according to a company press release, which added that “since licensing of the title began in 2004, there have been productions in 28 countries, seen by more than 35 million people, translated into 17 different languages with over 28 thousand performances ‒ equivalent to a run of 67 years, generating over $1.7 billion in revenue.”

Disney India has, however, taken its time to understand local tastes. Part of this caution stems from the fact that while the Hollywood studio has been in India for several years and has been a major presence on television, it expanded its scope only after 2012.

Since then, Disney India has been focusing on capitalising its money-minting global franchises. On the movie front, Disney India is still releasing titles greenlit by the previous UTV regime, but its own productions, such as 2014’s Khoobsurat, hew closer to its template of family-friendly romances.

At least two years of research went into understanding whether audiences in Indian metropolises would be willing to pay dollar rates for a production on the scale of Beauty and the Beast, Pawar said. “The learning was that there was an appetite for unique experiential theatre stuff, and it was important for us to find the right vehicle to fill the gap,” he said. “Beauty and the Beast can be a market opener here like it has been in 22 countries.”

Since the musical play’s biggest competition is from Bollywood, wouldn’t it have made more sense to translate the play into Hindi? “We did debate this for a few months,” Pawar said. “English is a settled language in India, and we decided that since we had a beautiful score and a great script, we would stick to the original and see if there is enough consumption power within the audience.”

The risk-averse policy could fly, like the Beast, but everything depends on the budget – which the company declined to disclose – and the juggling of the elements that make live entertainment seductive.

“You need everything to work – great production values alone won’t work, nor will great performances,” Pawar said. “We are trying to get a balance.”

Back at the rehearsal, the lights had been dimmed. “You are looking much cleaner in the shadows,” said the dance co-ordinator with satisfaction. A successful set of twirls incited a round of applause. But the big night, when claps will have to be measured in cash payouts, is still some weeks away.

A rehearsal for ‘Beauty and the Beast’.