India Gets Its First Broadway Musical
The Sound of Music debuted this month at the Nita Mukesh Ambani Cultural Centre — the latest symbol of the Ambani family’s push to bring global luxury products and experiences to India.
(Bloomberg) -- first premiered in New York in 1959 before debuting in London’s West End in 1961. This month, it came to Mumbai for the first time.
It was, in fact, the first time any major Broadway show has come to India, and it’s part of a push by Asia’s richest man, Mukesh Ambani, and his family that is bringing international art, retail brands and more to a city that has one of the fastest-growing millionaire populations in the world. The first Apple store in India opened at the Ambanis’ Jio World Drive mall in April, along with the first Pret a Manger, which feels more like an upscale coffee shop than the utilitarian grab-and-go sandwich outlets across the UK.
Nearby, and outfitted in Gucci, Valentino and Burberry, an audience of 2,000 packed the Grand Theater of the newly opened Nita Mukesh Ambani Cultural Centre for opening on May 3, with some paying more than $400 for “diamond box” seating. The center, referred to as NMACC, also has two smaller performance spaces and a four-story Art House overlooking the “Fountain of Joy,” a lotus-inspired water feature that puts on a nightly spectacle with lights, fire and mist. The surrounding area, Dhirubhai Ambani Square, is named after the founder of Reliance Industries Ltd. — India’s most valuable company.
“If there are enough good shows here, I would not spend my holidays going to Broadway shows in London or NYC, paying through my nose for cramped seats and long lines for restrooms,” said Sanjana Verma, one of the attendees on the first Friday of the show.
The Ambanis and conglomerate Reliance are betting on more visitors like Verma, part of a growing consumer class with money to spend on theater, travel and luxury goods. Mumbai already has more billionaires than Shenzhen, Seoul and Singapore respectively and more “centi-millionaires” — individuals who have $100 million in investable assets — than Dubai, according to the World’s Wealthiest Cities Report 2023 by Henley & Partners.
“The people going to the concerts and shows are price inelastic consumers who are unaffected by challenges in the economy, and are insulated from the vagaries of economic cycles,” said Ravi Kapoor, partner, retail & consumer at PwC India. “More than the ‘lipstick’ effect, these people want a ‘feel good’ effect and prioritize their experience first lifestyles and therefore derive real surrogate pleasure from such experiences and purchases of things.”
This phenomena is crucial to the cultural clout the Ambanis are building in Mumbai with both the Jio World Centre that houses NMACC and their sprawling 17.5-acre Jio World Drive shopping center. In addition to the new Apple store, Jio World Drive houses a rooftop drive-in movie theater and more than two dozen eateries, along with the likes of Dior, Superdry, Montblanc, Coach and Adidas. Indian spending on these kind of luxury experiences is significantly higher than the global average, according to Bain & Co. data.
“Indians are on trend and we’re willing to spend money on it,” said Nikhil Prasad Ojha, head of Bain’s APAC strategy practice. Indians spend nearly $25 billion on product and experiential luxury items annually, and 45% of that is on experiences like travel, fine dining and concerts, according to Ojha. “There’s a wider dispersion of money, and the interest for spending on experiential consumption is more than has been reported,” Ojha added. “It includes towns beyond Mumbai, Delhi, Bangalore and other metros.”
The polished lobby of NMACC offers the first few inklings of the economic class that the Ambanis want to attract with a demarcation between the haves and have-nots — visitors who come to the Jio World Convention Centre to take pictures and stroll through the air conditioned corridors, versus those spending money to watch performances. For those interested in shelling out a few hundred rupees, the foyer has an Ambani-backed Hamleys toy store and perfume counter, and ice cream carts near the fountain outside. The only free event? The fountain show in the evening, that is currently fully booked on NMACC’s website on all available dates.
Even so, the fountain show may be more attainable than tickets, with seats way in the back starting at about $13 — a price many would still find too steep. While Mumbai and capital Delhi are poised to break into the “top 15 wealthiest cities in the world” between 2040 and 2050, most of India is still relatively poor on a per capita basis, according to Andrew Amoils, head of research at New World Wealth, a global wealth intelligence firm based in South Africa. The average wealth of a person living in India is approximately $6,300, well below a worldwide average of around $32,000, he said.
is actually the second big show at NMACC. “The Great Indian Musical: Civilization to Nation” ran April 3 to April 23 and featured more than 1,000 costumes by Bollywood fashion designer Manish Malhotra and an opening night performance by Nita Ambani, the center’s namesake and a Reliance Industries board member. Stars including Gigi Hadid, Zendaya and Tom Holland rubbed shoulders with politicians at the center's launch, and Prime Minister Narendra Modi wrote a message commending the effort.
The Ambanis’ flex doesn’t stop there. An exhibit on Indian fashion features the wedding dress of daughter Isha Ambani — the first lehenga, or a type of Indian bridal dress, made by Maison Valentino — and several pieces owned by Nita Ambani and her friends. Art from the family’s private collection is displayed prominently throughout the center, along with works from the likes of Yayoi Kusama. Even the NMACC’s elevator boasts that it’s the “largest passenger elevator in the world.”
NMACC is the realization of a lifelong dream of founder Nita Ambani and has a broader vision “to showcase the best of India to the world and welcome the best of the world to India,” according to a statement from the center. “Built in the heart of Mumbai — India’s financial and entertainment capital — the launch of the Cultural Centre marks a step forward in strengthening the city and country’s cultural infrastructure.”
The Ambani family isn’t the first billionaire clan venturing into arts and culture to leave a legacy as the younger generation takes on more pivotal roles. The Rockefellers have Rockefeller Center in New York, Chinese billionaire Liu Yiqian built the Long Museum in Shanghai, and real estate tycoon and third-generation billionaire Adrian Cheng unveiled the K11 Art Mall in Hong Kong — a building that aims to blend art and commerce, much like what the Ambanis are trying to build with the Jio World Drive, Jio World Centre and within that, the NMACC.
“I have seen this intention and desire play out amongst many global families,” said Lauren Cohen, the L. E. Simmons professor of business administration at Harvard Business School. “In some ways, this desire to make an impact across a wide range and spectrum of geographies, causes, and disciplines is one of the great hidden (and sometimes not so hidden) engines that has moved forward many fields and thought spaces.”
“Alfred Nobel (Nobel Prizes), Cecil Rhodes (Rhodes Scholarships), up through the present-day Ambanis, all aimed to preserve and develop ideas and institutions that would live far past their times in this world,” he added.
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