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Vishal Vaidya on updating ‘The Secret Garden,’ LGBTQ+ inspirations, & his secret skill

Actor Vishal Vaidya
Vishal Vaidya

The Secret Garden won three Tony Awards when it premiered in 1991, and while the original production received raves, its representation of Indian culture lacked authenticity. Actor Vishal Vaidya is part of Center Theatre Group’s revival, which features an updated script and score, including contributions from language coach Perviz Sawoski and dialect coach Joel Golde. Producers hope to transfer the musical to New York for its first-ever Broadway revival.

Vaidya, who also recently appeared in the Broadway-bound revival of Merrily We Roll Along, spoke with Queerty about some of his favorite moments in the show, LGBTQ+ inspirations, and other queer theatermakers we should be watching.

A new moment in this new culturally sensitive production of The Secret Garden that everyone should be paying attention to

Me! Okay, not me, but the Hindi singing at the beginning of the show, which later weaves its way through the story to become a centerpiece of the healing journey for our two young characters, Mary Lennox and Colin Craven. When the show premiered on Broadway, the Hindi was not handled well. In this version, we’ve changed a few lyrics and rhythms, and I’m singing with a blend of Hindustani and musical theater styles.

Vishal Vaidya in the musical The Secret Garden
Vishal Vaidya in ‘The Secret Garden.’ Photo by Jeff Lorch Photography

Mary Lennox has a green thumb. My secret skill is…

Leading with heart. I try to do what I can to uplift and affirm the people around me through my work as a performer and educator. I spent way too long in the closet to let anyone, including myself, feel as if they aren’t being seen or heard. It makes all the difference, and I try to do my part.

In The Secret Garden, memories of those who have passed revisit the living. The queer icon no longer with us who I’d love to sit down with

We all stand on the shoulders of incredible trailblazers and activists, but the deceased queer icon who I wish I could sit down with would be Audre Lorde. I think we could use her leadership and her understanding of intersectionality right now in our fight for rights for not just queer people but anyone who is marginalized. Luckily, she lives on in her profound poetry.

When I saw ______ onstage, I knew I wanted to be an actor.

My earliest memories are of dancing Raas and Garba (two Gujarati folk dances), so performing was already a big part of my identity before I even knew it was something I could do for a living. I couldn’t really look to the stage for inspiration because there were very few people who looked like me. My only choice was to work to be the thing I wished to see. I’m so glad that we’ve experienced a spike in visibility for South Asians on stage and screen in the past few years; it’s very encouraging!

The gayest thing about me
Aside from doing musicals for a living? The gayest thing about me is being married to another man. My husband and I went to city hall in New York city the week before I flew out to start rehearsals for The Secret Garden. My younger self could have never imagined that he’d get to a place where he was able to know love like this, and I feel so lucky to show young Vishal that it’s possible and it’s grand.

The children in The Secret Garden are often wiser than their adult counterparts. When I was a kid, I was known for

Picture a nine-year-old Indian kid putting sports goggles on top of his bifocals to aimlessly wander around the outfield of a little league game. That was me. I was a huge dork and not the most popular kid. But I was known for being good at Garba and Raas. There’s a Hindu festival called Navaratri that’s celebrated by dancing Raas and Garba, and I was always tearing it up! The music gets faster and faster throughout the night, and I was always one of the last people on the floor, sprinting around barefoot in blistered bliss.

The queer theatermaker everyone should be paying attention to right now

Shayok Misha Chowdury! He’s a gay, Bangali writer-director in New York City. His play Public Obscenities has been getting high praise and runs through April 9 at Soho Rep.

At my dressing table, you’ll find…

This is a short run, so I didn’t bring anything decorative to really make the dressing room a home. I have some snacks, some notes from director Warren Carlyle that I look to as reminders throughout the run, and beard cream, which is the only product I use for this show/character.

The Secret Garden runs through March 26 at the Ahmanson Theatre in Los Angeles.

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