New York City is a long way from Canberra, Australia. It's a long way from Germany, too. And Edmonton, Canada isn't all that close to the Big Apple either. Yet Devanand Janki (Dev) has lived in all those places one time or another only to end up here-the musical theater capitol of the world. Given how much the theater has been part of his life, it's really no surprise.
"I grew up all over the world," says Dev, a Lucille Lortel Award recipient who will be choreographing Second Generation's (2g) third annual benefit, Concert of Excellence (COE), at the New York State Theater on December 1. "I always knew I would end up in New York. I never gave myself any (other) options," says Dev. Getting his start Down Under at age 9, Dev returned to Edmonton at a time when ample funds were being injected into the arts, especially the theater. With foundations in ballet and his stepfather running an opera company at the same time, Dev couldn't have been more on course for a life on stage. And it certainly helped that his family understood. "They were very, very supportive," says Dev. "It could have been worse."
Without hesitation, Dev headed for New York after graduating from high school. Broadway was the only road he considered. That teenage determination has resulted in a 15-year stay in the city, which now feels very much like home. It hasn't all been all smooth-sailing.
Dev's first gig -it lasted three years - was as a singing waiter on a cruise ship. Anything but glamorous, the job only proceeded to get worse when the time came for his first solo. The opportunity was a decent one. But for Dev, ever proud of his Canadian roots, found the song, "I'm Proud to Be an American" ironic.
Finally, at age 21, Cats came calling. Dev was on Broadway, and he was here to stay. Since then, he has gone on to star in Miss Saigon (where he met 2g artistic director Welly Yang), The King and I, as well as on a world tour of West Side Story.
After 10 years of being an actor, Dev began carving a niche for himself in the world of directing and, more specifically, choreography. "It all came very naturally," Dev says of his career shift. When he was just four years old, Dev's mother took him to see the Bolshoi Ballet in Moscow. "Since then I've been driven to be on stage," explains Dev. "I danced because there wasn't anything else I wanted to do. I had to do it." Since that transition, Dev has proceeded to direct and choreograph a multitude of shows, including The Scarlet Pimpernel, and a host of benefits. It is in these benefits and concerts that Dev thrives; having developed a tight relationship with Broadway Cares over the years, he constantly uses theater to support causes such as AIDS. In the last year alone, Dev has done 10 benefits in an effort to fuel and support artists exactly like himself. As one of the few Indian directors in American musical theater, Dev is also especially attached to promoting theater that deals with ethnicity. This resonates with 2g's mission and artists.
"That's my soapbox," says Dev, hoping to create new arcs for non-traditional casting in much the same way 2g strives to. It was only a matter of time before Dev and 2g collided, and in 2001 2g hired Dev to choreograph the first Concert of Excellence. Since then, Dev has choreographed for 2g in various settings, including COE and one of Welly's concerts in Taipei.
In programming this year's COE, Dev envisons a very diverse evening that will be fun and entertaining. . "It's pretty fast and furious," says Dev. "But I'm used to doing benefits flying by the seat of my pants. I thrive on adrenaline."
In the meantime, Dev's career has flourished. Last year Dev won the prestigious Lucille Lortel Award for his choreography of Zanna, Don't!, which he also directed. Zanna, Don't! consumed Dev for two years; it was his personal passion and he was always wary of the reception it would garner from audiences.
"I'm my own worst critic," Dev says of his doubts. The other critics, however, didn't think quite the same way. Zanna, Don't! received glorious praise from The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal, as well as numerous award nominations as outstanding musical for the 2003 Drama Desk and Lucille Lortel Award, and outstanding off-Broadway musical for the Outer Critics Circle Awards. Taking home the Lucille Lortel Award, says Dev, he was overwhelmed and flabbergasted.
"That was just surreal," says Dev. "I've never won anything in my life."
It was, perhaps, merely the first of many climaxes to a journey that began a long time ago, in a land far away.
by Keane Shum