"We have art in order not to die of the truth." - Friedrich Nietzsche
When The Four Immigrants opened and folks asked me how I was feeling, my response was something like "Great, but also overwhelming. I think I'm going to be processing this incredible ride for months to come." Now that the show is closed, I am confronted with just how mind-blowing this whole experience has been. Those who know me know how much I love lists, because they help me organize my thoughts. So, in no particular order, here is a list of four mind-blowing moments from the TheatreWorks rehearsals and run of The Four Immigrants.
Early in the year, TheatreWorks flew me out to New York and Los Angeles for auditions. This was the first time I have ever been flown to other locations to search for actors. In New York, we were auditioning at Pearl Studios. Several other productions were holding their own auditions in other rooms, including Disney's Frozen (both the Broadway and the California Adventure calls). It was thrilling to consider how many Broadway writers, directors and performers had been in and out of this building!
Overwhelming support from friends old and new
I am floored by how many people came to see the show, particularly those whom I have not seen in such a long time! Folks from every "era" of my life — friends from high school, college, my childhood church, my old corporate job; family members; and colleagues from theatre — surprised me with a text or e-mail saying they were coming to or were at the show. My heart is filled with warmth and gratitude at the outpouring of love and support for the project.
A Visit from the Kiyamas
Akiko Kiyama, the granddaughter of Henry Kiyama (author of the original comic book), flew to California from Japan with her husband Ken'ichi just to see our production of The Four Immigrants. Both were very moved by the performance. Afterwards, when Akiko saw actor James Seol (who plays Henry in the musical), she called him ojiisan - "grandfather." Everyone in the room could sense how special this moment was. There were smiles and tears all around - and lots of photos taken.
Hearing from Asian Americans and Immigrants
While I've been blown away by the positive response from audiences, the reactions from other Asians/Asian Americans have been particularly poignant: how the show made one man feel "proud" to be Asian, how it helped a wife (Asian, but not native to the States) understand more of what her Asian-American husband might have experienced growing up, how a Japanese American felt that the show honored the history of her family and heritage. I've also heard from folks who aren't Asian, but identify as immigrants or are closely connected to their immigrant lineage, saying the show conveys emotions and sentiments they identify with deeply. I'm honored to have created a vehicle for people to process or experience catharsis of some kind — and hopefully keep them entertained along the way.
Thank you to everyone who came to see the show, or who supported it from afar! And of course thank you to the entire cast, crew, creative team, and TheatreWorks for the unforgettable ride this was!
We have moved into the Lucie Stern Theatre for our Four Immigrants Tech rehearsals! While reflecting on this phase of the rehearsal process, the word that keeps coming to mind is "trust." With the exception of some minor tweaks here and there, the script and score are set for this production. So now, one of my primary tasks is to trust the rest of the team to do what they do. Thankfully, the design and technical teams make that an easy task. Since I am not a particularly craft-y or tech-y person myself, I am continuously finding myself in awe of the theatre magic I am witnessing in the show's sets, props, costumes, sound, and projections. I know my show is in good hands, and I can't wait for the show to open with all of its storytelling elements in place!
Yesterday, I was invited to talk about The Four Immigrants on local station KPIX's Bay Sunday TV show. The segment will air tomorrow. Here are a few photos I was able to capture while I was there!
Week 2 of rehearsals started off with a rough run-through of the show on Tuesday. On Wednesday, the cast, Leslie (director) and I went on a walking tour of Japantown, San Jose, which brought us all a bit closer to the history behind Henry Kiyama's comic story. Publicity photos have been released (as you can see above)! And as of yesterday, the entire show has been blocked! Now, it's time to review, tighten, and clean up what the actors have already learned, as well as make necessary changes to the script and score along the way. We have our work cut out for us, but everyone in the rehearsal room is a delight to work with! There's a real spirit of collaboration that is exactly what a new musical needs.
The rehearsal room is set for The Four Immigrants! I don't have too much time for a full blog post, so I'll keep it short and sweet. Yesterday, we had a giant meet-and-greet with the cast, designers, and TheatreWorks staff and supporters. I was overwhelmed by how much excitement in the room to see this show on stage! Afterwards we dove right into music rehearsals and a cursory read-thru of the script. Today, we start by staging the opening number! It all feels a bit unreal that something that has only been performed in front of music stands will get a full production! I'll try to post more each week.
1990s: "I2I" from A Goofy Movie (1995)
Patrick DeRemer & Roy Freeland; Performed by Tevin Campbell
OK, for those of us who grew up watching A Goofy Movie, the immediate reaction might be "Under-appreciated?! I LOVE that song!" But have you ever met someone who's never seen A Goofy Movie, let alone seen it a thousand times? They just don't get it. But here's why I think it's so great. Not only is the song emblematic of mid-90s pop music with some amazing animated dance moves, it also serves as the climax of the film. Without giving away too many spoilers (because I know y'all wanna see it!), by the time this song occurs in the film, every plot point has been resolved except for one - one that gets addressed quite awesomely through the course of this number. And even though the song occurs diegetically, its lyrics accentuate the core relationship between Max and Goofy:
If we listen to each other's heart
We'll find we're never too far apart
And maybe love is the reason why
For the first time ever we're seein' it
Runner-up: "If I Never Knew You" from Pocahontas (1995)
2000s: "Little Patch of Heaven" from Home on the Range (2004)
Alan Menken & Glenn Slater; Performed by k.d. lang
A movie about cows voiced by Rosanne Barr, Jennifer Tilly, and DAME JUDI DENCH? Plus Cuba Gooding Jr., Steve Buscemi, and a yodeling Randy Quaid? How could it bomb? Oh-ho... did it ever. To the point where Home on the Range signaled the death knells for Disney's 2-D animation (save for the unsuccessful attempt to revive the practice with Princess and the Frog). I have to confess - I kinda like this film. It's so quirky and wacky, if you don't expect too much from it, it can actually be fun! But whatever your feelings about the film, it at least birthed this lovely gem of a country song performed by k.d. lang. I dare you to listen to this song and not smile or tap your toes. Glenn Slater's lyrics are so quaint yet visually evocative, aptly suited to Menken's playful melody:
Hummin' birds flutter
In utter contentment
Every darn daisy
Feels lazy, you bet
Even the skeeters an' the fleas
Say "May I," "Thanks" and "Please"
Why, it's just as close to perfect
As you can get
If you're ever in need of a song to lift your spirits, turn this sweet little ditty on!
Runner-up: "Great Spirits" from Brother Bear (2003)
2010s: "When Can I See You Again?" from Wreck-It-Ralph (2012)
Adam Young, Matt Thiessen, Brian Lee; Performed by Owl City
"Huh?" you ask. "There was a song in Wreck-It-Ralph?" You may have actually heard this end-credits song if you were able to catch the "Paint the Night" Parade during Disneyland's 60th anniversary celebration two years ago. With some minor lyrical changes and infused with the original Electrical Parade anthem, it served as the base music for that parade. I gotta admit, there's no strong dramaturgical reason why I like this song. I just think it's infectious and fun and always makes me want to move (it's in my Spotify workout playlist). The lyrics are a little nonsensical (or poetic?), but Owl City's electronic bubbly scoring is a great choice for a pop song from this film. Of course, the decade's not over, so who knows what's coming with the upcoming sequels to Wreck-It-Ralph and Frozen?
Runner-up: "Logo Te Pate" from Moana (2016)
Well, that was fun! Now it's time for me to head into rehearsals for Four Immigrants. But I'll keep thinking of more silly-fun blog ideas for the future.
1960s: "Sister Suffragette" from Mary Poppins (1964)
Richard M. Sherman & Robert B. Sherman; Performed by Glynis Johns
I had to stray from the animated films because the '60s brought us only three animated Disney films, none of the songs from which I felt were truly under-appreciated gems. So, I'll hop on over to the very slightly animated Mary Poppins. No one can deny that Mary Poppins is "practically perfect in every way" precisely because of its star Julie Andrews. However, we often forget that the charismatic Glynis Johns was also in the film. Her character unfortunately takes a backseat to David Tomlinson's Mr. Banks. In the film's first minutes, though, we are treated to a rousing call-to-arms for a woman's right to vote by the fervidly political Mrs. Banks. It's the only song that really delves into any sort of historical context for the film, and it does provide a reason for why Mrs. Banks is so preoccupied that she needs a nanny in the first place. I find the song stirring and Johns' performance so charismatic, it makes me want to be clapped in irons right alongside Mrs. Pankhurst!
Runner-up: "That's What Friends Are For" from The Jungle Book (1967)
1970s: "Someone's Waiting For You" from The Rescuers (1977)
Sammy Fain, Carol Connors & Ayn Robbins; Performed by Shelby Flint
Sadly the only entry in this list to feature female songwriters, this heart-breaking song occurs right when all hope seems lost for little Penny. It's an unassuming '70s pop ballad that simultaneously evokes faith and hopelessness. The encouraging lyrics are in direct contrast with Penny's dire on-screen situation:
Be brave little one
Make a wish for each sad little tear
Hold your head up though no one is near
Someone's waiting for you
The thing is, Penny is an orphan. So, there isn't anyone waiting for her. So, the song really drives home just how alone Penny is in the world. Also, cool cameo of Bambi and Bambi's mom during the sequence. Of course, those memories don't necessarily evoke happy thoughts either. Damn, this song is sad!
Runner-up: "Little Black Rain Cloud" from The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh (1977)
1980s: "Why Should I Worry?" from Oliver & Company (1988)
Dan Hartman & Charlie Midnight; Performed by Billy Joel
Before the so-called "Disney Renaissance" took off with The Little Mermaid in 1989, the oft-forgotten Oliver & Company was released. In this loose adaptation of Dickens' Oliver Twist, a Jack Russell terrier named Dodger (as in, "The Artful") takes over the screen with this infectious pop-rock New York-loving anthem. Who else to sing this song than Billy Joel? Through the song's lyrics, we understand Dodger's outlook on life (a precursor to the more popular "Hakuna Matata"); through the song's music, we understand that Dodger is just so cool! He even literally stops traffic by rallying all the dogs of New York to strut with him!
Runner-up: The rest of the soundtrack from Oliver & Company
I think Oliver & Company actually features some great songwriting. It's just a shame that the story itself isn't quite so compelling. But with moments like Better Midler's "Perfect Isn't Easy," or the touching tune of friendship "Good Company," the song list for the film is fun, varied, and contemporary.
Let me know your picks for under-appreciated Disney songs from the '60s, '70s, and '80s! My choices for the most recent decades will be revealed next week!
We've all tapped our toes to "The Bare Necessities" or covered our ears when "Let It Go" was playing, but there are some great gems of Disney songs that sadly have not received much popular attention - and not because they're bad songs! So, even though no one asked for it, here are my favorite under-appreciated Disney songs from (mostly) animated features by decade!
1930s: "With a Smile and a Song" from Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937)
Frank Churchill & Larry Morey; Performed by Adriana Caselotti
It's no surprise that the song chosen from this decade would come from Disney's first feature-length animated film, because it was the only one released in the '30s. I enjoy its light-hearted melody and its laid-back pacing. It also serves an important function in the film. After facing death and rescue at the hand of the Huntsman and running through a terrifying forest, the young princess finds encouragement in a little bluebird's song. Through "With a Smile and a Song," she finds a renewed spirit, however vapid or trite it may seem to us. It's also, in my opinion, the only true moment of empowerment that Snow White finds for herself in the entire film:
There's no use in grumbling
When raindrops come tumbling,
Remember you're the one
Who can fill the world with sunshine
OK, it's no feminist manifesto. However, with those lines, the message of the song takes what could be a rather inane message and turns it into one where each individual is responsible for their own happiness. Not bad for someone who's about to break into a house belonging to strange men so she can clean for them...
Runner-up: "One Song" from Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937)
1940s: "Pink Elephants on Parade" from Dumbo (1941)
Oliver Wallace & Ned Washington; Performed by Mel Blanc, Thurl Ravenscroft, and The Sportsmen
The '40s brought a string of Disney films consisting of unrelated animated segments that showcased movie magic that only animation could accomplish. Some of this was art-driven (as in the case of Fantasia), and some of it was created as a result of World War II budget-constraints (as in Make Mine Music). In Dumbo, however, we get a particularly noteworthy segment of experimental animation that is incorporated into the larger story plot - however weakly. In "Pink Elephants on Parade," Dumbo and Timothy Q. Mouse inadvertently guzzle down alcohol which has some incongruously psychedelic effects. The sequence is bizarre and amazing. The song that accompanies it is odd yet catchy. The jaunty beat belies a more menacing presence with the score's minor chords and foreboding lyrics:
Look out! Look out!
Pink Elephants on Parade!
Here they come!
They're here and there!
Pink Elephants everywhere!
The song is terrifying for no apparent reason, except perhaps to warn young ones about the dangerous effects of alcohol? The song is featured in Fantasmic, but I still feel like it doesn't get as much attention as it deserves.
Runner-up: "The Three Caballeros" from The Three Caballeros (1944)
1950s: "Oh, Sing Sweet Nightingale" from Cinderella (1950)
Mack David, Jerry Livingston & Al Hoffman; Performed by Ilene Woods and Rhoda Williams
Cinderella is probably my favorite classic Disney film (read: pre-Little Mermaid era). And there are some amazing songs that are not only well-written, but well-woven into the story. At first glance, "Oh, Sing Sweet Nightingale" seems to feel like a random diversion from the story. I would argue, however, that it is actually one of the more moving sequences in the film. First, we hear Drusilla rehearsing the song accompanied by Anastasia's flute. Their cat Lucifer can't stand the noise, so he steps outside only to find that Cinderella is also singing the song while scrubbing the floor. Of course, she sings it beautifully, and soon we see multiple reflections of Cinderella in floating bubbles, and hear four-part harmony (all voiced by Ilene Woods). What I love about this song, beyond its wistful melody and moody harmonies, is it unveils something of Cinderella's emotional state without being too on-the-nose about it. The singing is sad and yet somehow resolute. It is as if Cinderella knows that there is no way out of her "bubble," so she does the best she can and sings herself through it -- a far more poetic version of "Whistle While You Work." And this beautiful moment signals the end of the film's first act, because there's about to be a knock at the door -- a messenger bringing news of a ball at the palace.
Runner-up: "All in the Golden Afternoon" from Alice in Wonderland (1951)
Let me know what your favorite under-appreciated Disney songs from the '30s, '40s, and '50s are! I'll share my picks for the '60s, '70s and '80s next week!
I've written before about how I'm trying to listen to music that I actually enjoy. I've been noticing a trend when it comes to listening to classical music. My heart seems to respond the most to pieces that were written around the transition into the 1900s. And these can be by composers who range from the tail end of the classical period, to the thick of the romantic period, to the first half of 20th century music: Beethoven, Brahms, Chopin, Debussy, Stravinsky, Mahler, Tchaikovsky, Gershwin, Copland, and even Joplin's ragtime music leading us into early jazz, and the likes of Kurt Weill and Cole Porter in musical theatre.
I'm trying to put my finger on what exactly stirs me up about these works. I think it's because from the Romantic period onward, deep emotion and self-expression became strongly appreciated in composition. Composers began to break from the conventions of the classical era, all the while utilizing all the "tricks of the trade" to create works that were at times epic and sweeping, at others solemn and introspective. Programmatic music became really popular at this time as well, with composers painting scenes or telling stories through their music - Beethoven's 6th and Stravinsky's Firebird come to mind. This emphasis on emotion carried on into the 20th century world of Expressionism, though I often feel a bit emotionally alienated by the exploration of atonality by Schoenberg and others. And while I appreciate a lot of the deconstructive work of late 20th century composers, I often find that I don't necessarily want to sit and listen to their work.
Now, I'm NOT a musicologist. There are probably all sorts of exceptions to everything I wrote above. And, of course, emotion and self-expression have continued to be a compositional value to this day (just listen to film scores!). But there's this turn-of-the-twentieth sweet spot for me; I really identify with what the major composers were trying to accomplish. They were using the existing musical sensibilities and conventions of their day to capture listener's hearts. What could be more musical theatre than that?