Revising the Nightingale: An Ode to Long and Feng

The biggest script change from the previous version of The Song of the Nightingale and the upcoming Town Hall Theatre production is the removal of two clown-like twins named Long and Feng. This duo served as the Emperor's main attendants and provided a lot of the comic relief in the show. They did cartwheels, offered sarcastic commentary, and oh -- the puns! When it came time to revise the show, however, I knew that I needed to cut down the duration considerably. Long and Feng rarely did anything to push the plot forward, and anything that did feel substantial to the story could easily be handed to another character. I decided to try this new version without them. By doing so, I also discovered that removing the characters of Long and Feng allowed the humor and presence of the other characters to shine through more clearly, without any vaudevillian interruptions. What's remarkable is that the idea of cutting the twins from the show would never have dawned on me sans the prospect of a second production on the horizon. As I said in a previous post, I don't know that a show is ever "done," but I'm so grateful to Town Hall Theatre for this chance to explore and experiment with a more streamlined Nightingale.

And thank you, Long and Feng, for your time and service to the show.

Feng (Isabel To) and Long (Christopher Juan) - you will be missed. But don't worry! Isabel and Chris are now playing other roles in the new production!

Feng (Isabel To) and Long (Christopher Juan) - you will be missed. But don't worry! Isabel and Chris are now playing other roles in the new production!

When is a musical "done?"

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A question many artists face is "At what point do you know you are done with your work?" When do you put the paintbrush down, hit that print button, finalize the master? For those of us in the performing arts, the occasion of an opening night helps provide a cut-off date. In most cases, it's inappropriate to make considerable changes to a show once it's opened, so that first performance of a run is as good a marker as any to indicate doneness. And sometimes, we need that marker to tell us it's time to stop and let the work live on its own as is. That doesn't guarantee, however, that we will have a strong internal sense that the work is complete.

In fact, I often feel that a show of mine is never done. Or at least, there is always room for my work to be tweaked, re-thought, analyzed (case in point, the newly revised version of The Song of the Nightingale opening at Town Hall Theatre this month). I like to think of it as a question of whether the work is "done enough." This can be just as vague and difficult to pin down, but at least it doesn't imply an ominous finality to the work.

Learning when my work is "done enough" has been a matter of practice and experience. This is the value of readings and workshops. Each time I bring a play or musical to a group of actors to read or sing, I aim for it to be "done enough" for that particular occasion. I try to approach productions the same way. What needs to be "done enough" for opening night? There will always be threads of story or thought that would be interesting to explore. There will always be other decisions that characters can make. There will always be the relative aspects of art that can be debated for years. But, is the musical "done enough" to present in a reading, a workshop, opening night? I have found thinking of the work in this way far more helpful and far less harrowing, because it holds out hope that once closing night hits, I am welcome to re-open that script file on my laptop and begin cracking away at it again.

Posted on September 5, 2017 and filed under Creative, Composition, Musical Theater, Performing Arts, Thought, Writing.

The Story of Furusato

A friend recently asked me where the idea for "Furusato" came from. This Four Immigrants song appears in the so-called "11 o'clock Number" slot - late in Act II, just before the show ends. My friend wondered if the concept of furusato was addressed in Kiyama's book (it is not), and whether it was based on an existing folk melody (it is not or at least only incidentally). The story of this song is actually something magical, and one that makes me wonder if the Muses are indeed a real thing.

One day, while getting frustrated with a section in Act I, I decided to fiddle around with some pentatonic melodies and tonalities. I knew I wanted a song or two that would reflect Japanese culture at some point in the show. In my exploration, I stumbled upon a four-note phrase with an underlying harmony that struck me emotionally. My eyes started tearing up as I played this phrase over and over again. "Why am I crying?" I thought to myself. I jotted down the notes, then headed out to grab lunch. As I was walking, though, I remember thinking "I don't know why or how, but this song is in the show..."

I wondered what the song could be about. As more and more of the script was completed, and as I got to the harrowing Turlock scene during which Frank is forced out of town, it was clear to me that this mystery song must arise from that pain. The idea of "home" seemed a fitting theme for it. For the immigrants at this point in the play, there is a big question as to whether America has become or will ever truly be home. I looked up the Japanese word for home, and among the many options, I found furusato. A word with four syllables that perfectly fit the four-note phrase I had discovered. What is particularly poignant about the word is that while you can use the words "home" or "hometown," there is a unique, nostalgic quality to the word in Japanese. There is also a bit of a rural connotation that seems to fit the story of these four men who travel to the urban center of San Francisco.

In my research, I did discover an existing Japanese children's song called Furusato. Interestingly, it seems to be based in Western harmonies (take a listen), and I made an artistic choice that I wanted the folk song in my show to harken back to a time before Western harmony had entered Japanese music. It makes for a complicated discussion about where "authenticity" comes from when writing culturally-specific work -- a discussion that deserves its own full article.

Fascinatingly, though, when Akiko Kiyama - Henry Kiyama's granddaughter - came to see the show, she said that my "Furusato" reminded her of a song she knew. And of course, it was the children's song.

"Furusato" is reprised at the end of the show with a wish for the entire audience: "May you find furusato." At a party at translator of The Four Immigrants Manga Frederik L. Schodt's house, Akiko commented that it was apt to end the show that way, because her childhood "furusato" was one that you might sing with others at the end of a gathering, as a sort of benediction. She and her husband Ken'ichi graciously sang the song for us as our gathering drew to a close. A magical coda and further confirmation that indeed, "Furusato" was meant for The Four Immigrants.

A photo with Akiko (to my left) and her husband Ken'ichi (to my right) at translator Frederik L. Schodt's house (far left).

A photo with Akiko (to my left) and her husband Ken'ichi (to my right) at translator Frederik L. Schodt's house (far left).

Posted on August 22, 2017 and filed under Composition, Creative, Musical Theater, Research, Writing.

The Four Immigrants: Four Mind-Blowing Moments (A Post-Show Reflection)

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.

Auditioning the show at Pearl Studios, NYC

Auditioning the show at Pearl Studios, NYC

Bi-Coastal Auditions
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.

Me, Actor James Seol, and Akiko Kiyama posing with a photo of Henry Kiyama and his parrot

Me, Actor James Seol, and Akiko Kiyama posing with a photo of Henry Kiyama and his parrot

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!

Tech & Trust

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!

My First Time in a TV News Studio!

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!

Posing with a vintage CBS television camera!

Posing with a vintage CBS television camera!

Beautiful view of the Bay Bridge from the Lobby.

Beautiful view of the Bay Bridge from the Lobby.

Interviewed by Roberta Gonzales.

Interviewed by Roberta Gonzales.

Posted on July 1, 2017 and filed under Career, Musical Theater, Performing Arts, Publicity.

Another Quick Update on Four Immigrants

L-R: Frank (Phil Wong), Henry (James Seol), Charlie (Hansel Tan), and Fred (Sean Fenton). Photo Credit: Kevin Berne

L-R: Frank (Phil Wong), Henry (James Seol), Charlie (Hansel Tan), and Fred (Sean Fenton). Photo Credit: Kevin Berne

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.