I recently took a trip to Charleston, SC to do some research for KINDA HOME, the musical I'm collaborating on with playwright Brad Erickson. Since the story takes place in the Lowcountry, I figured it would be good for a Californian like me to actually get a glimpse of life there. I went on a few historical tours, got to interview a couple theatre folks, and Brad drove me around showing me locations that relate to his own family's story in KINDA HOME.
Krystle Piamonte, who plays lead character Hà in the current production of INSIDE OUT & BACK AGAIN, recently shared this story on social media, and it was so sweet I just had to include it in my blog:
"Today after our first matinee performance, I received the most precious note/gift from one of our littlest audience members. A mom and daughter duo came to see INSIDE OUT & BACK AGAIN and handed this to me after the show. The mom said her daughter felt bad that I was having a rough day (I cry about 3x in this play) and that she wanted to write me a note to make me feel better. She also included this cute lollipop. I’m overwhelmed by this little girl’s empathy and kindness. It’s these kinds of interactions that remind me why theatre is a powerful way to connect to our humanity. Thank you, little girl. You made my heart so full today."
I recently finished all 10 episodes of The Vietnam War, a new Ken Burns documentary on PBS. My primary reason for watching was to understand more about the conflict which is an integral part of the setting of Inside Out & Back Again. The documentary is quite an achievement, and there is much that I could write about it. But I'll focus instead on how the documentary contributes to my work as a playwright. During a recent dramaturgical meeting about Inside Out & Back Again, I realized I had more informed thoughts about what could be happening for the characters after having watched Ken Burns' work. Here are just a few of those insights:
War was "normal" life: After our first table read of the play, a question was put forth as to whether we could show more of Hà's "normal" life before the Fall of Saigon. That it felt like we were too quickly into the war without a sense of peace. However, historically speaking, ten year-old Hà has never known a Saigon without war. And with attacks like the Tet Offensive in 1968, Hà has already seen terrible events, or at least been nearby. For Hà, war has always been present. Even if Saigon has seen days of peace, the threat from the north is always imminent.
The Fall of Saigon was imminent: The eventual Fall of Saigon is laid out very clearly in Thanhha Lai's book, but it didn't dawn on me just how frightening that specter might have seemed to a mother of four living in the city. In early 1975, the North Vietnamese were making their way south, taking city after city, and it would only be a matter of time before Saigon would succumb as well. Understanding this helps me begin to grasp the desperation of the predicament Hà's mother finds herself in, figuring out whether she should flee or stay.
The white American perspective dominates our narrative of the war: One criticism I have of the documentary is that it definitely gives more airtime to the experience of white families affected by the war. While there are interviews with Vietnamese from the North and South side of the conflict, the more emotional through-lines of the series center on white Americans. This gets me excited about working on the stage version of Inside Out & Back Again. This play will be a chance to turn the focus onto a Vietnamese family and their experience and journey. Hà's family ends up in the U.S.A., so it is still very much an American story. We'll be inviting our audiences not to view the Vietnamese as an "other," but as the main characters of a story that all can relate to or at least empathize with.
These might all sound like things that I should have known already, and I kinda did. But it is one thing to know the facts of the war, and quite another to be brought into the emotional experience of it, and I think Ken Burns' documentary helped do that for me. It is worth noting that the documentary focuses heavily on the American perspective, and most of the personal stories in it are focused on a predominantly white narrative. The breadth of Vietnamese perspectives (of which Thanhha Lai's book is one) is barely covered, so I will be doing some reading of Vietnamese accounts as well. But I still highly recommend watching it, if only to learn a bit of the overview of events, and especially if you don't know much about the Vietnam War to begin with.
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.
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.