Month: May 2019

Authenticity, Appropriation, and Identity

Micheline Wu on the choreographic process of Pacific Overtures

In my opinion, to be a musical theater choreographer is to be a dance historian and movement anthropologist. Dance in musicals is more than aesthetic entertainment. Whether it’s 1962 in Baltimore, 1906 in Oklahoma, or 1853 in Japan, the movement must clearly demonstrate the time and place of the story. And in order to do that, the choreographer needs to have done their research.

A show like Pacific Overtures is particularly challenging because it is a constant negotiation of the balance between the needs of the storytelling in that moment, the implementation of authentic traditional gestures, and the navigation in and around cultural appropriation. On top of that, there is theater dance having its own vernacular that is a common visual language expected by musical theater audiences. And then there is the need to serve the overall vision of this production, which is not in the traditional Kabuki style. My job has been to blend all of this into an overall homage that pays honor to the rich physical language of Japanese dance and theater while still maintaining that we are in the world of a musical written by Americans and performed in America.

The cast of Pacific Overtures

A prime example of the necessary fusion of physical styles and components is the first group number: “The Advantages of Floating in the Middle of the Sea”. Opening numbers in musicals fundamentally must establish the world of the play, often introduce the primary characters, and present the storytelling framework that will be utilized. While not technically the opening number because of a short musical prologue, “The Advantages of Floating in the Middle of the Sea” illustrates that this is a story told by a reciter and an ensemble of actors, many of whom play multiple roles. A challenge for me when creating movement for this number was that the lyrics are not only often just generally descriptive of society in mid-1800s Japan, but also occasionally do not parallel movement that would be traditionally illustrated in traditional Japanese dance. My approach was to present the wide and varied physical vocabulary used within the show through a blend of quotations of movement from other numbers, non-traditional gestures stylized in an aesthetic similar to but not the same as Nihon buyō, and pedestrian vernacular of genuine every-day movement. This number is the product of a true collaboration between myself and Spiro to ensure that the storytelling was effectively established and would move seamlessly into the rest of the show.

Kai Chao dancing “The Lion Dance” in Pacific Overtures.

Within this script, cultural appropriation cannot be completely avoided because it is used as a storytelling technique. This is particularly true in the Lion Dance, which closes Act I. The stage directions state that the dance is a “combination of the traditional Kabuki lion dance and an American cake walk.” The Kabuki Lion Dance is dignified and the shishi – or mythical lions – are of the divine. In contrast, the cake walk is a dance that emerged from plantations and was appropriated into minstrel shows by performers in blackface. The juxtaposition of these two forms and appropriation of the Japanese dance movements is intended to be offensive and therefore must be choreographed and performed grotesquely. This parallel appropriation is fundamental to telling the story of the United States forcing intrusion on Japan.

On the other hand, Tamate’s dance during “There Is No Other Way” I choreographed with primary attention to the Nihon buyō style, which was then delicately customized to the needs of the story told through expected musical theater norms. The dance is pivotal moment for Tamate and is a visual inner monologue with two observers and according to the script: “The first sings about her, the second sings her words and thoughts.” This is one of the most complex and multi-layered pieces of choreography I’ve ever created.

The cast of Pacific Overtures.

In performing this dance, I cannot and will not make the claim that I am a Japanese fan dance expert, especially since this dance takes liberty with the traditional form due to the needs to both communicate the story as well as fulfill the richness of the music. Growing up training and performing traditional Chinese dance, I have the highest respect for traditional dance forms. I did more research on dancing with a mai ogi than I did for any other movement used in the show.

In creating the dance, first I made it beautiful. Then I ripped it apart and set different sections to the appropriate parts of the music. Then I teased out which sections would contain pantomime and if so whether it would align perfectly with the lyrics of the music, as indication of lyrics is to be avoided as much as possible in musical theater choreography, or would be back-phrased or anticipatory. Then I adjusted, inserted, or deleted movements to work with or against the music itself. Then I layered in any additional acting that needed to be clearly gestured within the dance itself. Then I allowed the acting to blossom from within through feeling the physical sensations of performing the dance, the ebb and flow of the music, as well as the enormity of the circumstances in which the dance was being performed. And finally, after working with our Japanese dance consultant Michiko Kurata, I added in some very specific movements that were fundamental to Nihon buyō that must be included in a dance illustrating these circumstances. I have never drafted and redrafted a dance so much in my life.

Karina Wen, Alexander Holden, Gary Thomas Ng, and Kai Chao in Pacific Overtures.

At the root of all of this was an incredible amount of time doing research. One cannot be intentional with choreography like this without acknowledging what is, and what is not, correct according to tradition. This means that I am working in a grey area where I perhaps do not know the lines, or perhaps we collectively are in the process of establishing these lines. Is it appropriate for me to choreograph in another Asian dance style that is not my area of expertise? Is my training in Chinese dance less legitimate because I studied it in the US, even if my teacher was from Taiwan and is a traditional Chinese dance expert? Does it make a difference that I am American born or that I am mixed-race, despite the fact that I speak two dialects of Chinese and was raised exclusively by my Chinese family? Personally, I am excited to be living in a time of grey areas where societally we are increasingly open to the conversation of what lies in the mists in between definitions and delineations. It is a blessing to be able to have conversations that address questions such as these, a circumstance that is not true everywhere. So bring on the dialogue. I’m game. Are you?

About Micheline Wu

Micheline Wu (Choreographer/Ensemble) is making her Lyric Stage debut. A Boston native, she trained and performed with the American Chinese Arts Society’s Traditional Chinese Dance Troupe for ten years. In contemporary dance, she received a Young Artist Grant from the DC Commission on Arts and Humanities, two artist residencies at The Firkin Crane in Ireland, and her choreography and dance films have been shown across the country. Theater performance credits include Allegiance (SpeakEasy Stage Company), My Fair Lady (New Bedford Festival Theatre), Little Shop of Horrors (Priscilla Beach Theatre). M.F.A. Musical Theater, Boston Conservatory. @michelinewu

About Pacific Overtures

This startling, entertaining, and thrilling masterpiece puts a cap on Spiro Veloudos’ multi-year Sondheim Initiative. An unlikely friendship is forged between a samurai, Kayama, and an Americanized fisherman, Manjiro, during Commodore Matthew Perry’s 1853 mission to open trade relations with isolationist Japan. The two friends are caught in the inevitable winds of change and tell the story of Japan’s painful and harrowing Westernization. A highly original, inventive, powerful, and surprisingly humorous theatrical experience.

Pacific Overtures Press Photos

Photos by Mark S. Howard

Carl Hsu, Micheline Wu, with the cast of Pacific Overtures. Photo by Mark S. Howard
Micheline Wu. Photo by Mark S. Howard
Lisa Yuen with Brandon Milardo, Jeff Song, Elaine Hom, Gary Ng . Photo by Mark S. Howard
Carl Hsu, Sam Hamashima. Photo by Mark S. Howard
Alexander Holden, Karina Wen, Kai Chao, with Gary Ng. Photo by Mark S. Howard
Karina Wen, Brandon Milardo, Lisa Yuen
Kai Chao. Photo by Mark S. Howard.
Kai Chao. Photo by Mark S. Howard
Jeff Song, Gary Ng, Brandon Milardo, Kai Chao, Micheline Wu, Alexander Holden. Photo by Mark S. Howard
Gary Ng, Brandon Milardo, Alexander Holden. Photo by Mark S. Howard
Kai Chao, Jeff Song, Elaine Hom, Gary Ng, Carl Hsu. Photo by Mark S. Howard
The full cast of Pacific Overtures. Photo by Mark S. Howard
Lisa Yuen, Carl Hsu. Photo by Mark S. Howard

Chatting with Janie Howland, Scenic Designer

We talked with Janie Howland, the scenic designer of Pacific Overtures!

What Lyric Stage shows have you worked on before?

JH: I’ve been working at the Lyric Stage for 25 years. I’ve done
at least two shows a season. So, it has to be at least 50 and a few
more—maybe 60. In fact, I did my first professional show ever at
the Lyric Stage and Spiro directed it.

What excites and challenges you about of Pacific Overtures?

JH: Pacific Overtures is difficult. In the beginning of the script,
Sondheim alludes to Kabuki Theater and so we started there, but
this space physically doesn’t lend itself to that and I question why
we are referencing it at all? It feels so separate from American
theater, and it’s so stylized—I feel like it would alienate the
audiences a little bit. If we’re trying to tell a real story about
something that’s important—which in this case is people
overcoming other people and imposing their culture on them—
then it feels like Kabuki is not going to help us. So then putting
that aside it becomes a challenge of “okay, well what story
are we telling? And how do we keep it Japanese but make it
accessible?”

How many different theaters do you work at in a year? How many shows do you design?

JH: I design, on average, ten shows a year. But the Lyric Stage
is home. The Lyric Stage has always been home. I know the
space. I dream the space.

What’s your favorite space to work in?

JH: The Lyric Stage!

You don’t have to say that! (But of course we’re thrilled that you did.)

JH: I love three-quarter thrust because I love the intimacy
and I love pushing the set out to the audience.

What’s your process like?

JH: Once I am hired, I read the script, listen to the music, and just
feel it. I don’t get into specifics of “there has to be a door, there has
to be….” I just ask what does this play feel like? I do what’s called
an emotional response. It’s any kind of creative regurgitation. I
tend to make little sculptures but when I teach I tell my students
they can do anything—compose a song, do a movement piece, etc.
Then I present it to the director as my initial “this is how I feel about
the play” and it becomes a jumping off point for further discussion.

Does it change for you when you read a play or musical that
you’ve never read or worked on before versus one you’re
familiar with or have worked on before?

JH: If it’s within a particularly small timeframe, it will be hard to
have a different response to it. I did A Streetcar Named Desire
twice a year apart and the directors brought completely opposite
concepts. In the first production the focus was how the outside
world impacted Blanche, and how the color, light, and noise
really pressed on her. With the second one, the director was really
interested in it being an internal monologue from Blanche—
almost like she dreamed it happened. And it was much more
abstract and (I think) a better design. The first one won multiple
awards; it was beautiful, it was huge—it was a classic Streetcar.
But the second one was more interesting. I didn’t go into the
second one with a different emotional response, but the director
took it in a whole different direction.

What inspires you as an artist?

JH: Anything visual can inspire you. Sometimes I walk around
outside and look up at the buildings. If you look up instead of
down, there’s beautiful architecture in Boston. My favorite art
movements are Art Nouveau and Art Deco, and Van Gogh is my
favorite painter because he’s very expressionistic. I always go to
art—I go to sculpture and painting for inspiration

More About Pacific Overtures

This startling, entertaining, and thrilling masterpiece puts a cap on Spiro Veloudos’ multi-year Sondheim Initiative. An unlikely friendship is forged between a samurai, Kayama, and an Americanized fisherman, Manjiro, during Commodore Matthew Perry’s 1853 mission to open trade relations with isolationist Japan. The two friends are caught in the inevitable winds of change and tell the story of Japan’s painful and harrowing Westernization. A highly original, inventive, powerful, and surprisingly humorous theatrical experience.

“Musical theater at its most intellectually challenging.  Extraordinary songs!”   – NY Times

“It’s enthralling to see Sondheim’s songs work so magically well!” – Huffington Post

About Janie E. Howland, Scenic Design

Janie E. Howland** (Scenic Design) has called the Lyric Stage home for 25 years, having recently designed Little Foxes and Anna Christie. Other recent designs: Nat Turner in Jerusalem (ASP), Caroline or Change (Moonbox), Art Makes Sense CONSENSES Exhibit (Mass MOCA), Madeline’s Christmas (BCT), Urban Nutcracker (City Ballet). Other venues: Lynn Redgrave Theatre (NY), Emerson Majestic, New Rep, Weston Playhouse, North Shore Music Theatre, Odyssey Opera, Central Square Theatre, Gloucester Stage, SpeakEasy Stage, Ohio Star Theatre, A.R.T. Institute, Boston Conservatory, Company One, Greater Boston Stage Company, Seacoast Rep, Merrimack Repertory Theatre, New Jersey Shakespeare Festival, and Huntington Theatre Studio 210. Brandeis University M.F.A.; four-time Elliot Norton Award winner, four-time IRNE Award winner, adjunct faculty at Emerson College, Wellesley College. USA Local 829. janiehowland.com

Chatting with Lisa Yuen

We talked with Lisa Yuen, who portrays Reciter, Shogun, Storyteller, and Emperor in our upcoming production of Pacific Overtures!

What Lyric Stage shows have you worked on before?

LY: The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, Into the Woods,
Sweeney Todd, and Kiss of the Spider Woman

What you about of Pacific Overtures?

LY: Spiro Veloudos and music director Jon Goldberg LOVE
Sondheim! They are two of Boston’s most passionate and informed
Sondheim experts and I predict rehearsals to be masterclasses
about one of America’s greatest composers and lyricists.

What challenges you about Pacific Overtures?

LY: Pacific Overtures is commonly touted as Sondheim’s most
ambitious and sophisticated score and that description alone
is a daunting task. Everyone approaches Sondheim’s work with
deep intellect and then as an artist, you are reminded of how well
Sondheim can tap into the complexity of human emotion.

Where do you and The Reciter intersect?

LY: At the role’s heart, The Reciter is a storyteller and I’ve made
a career of being just that. We will be rediscovering the 1976
Broadway classic to its bare essence of storytelling—about
holding onto tradition while trying to be successful with change
and modernization. More importantly, we ask ourselves how
this dichotomy effects the human condition and its relations,
as so excellently portrayed in the development of the roles
of Manjiro and Kayama. I love hearing the role of the Reciter
through a woman’s voice since there are such great themes of
modernization and strength—very timely for now.
The Lyric Stage has always been very generous and has allowed
me to play roles that are not usually played by an Asian female.
The Baker’s Wife in Into the Woods was probably my most favorite
Lyric experience. The Baker’s Wife is traditionally played by
a white female but my goodness, the role is a made-up fairy
tale character. Why can’t she be Asian? I remember going to
the callbacks and thinking I should wear glasses so I could
appear to be a stereotypical “smart Asian” and that would be
my take. Fast forward to the actual production, and I lost the
glasses, any sense of racial identity, and just went to the heart
of the role. Most important was her mission to have, love and
protect her family, a mission any ethnicity can relate to. When
Pacific Overtures became a possibility, Spiro surprised me once
again with his progressive vision by casting a woman in a role
that is traditionally played by a man. Spiro knows that these
opportunities are so much greater than just one person, it’s
about opening the audiences’ eyes of inclusivity and ridding
ourselves of unconscious bias.

What excites you about working on a piece that is rarely
revived due to its complexity?

LY: Ha! You ask me this question after my last show at the Lyric
Stage was Kiss of the Spiderwoman, a musical about a homosexual
window dresser, who is serving his third year in an Argentinian
prison. The Lyric Stage is really highlighting the complex musicals
this year and I am in deep and in love with the challenge.

What does it mean to you to be working with an all-Asian
cast? Have you ever had that experience before?

LY: I spent 5 years performing in Broadway’s Miss Saigon,
performed with the national tours of The King and I and Flower
Drum Song, and I have worked with numerous all-Asian casts
regionally. From the first day of rehearsal, there’s usually this
very comfortable, loving, familial sense, like everyone knows
each other, even if we don’t. Boston is rich with talented and kind
Asian American actors and delving deeper into this community
was a great draw for me to want to do this show.

More About Pacific Overtures

This startling, entertaining, and thrilling masterpiece puts a cap on Spiro Veloudos’ multi-year Sondheim Initiative. An unlikely friendship is forged between a samurai, Kayama, and an Americanized fisherman, Manjiro, during Commodore Matthew Perry’s 1853 mission to open trade relations with isolationist Japan. The two friends are caught in the inevitable winds of change and tell the story of Japan’s painful and harrowing Westernization. A highly original, inventive, powerful, and surprisingly humorous theatrical experience.

“Musical theater at its most intellectually challenging.  Extraordinary songs!”   – NY Times

“It’s enthralling to see Sondheim’s songs work so magically well!” – Huffington Post

About Lisa Yuen, Reciter, Shogun, Storyteller, Emperor

Lisa Yuen* (Reciter, Shogun, Storyteller, Emperor) returns to the Lyric Stage having appeared in Kiss of The Spider Woman, Into the Woods, Sweeney Todd, and The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee.  Local credits include:  The King and I (North Shore Music Theatre), Ragtime and Mary Poppins (Wheelock Family Theatre), Dirty Rotten Scoundrels (Theatre by the Sea) and New Rep.  Other credits include 7.5 years on Broadway (Miss Saigonand The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee.), 4 national tours (The King and I, Flower Drum Song, The Scarlet Pimperneland The Pirates of Penzance), Off-Broadway (Second Stage and York Theatre), Carnegie Hall, Lincoln Center, regional theatre (including Paper Mill Playhouse, The MUNY, PCLO, and Sacramento Music Circus) and TV/film including 23 episodes as “Rachel” on  All My Children, Body of Proof, The Martha Stewart Show, World Trade Center). Brookline mom to twins.  B.A. from UCLA.  Love and gratitude to Mom, Kevin, family, and friends.