After graduating with a lucrative double major in music history and communications, HOWARD HO immediately achieved his dream career in marketing, administration, and playing piano at friends’ weddings. When he had tired of his triumphs, he decided to risk it all to combine his talents (writing words and music) into a new guaranteed-moneymaking goal: writing a Broadway musical. Well, a Broadway-quality musical. Well, a musical influenced by Broadway-quality musicals…in Los Angeles. With no funding. And no producer. Even so, he’s written two musicals developed at East West Players and USC respectively. When he isn’t doing that, he’s working on sound design for East West Players and Company of Angels, composing scores for short films, and getting his master’s in professional writing at USC.
I wanted to write about The Nightingale casting controversy and how disgusting it is for Asian American actors to not be cast in a major musical about ancient China. But plenty has been written here and here and here and here and here.
The latest response is a call to action by Tim Dang, producing artistic director of East West Players. He wants Asian actors to audition for parts that are not specifically Asian, and he wants audiences to go see shows that hire Asian actors. You heard the man. Do it!
But the actors and audiences are just two sides of this triangle. I believe the root issue is that writers must create great parts.
They say you should write what you want to see. For the past few years I’ve been trying to create my holy grail, the Asian American Musical. So far I’ve written two, one about early video games and one about a Chinese laundryman in the Old West. As a kid, I saw Phantom and Les Miz, and I even started writing songs. In 10th grade, I ruined a perfectly good reputation as a jock to act in a high school musical. Honestly, wearing dorky costumes and blush didn’t do my social life any favors, but I felt like an artist for the first time. It was the gateway, the marijuana of artistic pretension, the real-life Glee.
Then I saw Stephen Sondheim’s Pacific Overtures, which not only introduced me to Sondheim and EWP, but also to the concept of Asian America.
Pacific Overtures is about America’s opening up of Japan, starting with Commodore Perry and ending with Toyota car dealerships. Sondheim’s music and lyrics paid homage to Japanese art forms while infusing them with his American wit and sophistication. Sondheim even flipped Orientalism on its head in the song “Please Hello,” which features silly caricatures of Europeans as performed by the Asian cast. Watching it today, it’s incredible this show was on Broadway in 1976!
Yet, as progressive as it is, Pacific Overtures still isn’t Asian American. It takes place in Japan, and the lead characters are Japanese natives. Lots of musicals and operas have had Asian locales like Madame Butterfly, The Mikado, South Pacific, The King and I, Shogun, and Miss Saigon. These shows do hire Asian American actors, but the stories and the characters remain firmly Asian-y Asian.
So I feel compelled to write the Asian American Musical, one that takes place in America with American characters. They just happen to have Asian blood. My video game musical explored Japanese culture’s takeover of the American imagination. With the Chinese laundryman in the Old West, I could tell a forgotten history and also have a brave, articulate lead who rescues his lover, the antidote to the stereotypically effeminate, gibberishy coolie.
Under that definition, the only mainstream Asian American musical is Flower Drum Song. Written by Rodgers and Hammerstein, FDS is based on a novel by C.Y. Lee, who wrote about the San Francisco he knew. Ironically, Lee studied playwriting at Yale, but his agent insisted he write novels because no one would watch Asians on stage. Flower Drum Song is a rebuke to that advice with its Asian cast, including Keye Luke in the original Broadway run. Today it’s still refreshing to see a Hollywood movie with lead actors James Shigeta, Nancy Kwan, and Jack Soo singing songs as American as fortune cookies.
Today C.Y. Lee remains active in his 90s. Through my mom’s connections, he came to my musical reading at East West Players and he even offered to work with me! Then I discovered among Lee’s work a collection of stories, Days of the Tong Wars, which celebrates the tales of early Chinese settlers in America. In particular, I was drawn to the laundryman story, Hop Fong and the Slave Girl. So I took Mr. Lee out to lunch, pitched him Hop Fong as a musical, and graciously he gave me his blessing!
In adapting the story, I began inventing new characters. I turned the villains into likable Chinese dudes, screwed out of the American dream. Feeling one Asian female role wasn’t enough, I added another one. And I didn’t just add Asian characters. I added a character based on Mary Fields, a black slave-turned-entrepreneur, and also a Mexican dude based loosely on the Sepulvedas and the Picos whose names still resonate on the streets of LA.
I’m not black or Latino, but rather than mere tolerance, which still implies disliking, I aspire to compassion, embracing my characters no matter what race. My inspiration is Rent, a musical by Jonathan Larson, a straight white male, who wrote gay and minority characters with such compassion that Rent has nurtured tons of minority actors, including Telly Leung. If Larson could write good parts for minorities and still earn huge box office returns and every award, then why aren’t other artists?
Yes, I’m looking at you, Nightingale. Having white dudes playing the Chinese emperor is as compassionate as getting kicked in the face. Feeling the heat, The Nightingale’s creators joined the Asian American community for a July 22 talkback. Surprisingly, they were genuinely sorry, a positive change from the usual non-apology apology.
But what bugged me was this “blue hair” white lady who asked a Q&A question, “What is the availability of talented, trained Asian actors? Do you have enough people to choose from?”
To provide context, Mrs. Blue Hair asked this question in a room full of Asian American actors. Wow.
It’s scary, but I have a suspicion she might be articulating what people are thinking. All the “Yes, there are!” cries that followed her question won’t change how Mrs. Blue Hair feels in her gut. And her gut is telling her that there aren’t any available, talented, trained Asians out there, and that, as she later added, she would PREFER to see any capable actor (read white) play an Asian.
The problem with ignorant folks is that by definition they don’t know they are ignorant. It’s possible she can’t imagine Asians on stage, because she’s never seen them, which is exactly the problem with casting white people in Asian roles to begin with!
But taking a step back, Mrs. Blue Hair’s question wasn’t merely about casting. I’d re-interpret her question to being about relevance. I mean “relevant” as defined in Urban Dictionary: being relevant is being “the most amazing group of people ever, having to do with things that are real and that matter.” So rephrased, her question is “Are there any amazing Asian actors out there that can do the type of musical theatre that matters?”
Well, yes and no.
Yes, there are musicals about the Asian American experience. Mrs. Blue Hair could go across town to San Diego’s Old Globe to see amazing Asians like George Takei, Lea Salonga, and Telly Leung in Allegiance, a musical by Jay Kuo about Japanese American internment. She could come to LA in November and see EWP’s Tea, With Music, an adaptation of Velina Hasu Houston’s classic play about Midwestern war brides with songs by Nathan Wang. These are two storied theatres, so yes, I’m pretty sure these shows matter.
But even as promising as these shows are, I’m still not sure what the Asian American Musical really offers. Calling it Asian American just because you have Asian American characters, actors, or writers involved isn’t enough. Otherwise, shows with Asian supporting characters like Avenue Q and The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee would count. No, I’m talking about shows with complex, leading Asian Americans in stories of universal appeal.
But what would make the Asian American musical relevant? One word: music. In the Heights is an amazing show that won the Best Musical Tony with a story about Latinos in Manhattan. As composer and lyricist, Lin-Manuel Miranda made the music as excitingly unique as possible. He fused Latin jazz, salsa, reggaeton, hip hop, R&B, and Broadway to create a new sound that was so brilliantly Latino American you could feel it in your gut. In case you need proof, here’s the showstopper 96,000:
I want the Asian American Musical do the same. Let’s take our musical heritage and celebrate its forging in the melting pot of America. What would that sound like? A dash of PSY’s hilarious pop stylings, which in Korea is a genre known as Gwang-dae? Lee Hom Wang’s use of traditional Chinese music in pop songs, a style he calls “chinked out”? Taiko drumming, with its catchy beats and showmanship? Or could it be versions of American forms like The Fung Bros.’s hip hop or Kevin So’s blues? Or a combination of all the above? I’m not totally sure, but it’ll be awesome when we discover the sweet spot.
Remember that writing Flower Drum Song meant Keye Luke was on Broadway, and that Nancy Kwan, Jack Soo, and James Shigeta were in a Hollywood movie playing Americans. Remember that Sondheim gave Mako, Sab Shimono, Soon Teck Oh, and Gedde Watanabe a gift when he wrote Pacific Overtures.
So isn’t it about time we give ourselves the gift of great roles? Let’s write them. That way no one will dare create an ignorant show like The Nightingale; they’d be too busy watching Asian American Musicals and casting the most amazing available, talented, trained, and relevant Asian American actors!