‘Waterfall’ a vast collaboration across cultures…
Written by ROXANNE RAY, The International Examiner, 09/11/2015
By Malie Bifc USA
Here’s a great article written by Roxanne Ray, IE Contributor of the International Examiner
*** click on the picture to enlarge ****
Written by ROXANNE RAY, The International Examiner, 09/11/2015
The newest production at Seattle’s 5th Avenue Theatre is a vast collaboration across countries, cultures, and generations: Waterfall is a new musical created by composer David Shire and librettist Richard Maltby, Jr., based upon the classic Thai novel Behind the Painting, which was adapted into a Thai musical by the same title under the direction of producer-director Tak Viravan.
Maltby told the International Examiner that Waterfall is years in the making. “The project came to me about five years ago, when I was approached to write lyrics for a proposed American adaptation of a musical called Behind the Painting,” he said. “I suggested that the story would be transformed if the female lead were changed from an aristocratic Thai woman to an aristocratic American—but this seemingly simple idea required re-conceiving the show from top to bottom.”
This huge change required an expansion in the creative team. “Soon I was writing the script as well as the lyrics,” Maltby said. “The change also required taking a fresh look at the score, and I asked to have composer David Shire join the team.”
Maltby and Shire have a long history as successful partners in musical theatre. “David Shire and I met in our freshman year at Yale,” Maltby said. “In 1956!”
From the beginning, they shared common interests. He said: “We both came to Yale with the not-so-secret intention of writing a musical that would be produced by the Yale Dramatic Association. We were the only two people in our class (actually in the whole school) with that intention, and we really had no choice but to join forces.”
Maltby considers them both to be very fortunate. “We often marvel at our good luck, since we were basically thrown together, to have found partners who were actually talented,” he said. “We did indeed write two musicals at Yale—after which we came to New York and started working professionally. Our first break came when that young beginner Barbra Streisand recorded five of our songs in her earliest award-winning albums.”
Now, Waterfall is the latest in their series of successes. “Its producer-director, Tak Viravan, the brilliantly multi-talented creator of Behind the Painting—a classic love story—wanted to bring it to America,” Maltby said, “but wasn’t sure how to do it.”
That possibility got the attention of producer Jack Dalgleish. “When I met Tak Viravan at the opening ofSpring Awakening on the West End, we immediately hit it off!” Dalgleish said. “As I got to know Viravan and his work and aspirations, we started talking about developing his original musicals for Broadway.”
Dalgleish watched videos of more than a dozen of Viravan’s Thai musicals, and developed a short list of possibilities. “We narrowed it down to two—both tales of forbidden love, a common theme in my work,” he said. Ultimately, Behind the Painting was chosen for an American adaptation.
The project began slowly with a workshop production. “After we did the lab production of Behind the Painting, two of my colleagues separately suggested the Pasadena Playhouse,” Dalgleish said. “They contacted Sheldon Epps, the artistic director there, on my behalf and we set up a meeting.”
The conversation was a success, Dalgleish said: “I came from the meeting knowing that the Playhouse would be the perfect home for our developmental production. Sheldon and I have very similar visions when it comes to diversity in our work and there is a large Asian Pacific Islander (API) community in the Los Angeles area (including the largest Thai community in the United States).”
As a producer, Dalgleish then sought to expand support for his production on the west coast. “With its high standards of artistic excellence and reputation as a premier incubator for new musicals, I always knew The 5th Avenue would be the perfect place for our Broadway tryout,” he said. “In fact, I started the conversation with David Armstrong and Bill Berry back in early 2013. The theatre’s Chinese-inspired design and Seattle’s large API community also made The 5th Avenue attractive to us.”
Librettist Maltby and composer Shire worked alongside Dalgleish the entire time. “We did readings of early versions of the script, in which we just brought in some actor friends to read the script around a table,” Maltby said. “After that we did a few official Actor’s Equity-approved readings, each a bit more elaborate, ending in the fully staged ‘Lab’ reading in early 2014.”
Maltby and Shire found this slow process beneficial to the current version of Waterfall. “I have done many musicals but none have made such genuine use of the ‘reading’ process,” Maltby said. “With each reading and performance, the show grew. The characters became more complex, and the historical context became more and more a force in the plot.”
This historical context was deemed crucial by the creative team. “The impact of America on Asia in the pre-WWII period is a fascinating story, and one which most Americans know little about,” Maltby said. “Americans know about Pearl Harbor and everything after that, but little about the time before it.”
It is this earlier time period of 1932 to 1940 in which Waterfall is set. “In 1932, Siam ended its monarchy and became a democracy, and based, as all new democracies are, on the model of America, Siam was being drawn towards America,” Maltby said, contrasting Siam with nearby Japan. “In Japan in 1932, American culture—music, dances, movies, clothes—was sweeping the country, so much so that it was considered a threat to the greatness of the culture of Imperial Japan.”
This proved to be a harbinger of dangerous things to come. “Japan, in contrast to Siam, was turning away from America,” Maltby described. “By 1940, American music was banned in Japan, and anti-American sentiment grew in tandem with Japan’s desire to reclaim its greatness by expanding outside its geographical borders.”
Combining this history with the original Thai story of Behind the Painting was a great undertaking. “All musicals are challenges, but musicals with original stories are the hardest,” Maltby said. “With all of this additional factual material coming into play, the story of the musical began to achieve an unexpected and quite thrilling scale.”
Maltby also considers Waterfall a good opportunity for Americans to understand their role on the larger world stage. “Americans don’t really understand how profoundly America and its culture, not to mention the ever-gleaming universal presence of the ‘American Dream,’ has affected the great world,” Maltby added. “America may be reviled, distrusted, embraced, idealized—sometimes all at the same time—but its presence as a moral and defining concept never disappears. We often don’t understand the impact we have on the rest of the world.”
To communicate this impact, Maltby relied on the contributions of the entire creative team. “Musicals are living things. They change and grow. Sometimes they even grow up,” he said. “In some ways, I thinkWaterfall is now more mature.”
Producer Dalgleish believes that Waterfall offers not only a beautiful spectacle onstage, but that its story is relevant to multicultural audiences everywhere. “It’s an epic love story that tackles one of the most pressing questions facing the U.S. (and the world) today: How does one not lose one’s cultural identity in a modern world?”
He sought to produce a story that addresses contemporary cultural fears. “As we, as a people, become more homogeneous, we fear losing our cultural heritage and our identities, so we hold them tight,” he said. “It’s apparent today in the politics of the confederate flag, gay marriage, and immigration, by example.”
Writer Maltby agrees. “The show conjures up perhaps the greatest issue confronting America and the world today: How do you deal with cultural identity in a world that, as it becomes more modern, also becomes more homogenized?” he said. “Everywhere on the planet, people are dealing with variations on this issue. It is behind America’s immigration issues, Russia’s neo-imperialism, the extremists of Islam—the list is endless.”
Waterfall takes a different approach to these concerns. “In Waterfall, the issue is presented through the Asian, pre-World War II politics that are the backdrop to our love story,” he said. “Our protagonists, Noppon and Katherine, are running from themselves and think the answer lies in running to another culture, only to find, in the end, that they can embrace their heritage (or not) and live in a modern world.”
Dalgleish believes that the entire creative team has fulfilled this mission well. “It’s an inspired collaboration,” he said, “and one of the most fulfilling of my career.”
is a story of forbidden love, a story that will be familiar to Western audiences who have grown up with Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet and other love-centered classics.
5th Avenue Theatre‘s new musical by Waterfall is based on an original Thai story, Behind the Painting, which focuses on the character of Noppon, who seeks his true yet forbidden love. “Noppon is one of the great characters from Thai literature, and the production in Thailand was the first time the story of Behind the Painting would be performed on stage,” said leading Thai actor Bie Sukrit. “It was an honor to play Noppon in Behind the Painting in 2008 in Thailand.”
But Waterfall also builds on Behind the Painting to combine both Thai and American elements. This is what interested director Tak Viravan in creating both musicals. “Behind the Painting is considered one of the most precious love stories in Thailand. It is about the emotions, and the inability to express those emotions,” Viravan said. “As Waterfall, it becomes another kind of love story.”
The theme of forbidden love is still prominent in Waterfall, but its cultural reach has become more expansive. “Our leading lady is now changed into an American,” director Viravan said. “Waterfall is about the differences of cultures in the world. It becomes about opening up to one another, as we learn about each other’s differences, as the world gets smaller.”
Actor Sukrit, who continues to play Noppon in this new version of the story, has found that his own experience as a performer is mirroring these intercultural encounters in Waterfall. “I was presented with this incredible opportunity to be a part of the American adaptation, Waterfall, and to do this project with Maltby & Shire,” he said. “And this is my first experience doing a musical in America.”
Sukrit reports that his learning curve has been steep. “I have had to learn so many new things including American acting, theater singing, theater dance, not to mention the English language,” he said. “That’s challenged me so much.”
Viravan agrees that it’s been a great challenge for the entire creative team. “The pacing is usually faster for American audiences, and we don’t waste a word or a sentence,” he said. “For the Thai audiences, it was more easy-going. However, as the show has grown, it becomes about how to balance our differences, which is what the show is all about.”
Sukrit says he continues to work on finding that balance in Noppon’s character. “In Thailand, I know Thai audiences. I know how to make them laugh, how to make them happy, or how to make them cry,” he said. “But I don’t have that sense yet for American audiences.”
As an actor, Sukrit has expressed appreciation for the support he has received from the American performers in the ensemble. “They are all so nice and everyone helps me so much with my English, as well as helping me to learn everything I want to know about America,” he said.
Director Viravan said that the entire team has been generous with their feedback. “The Asian cultures and American cultures are so different, so it is about how to communicate to the American audiences, while still being true and sincere to our culture,” he said. “We have to listen very carefully to everyone in the team, and honor every note and comment.”
Seattle audiences should also expect some surprises in this latest version of Waterfall. “There is a scene in which we have to communicate to the audience that a Thai man and a Thai woman are lovers, and they are in a public place,” Viravan said. “Naturally, for an American audience, the characters would kiss.”
But this typical American gesture would not ring true in Thailand. “Some Thai women in the audience in Pasadena knew that kiss was wrong, and were quite offended,” Viravan said. “I knew that that was wrong, too.”
Yet, as the director, Viravan had to find a balance between cultural authenticity in Thailand and cultural recognition in America. “We let it be that way in Pasadena [with the kiss], because it was the best way to communicate to the American audience,” he said. “But with this new version, we know we have to find another way to communicate, since we want it to be true as well.”
Both Viravan and Sukrit have found the parallels of promoting intercultural understanding within Waterfall’s story and in their own creative experience to be illuminating, and Viravan summed it up by echoing what many artists have found over the centuries: “Art imitates life, and so life imitates art.”
waterfall’s main character Noppon is surrounded by half a dozen female performers, and two of the most prominent are actors J. Elaine Marcos, who plays Nuan, and Lisa Helmi Johanson, who plays Kumiko.
Both characters are integral to the broad palette of Waterfall’s story. Nuan is a Thai servant to the Thai Ambassador to the United States, Chao Khun, during the 1930’s, and Kumiko is a Japanese-American woman who overcomes discrimination to become an entrepreneur.
Both Marcos and Johanson are excited to be part of the 5th Avenue Theatre‘s Waterfall ensemble. “When I heard Waterfall was the new Maltby/Shire musical,” said Marcos, “I thought, ‘Who wouldn’t want to collaborate with a creative team like that?’”
Johanson was likewise initially interested in the creative team. “That’s really all that it took to get me on board and I’ve been gratefully enjoying the ride!” she said.
While Marcos is Filipino-Canadian, rather than Thai like her character Nuan, she feels other connections to Nuan’s position in society. “She is traditional, proud, and very good at serving her Master although she is very reluctant about the modern changes that are happening in society,” Marcos said. “I can relate to trying to adapt to new ways of doing things.”
Primarily a specialist in comedy, Marcos sees the role of Nuan as an opportunity to deepen her experience as a performer. “When I read the part of Nuan, I thought I would be able to bring to life the humor of that character,” she said, “and at the same time stretch myself as an actor to also show my ‘dramatic’ side, which I haven’t had a chance to do yet.”
During this new exploration, Marcos engaged in extensive creative experimentation. “During the rehearsal process in New York and Pasadena, the way I played Nuan changed daily,” she said. “I am sure I made the creative staff wonder, ‘will she ever find the [expletive] character?’”
But Marcos didn’t let fear impede her. “I pretty much used all six weeks to discover how to say simple lines like, ‘I see,’” she said. “It wasn’t until our first performance in front of an audience that I figured it out.”
Marcos believes that the performer-audience interaction is key. “I had explored all these ways to play Nuan, but since the audience was the last piece to the live-theatre-puzzle, they informed me which choice was the strongest,” she said.
This experience brought her back to her root motivation as a performer. “It made me realize again why I love live theatre,” Marcos said. “I love the interaction with the audience, hearing them laugh or clap, or just having the feeling that they are with you, even without them making a sound.”
Lisa Helmi Johanson, playing Kumiko, also found Waterfall to be a good developmental project. “The role of Kumiko has actually changed a bit from the previous production that we did at the Pasadena Playhouse just a couple of months ago, but I think that they are changes that help to more specifically define her character,” Johanson said. “While I loved the work that I got to do in the previous run, I’m even more excited at the beginning of this process here at the 5th Avenue Theatre because the changes that have been made add layers of depth to Kumiko, which is a delightful thing for any actor.”
Johanson, who grew up in Northern Virginia outside of Washington D.C., describes the changes in Kumiko as being almost like night and day. “She went from being a sassy student who loves American dance and music to a conniving entrepreneur who owns a dance club almost Prohibition-style in the basement of an empty warehouse and takes risks in her own little fight for freedom,” Johanson said.
But at heart, it is Kumiko’s strength that Johanson finds compelling. “Kumiko has a heart of gold,” she said. “I think that it’s from her pain of not being accepted in either America or Japan that she wants to provide an outlet for others who may be constrained or oppressed in their own way.”
But for Johanson, Waterfall is not just a compendium of various strong characters. “It’s an important show to be done for Asian Americans because, while it does have certain plot points that deal with ethnically specific parts of history, it’s also about Asians dealing with problems that humans universally struggle with,” she said.
She believes the commonality of human experience is often given short shrift. “Sadly, that’s something that is generally lacking in mainstream media,” she said. “People of different races can have problems that don’t involve their race. It seems obvious but is somehow not said in mainstream media.”
Johanson hopes that Waterfall can add this perspective that she finds lacking elsewhere. “I relish the opportunity to contribute to a story that is about a beautifully true but forbidden love,” she said, “and the discovery of growing into the person you’re meant to be through the cultivation of experience.”
Waterfall runs from October 1 to 25, at the 5th Avenue Theatre, 1308 Fifth Avenue, Seattle. For more information, visit www.5thavenue.org/show/waterfall.