The Story Behind 'Utamaro,' Japan's 'Broadway' Musical

"If musicals didn't exist in the United States, they wouldn't exist in Japan either," says Taku Izumi, composer and co-creator of "Utamaro--The Musical," which will have its U.S. premiere Tuesday at the Japan America Theatre in Los Angeles. It plays through next Saturday.

"Of course, in Japan we have Kabuki and Noh, and other traditional theater with song and dance, but what we now call musicals never existed here," said Izumi, who with playwright-lyricist Toshio Fujita created about 10 musicals before collaborating on "Utamaro."

Based on the life of Kita Utamaro, the famous 18th-Century ukiyo-e (woodblock print) artist, the musical is performed in Japanese with supertitles. After the Japan America Theatre engagement, it will move to three UC campuses--Santa Barbara (Feb. 7), Davis (Feb. 8-9) and San Diego (Feb. 12)--before heading east.

Izumi and Fujita, looking very much like middle-aged, seasoned Broadway song-and-dance men, took a break during a recent rehearsal to discuss the work. In a Tokyo studio, cast members awaited the next dance number dressed in cotton kimonos and leg warmers--the perfect visual metaphor for this bicultural hybrid production.

"Japan did have musical plays before World War II, but at that time we weren't getting any information from America," said Izumi, who heads his own gekidan (theatrical troupe) and school, and claims to have created more than 100 musicals.

"After the war, through films, we started to understand America's culture and life style. Our musicals were totally influenced by such films as 'West Side Story' and 'The Sound of Music.' "

Throughout its history, Japan has enthusiastically--and deftly--absorbed the arts and culture of other nations, adapting and reshaping them.

Much of what Westerners think of as Japanese, particularly in the visual and plastic arts, came from China, although its origins are barely recognizable now. In the late 19th Century, things European were all the rage. Then, after World War II, America provided the model. Today, James Dean is more alive and well in Tokyo than in Los Angeles; Paul Newman hawks Fuji Bank cards on TV, and Snoopy is practically a national symbol.

In the last two decades, Japanese audiences--their entertainment tastes influenced not only by the media but also by increasing travels abroad--began to take an interest in "imported musicals." Both English-language touring companies and Japanese-language productions of "A Chorus Line," "Chicago," "Big River," "Starlight Express" and even "The Unsinkable Molly Brown" have played to capacity houses here.

But kokusan (homemade) musicals--with no real tradition or context to fit into--haven't established themselves as a mainstream genre.

"Utamaro" combines standard Broadway fare with Japanese classical theater and dance conventions. The music, to be performed live on tour, is clearly Western, but includes a taiko drum and shamisen and is influenced by Japanese rhythms.

Aficionados of Japanese theater will recognize specific references from Kabuki and Kyogen, as well as from classical dance. One famous moment is lifted in toto from the well-known Kabuki play "Kanjincho," which was performed in Tokyo last month.

"We did adapt and change several scenes for American audiences, trying to make the show as Japanese as possible," said Fujita. "Our actors are trained in the Broadway style, but for 'Utamaro' we invited in specialists from each Japanese traditional field to train them."

"The Japanese do not have the ideal figure that Americans have. We don't have such long legs, so it's difficult for us to dance in the same style," Izumi said. "It's difficult to do, say, the movement of Bob Fosse. With our short legs, it's easier for us to perform our own traditional dance movements."

"Utamaro," which toured Japan for more than 100 performances, takes place in old Edo (Tokyo) in the late 18th Century, when Japan's strict feudal class system was beginning to break down. Its characters are the spirited denizens of the Yoshiwara, the licensed pleasure quarter where courtesans were the superstars, setting the fashion in clothes and behavior.

Ironically, performers were at the very bottom of the social ladder and were disparagingly referred to as "river bed beggars." Kabuki troupes, in fact, were originally a cover for prostitution.

Today, entertainers in Japan still haven't achieved the social standing they can claim in America. And musical "gypsies" are almost nonexistent, as most performers belong to gekidans, such as Izumi's. Only a few of "Utamaro's" cast of 26 were hired through auditions. Still, musical theater here seems to be attracting more technically skilled performers each year.

"The Japanese life style has changed totally. It has become Westernized," Izumi said. "So for the young generation, dancing and singing are taken for granted. They go to discos, they compose their own music and form their own groups. And they have a very flexible movement style."

"It's true. Japanese life style is getting awfully close to the Western life style," Fujita agreed wryly. "Perhaps that's one of the reasons why our judo athletes are getting so weak."

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World