For ‘Imelda,’ the shoe fit

Special to The Times

COMPOSER Nathan Wang’s day is divided into a pie chart of four-hour chunks. For four hours, he scores a “Tom and Jerry” animated movie. Then it’s four hours on an aviation documentary. Later, four hours for a new Jackie Chan film, “The Myth.” Spread throughout the day are four hours for meals and family time. Finally, four hours of sleep.

For those keeping count, the missing four hours belong to “Imelda,” a musical Wang has been writing for more than a year.

“If Nathan wasn’t interested in writing this, we probably would not have a musical because there are so few composers who are interested in writing for theater,” says Tim Dang, producing artistic director of East West Players, where “Imelda” opens Wednesday.


The origins of “Imelda” date to September 2003, when the Academy for New Musical Theatre contacted Dang about creating a new musical. Dang’s thoughts turned to an Asian “Evita,” a show revolving around a female political figure, in this case former Philippine first lady Imelda Marcos, known for her beauty, extravagance, political power and, of course, famous footwear.

The academy provided book writer Sachi Oyama (her first musical) and first-time lyricist Aaron Coleman. When Dang set out to select a composer, the choice was easy: He had worked with Wang 14 years ago on another original EWP production, “Canton Jazz Club,” and he knew the composer was up to the task. “Writing a musical is tough because you have to work with a lyricist, book writer and a development process,” says Dang, who is directing the show.

In a way, Wang, 48, is coming into his own on “Imelda.”

Most of the time he works well under the radar on high-profile projects in which music is hardly front and center, such as the video introducing John Kerry at the 2004 Democratic National Convention, a job he inherited when his co-composer, John Williams, dropped out because of other commitments.

Wang is no stranger to composer collaborations, co-scoring the Showtime movie “Reefer Madness” with David Manning, the PBS miniseries “American Family” with Lee Holdridge, and the 1998 Oscar-winning documentary “The Last Days” with Hans Zimmer. On “Canton,” his only other musical, Wang worked with Joel Iwataki.

There are times, however, when his own music takes center stage. Wang composed “On Gold Mountain,” a one-act opera commissioned by Los Angeles Opera and seen in Los Angeles in 2000.

With piles of work and little recognition, Wang typifies the multitasking, Type-A personality working in the underbelly of Hollywood. What makes him unusual is his lack of cynicism (even naivete) as he toils in a musical sweatshop.


“My dream has already come true,” Wang says, referring to his work scoring martial arts movies, which he loved as a kid.

To fulfill that dream, he once suffered through a nearly impossible deadline, scoring an entire Jackie Chan film in one week. And even then, his music for that film, “First Strike,” and another, “Rumble in the Bronx,” wasn’t heard in American theaters; his score was replaced with another in the U.S. release.

Sharing the “music by” title card means he never places himself above the collaboration. On “Reefer,” Wang refuses to take solo credit for any particular song. “Just to be political, I want to say we did every song together even though there were some he did a little more and there were some I did a lot more,” he says.

In fact, Wang likes to be in the shadows. In the theater world, he’s worked backstage doing sound design (“The Square,” “Bouncers”), incidental music (“The Paris Letter,” “Red”) and musical directing (the original L.A. stage production of “Reefer Madness”).

“I like being behind the scenes,” he says. “Maybe I like to complement something else that’s happening because in a way the focus isn’t on me.”

Somehow this modus operandi -- the safety of near anonymity -- was ignored in “Imelda.” Not only is Wang the musical director, he has the sole composition credit.


“I feel closer to ‘Imelda,’ because it’s more my project as opposed to ‘Reefer Madness,’ ” Wang says. “This is all me. I’m responsible for every note they sing, every chord.”

For “Imelda,” he has written some of his most accessible songs. If “Evita” had “Don’t Cry for Me Argentina,” then “Imelda” has the catchy “See What I See.” Healthy doses of cheekiness are served in such numbers as “3,000 Pairs of Shoes” and “Martial Law With a Smile.” The show’s pop sensibilities occasionally dip into percussive primitivism, Tagalog-sung folk, salsa, and -- especially befitting the gaudy tastes of Imelda -- disco, in a song titled “Imeldific,” a word Imelda herself coined.

Wang worked with Coleman during late nights at Wang’s South Pasadena home, where he lives with wife Sandy and son Derek. Coleman was surprised at how receptive a veteran like Wang was to his ideas.

“He’s always been extremely open to all my suggestions,” Coleman says. “Even if I said, ‘That song doesn’t work for me. Can we scrap it and do something new?’ He’d say, ‘Yeah,’ which I’m very thankful for because I don’t think most composers are that open.”

The creation of “See What I See” sheds light on their process: Coleman would give Wang a prospective title. Wang would write music and send it back to Coleman. “See,” the pivotal song that defines Imelda, went through five permutations with such titles as “Picture This” and “The Way I See It” before they agreed on the final version.

Deadline and other pressure

Wang attributes his willingness to scrap entire songs to his professional detachment, a thick skin that has weathered demanding movie directors and Hong Kong pop stars, who’ve asked Wang to arrange entire songs based on hummed melodies. Out of necessity, Wang’s prolific output doesn’t put a premium on spending days to flush out all the kinks of a memorable melody. He’s got to create new tunes, harmonies, orchestrations within those daily four-hour chunks. And inspiration can’t wait.


“This is the time I have to do it,” Wang says of the period he sets aside to compose. “I have to be inspired, and I will be inspired. If I haven’t gotten a good melody within five minutes, there’s something wrong with what I’m trying to do in the first place.”

Wang looks the part of a nerd, though his varsity tennis days at Oxford University technically make him a jock. Pushing his glasses back on his face, Wang arrives for rehearsals at the David Henry Hwang Theater in sweatpants and signature USC paraphernalia (usually a baseball cap), a nod to the alma mater of three generations in his family.

Prone to fits of mirthful yukking, he generously flashes his toothy grin that somewhat resembles the titular character of the show “Eek! The Cat,” his first major scoring assignment. When Wang enters the theater, his animated demeanor greets each cast member individually, yet another form of collaboration that he loves.

“It’s never about credit,” he says. “When I think of compositional voice, I’m already sharing the credit with the singer.”

While rehearsing his young pit band, the ever-humble Wang suggests a vote on whether the musicians would like a chord change to occur on the third or fourth beat of a measure. One responds, “Nathan, more importantly, what do you like?”

It’s something Wang is still figuring out.



Where: David Henry Hwang Theater, 120 Judge John Aiso St., Los Angeles

When: Opens Wednesday. 8 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays, 2 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays.

Call for exceptions.

Ends: June 19

Price: $33-$38

Contact: (213) 625-7000