Immigration: a musical journey
`MAKING TRACKS’ TRACES HISTORY OF ASIAN-AMERICAN GENERATIONS
By Karen D’Souza Mercury News
When Welly Yang’s parents heard he wanted to scrap plans for law school to try and make it big on Broadway, they were not amused. But they weren’t that worried either, secure in their assumption that a political science major from Columbia couldn’t possibly land a gig on the Great White Way. They were wrong.
At 20, Yang nailed the part of the villainous Thuy in “Miss Saigon,” and although he has mixed feelings about playing stereotypical Asian parts (as he puts it, “geeks and gangsters”), he knew that if he stuck it out in show biz long enough, some day he could bring his own vision of the Asian-American experience to the stage. That day is here.
Milestones in history
After seven years in the making, Yang’s “Making Tracks” makes its California premiere at the San Jose Repertory Theatre this week. A musical that charts milestones in Asian-American history, from disembarkation at Angel Island to building the railroads to the Japanese internment camps of World War II, “Making Tracks” tells history to the beat of rock music tinged with traditional Asian instrumentation. Drawing strength from the past is the motif that connects six generations of Chinese and Japanese characters from the 1880s to the present.
“You look at your grandparents and your parents and you see what they went through,” says Yang, 32, who is Taiwanese-American. “You see parts of yourself in them and that’s how you realize that it’s not just about you. It’s bigger than that. Your experience does not exist in a vacuum.”
Dylan, the troubled young rock musician at the center of the show, goes on a journey through time, seeing visions from his family’s past come to life before his eyes.
“In embracing the stories of the past and his ancestry, he heals his relationship with his family,” says Yang, the founder of New York’s Second Generation theater company, which is co-producing “Making Tracks.” “And it also helps his professional life. He ultimately finds his voice as an artist.”
Yang also is driven by the need to give voice to stories that too often remain unheard. He says he didn’t know a lot of the historical context in the show until fairly recently.
“There’s the ethnic studies types who know it all,” he says, “but I had a fairly elite education and it wasn’t until that education was over that I discovered a lot of this on my own. I didn’t know the history of Asian immigration, that they weren’t even allowed to immigrate for a quarter of the nation’s history or something ridiculous like that. I had never even heard of that.”
Still, that experience is far from rare, so San Jose Rep is partnering with San Francisco’s Chinese Historical Society to present an exhibition of photos and other archival material in the theater’s lobby during the show’s run.
“One hopes that having the history presented through `Making Tracks’ will reach out to wider audiences,” says Marisa Louie, the museum official who crafted the exhibit. “Folks often don’t take the time to learn about Asian American history because it’s not in a format that’s really palatable. They don’t want to take the time to walk through a museum or sit down with a text book.”
A hummable score
Of course, history may not be the bottom line when it comes to drawing people into the theater for “Making Tracks.” It’s the rock score that likely will get audiences (especially the younger set) in the door.
“It’s `Rent’-ish, if you have to categorize it,” says the show’s musical director, R.J. Tancioco, “but it’s so much more than that. It’s hummable.”
That said, the score isn’t exactly written in stone at this stage of the process. Rewrites and tweaks come hard and fast as opening night approaches. The creative team, from Tancioco to director Jeff Steitzer and choreographer Joey McKneely, has to be willing to cut scenes and songs on the fly.
“It doesn’t matter how beautiful the song is,” Tancioco agrees during a break from a grueling day of back-to-back musical rehearsals and dance run-throughs. “If it doesn’t push the story forward, it’s out.”
Yang notes that a nurturing artistic environment is crucial to pulling off something new. Knowing that the Rep is willing to take chances and roll up its sleeves on a new musical makes a big difference to the cast and crew. “We really want these stories to be heard in the mainstream and the Rep has been very supportive,” says Yang.
Although the Rep has helped develop a number of new plays over the years, a musical such as “Making Tracks” presents its own unique artistic and financial challenges. The creative team required is much larger than for a straight play and every actor in the 13-person cast has to be a triple threat (acting, singing and dancing) which means there’s infinitely more that can go wrong. In fact, the Rep has staged only 16 musicals in its 25 years.
“It’s the biggest project I’ve ever taken on here,” notes Rep artistic director Timothy Near, who has been with the company since 1987. “It’s definitely a work in progress and everybody’s being so brave in forging ahead. But I really believe in it. It’s a crowd pleaser, a kind of Broadway rock fusion, and I just love it.”
The evolution of a new musical demands that kind of passion and patience. Since it first was presented in New York in 1999, critics have been chiming in with criticism as well as praise for “Making Tracks.” The New York Times called it “a promising if wobbly new rock musical.” In 2002, the Seattle Times hailed the show as ambitious but warned that it “just takes on too much.”
New works also can be a gamble when it comes to reaching out to new audiences. “It can be a double-edged sword, this idea of bringing a new audience to it, maybe folks who haven’t been to the theater before. They may stay away forever if it’s not memorable,” says Jerry Hiura of the California Arts Council.
“On the other hand, it’s great to get them there. Their eyes are big, like it’s Disneyland. They’re just gratified to see Asian faces up there. That’s what they respond to.”
As for Yang, his mission for this run at the Rep is to fine tune the second act, rework the book and get the project one step closer to his dream, a national tour.
“We really want to get it out there. That’s the goal,” says Yang. “They say history is written by the winners. If you’re not the winner, you don’t get to write the history. That’s what we want to do — to add these stories to the American theatrical canon, because they belong to all of us.”
Concept and book by Welly Yang, book and lyrics by Brian Yorkey, music by Woody Pak
Where: San Jose Repertory Theatre, 101 Paseo de San Antonio
When: Friday through April 17 with performances Tuesdays through Saturdays at 8 p.m.; Saturdays at 3 p.m.; and Sundays at 2 and 7 p.m. except the final performance April 17, at 8 p.m.
Tickets: $11-$62; (408) 367-7255, http://www.sjrep.com/plays/play_view.php?id=s5
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