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Friday, Aug. 14, 2009
Dancing to N.Y. and back
Yuka Takara talks of Broadway and performing 'Rent' in Tokyo
By EDAN CORKILL
Trying to rate the energy levels of a troupe of Broadway performers is like looking at a group of ants and trying to work out which is walking the fastest. They all seem to be going at 120 percent.
But in last Friday's opening performance of the musical "Rent" at Tokyo's Akasaka ACT Theater, it was hard not to come to the conclusion that one particular cast member was jumping just a little bit higher, singing just a little bit louder, and putting just a little more oomph into her two-step, hip-grind, pelvis-thrust, head-bop and pigtail thrash than her otherwise uniformly accomplished colleagues.
Yuka Takara had reason to be giving it her all. Not only is she the sole Japanese cast member in this English-language production touring directly from Broadway, but "Rent," the 1996 musical about Bohemians in the Big Apple, is one of her personal favorites.
" 'Rent' was the first show I ever saw, and it changed my life," says the Okinawa native — who moved to New York in 1998 to try her luck on Broadway.
Sitting with The Japan Times in the foyer of the ACT Theater last week, Takara shrugs her shoulders, grins and announces: "I've really come full circle with this. You know, there I was years ago sitting up there in Canada with the cheap tickets just being inspired. And now I'm in it and I'm the one that is part of the storytelling, and I'm back in Japan to do it."
Serendipitous, perhaps, but in some ways it's hardly surprising. "Rent" has a following in Japan that seems to defy logic. Since opening on Broadway in 1996 (just three months after its then 35-year-old author and composer, Jonathan Larson, died of an aortic aneurysm), the show has been seen here not only in two Japanese-language versions, but in no less than four subsequent touring English-language productions. This fifth tour is the highest profile of the lot, starring Adam Pascal and Anthony Rapp, the two actors who led in both the 1996 premiere and the 2005 film adaptation.
It's hugely popular here, yet "Rent" is a rock musical about frustrated artists who are also variously members of ethnic minorities, gays, lesbians, drag queens, squatters, anarchists, vandals, drug addicts and, tragically, AIDS victims. Such archetypes are hardly the first that spring to mind when considering Japan's social makeup.
So if it isn't straightforward identification with this gang of hard-living late 20th century New Yorkers, what exactly motivates Japan's droves of so-called "rent heads?" Cast member Takara has her own take on the paradox.
"I think the reason 'Rent' is so loved in Japan is because the Japanese keep these kinds of things on the inside — they can't talk about it. You know, living here, people don't like to talk about sexuality, people don't like to be themselves. They get too ashamed," Takara says.
The dancer, who attended American schools in Okinawa (her mother had a fascination with American literature) and studied briefly at Shenandoah University, Virginia, before heading to New York, explains that her own outlook is different from many of her compatriots.
"I'm all about sharing and educating and 'Let's talk about it'. I mean really, it's 2009," she says like a true New Yorker.
"We Japanese think we're ahead because of our technology and other things, but we're not. We're not ahead on other issues. You know, these things need to be talked about. OK, so you're gay. Is someone going to look down on you? That's not cool."
Takara's sensitivity to prejudice has been heightened by her toils on Broadway. "I think the reason I connected with 'Rent,' you know, being an Asian, being in New York, (is) I always get labels and this and that. Basically, when you're Asian, those labels are all negative."
Technically, casting agents are not allowed to specify that they want only "Asian" or "non-Asian" performers. But such practices are still rife in the industry, Takara says.
"When I asked if I could get an appointment for 'Mama Mia,' I was told, 'They don't need Asians.' I was like, 'Wow, that's a lot of things. You just don't know what you said to me right now,' " she recalls.
That was in 2001. Takara ultimately succeeded in snaring a role in the production, and "Mamma Mia" became her Broadway debut. "Rent" was her fifth turn on the street, with "Flower Drum Song," "Pacific Overtures" and "Chorus Line" filling out the interim.
She had trouble coming up with an answer when asked whether there are many other Japanese working on Broadway.
" 'Pacific Overtures' was directed by a Japanese, Amon Miyamoto," she says. "But even in that there were just me and two other Japanese dancers. The rest were Asian Americans."
As well as having to deal with Asian typecasting, Takara's other great obstacle has been her height, or lack of it. In "Rent," she plays the minor role of Alexi, a representative of a news network, but in the ensemble dance sequences, she is decked out in childlike pigtails and a bikini top. Her energetic dancing suits the visual image of unbridled youth.
"No matter what they say, you know, about my height or what I look like or sound like, whatever, you just gotta do what you do," she says.
So, what exactly you gotta do to make it on Broadway? Takara says you need a wide repertoire, and you also need to keep yourself well prepared and in top physical condition.
When Takara arrived in New York 11 years ago, she began taking classes in modern dance, hip-hop — anything she could find to add to the classical ballet she had studied since she was 5.
"Nowadays we have shows like 'Rent,' so you've go to be able to sing rock — it's not Rodgers and Hammerstein. But if you want to be cast in Rodgers and Hammerstein, then you need to be able to sing musical theater, too. And then sometimes it's opera, like when I was in the (off-Broadway production of) 'The Fantasticks.' You just have to be prepared for anything," she declares, before warning: "If you can't do it, there are millions of others ready to step up."
When Takara is not in New York, singing and dancing, she's in Okinawa, singing and dancing.
In 2006 she released her first solo album, "Goin' Home." With lyrics in what she calls "Jinglish" — a mixture of Japanese and English — the music ranges from ballads to rock to rap.
She explains that her fellow "Rent" cast members didn't quite get the significance when their bus drove past Shibuya's Club Quattro and she leaped up and said she did a concert there last year. "They were like, 'Really?' " she laughs.
If they didn't comprehend the significance then, they got it on Friday night. At the conclusion of the musical, the cast lined up and sung a remixed version of "Seasons of Love," the production's most famous song. They gave the second solo to the smallest member of the cast — the one in pigtails. And at the moment Takara launched into her chorus, singing every bit as confidently and clearly as her colleagues who have been performing this show since its premiere in 1996, the entire audience jumped to its feet and cheered for the local girl.
"Rent" continues at the Akasaka ACT Theater, Tokyo, until Aug. 30. See www.tbs.co.jp/act/event/rent2009/ for details.