NFNM Show Update: The Four Immigrants: An American Musical Manga

This month we chatted with Giovanna Sardelli, the Director of New Works at TheatreWorks Silicon Valley. Next month TheatreWorks goes into rehearsals for The Four Immigrants: An American Musical Manga, written by Min Khang and based on Manga Yonin Shosei by Henry Yoshitaka Kiyama, translated as The Four Immigrants by Frederik L. Schodt. This production is being supported by a Production Grant from the National Fund for New Musicals, and the show has previously been supported by a Writers Residency Grant.

From a tumultuous earthquake to an exhilarating world’s fair, this new musical chronicles the adventures of four endearing Japanese immigrants in a world of possibility and prejudice: turn-of-the-twentieth-century San Francisco. Driven by an infectious vaudeville and ragtime score, the quartet pursues their American Dream despite limited options in the land of opportunity.

TheatreWorks has been developing The Four Immigrants for some time now—tell us a little bit about how the piece first made its way to TheatreWorks.
Leslie Martinson, our Associate Artistic Director and the director of the upcoming production, has a gift for seeing the potential in artists, like Min Kahng, whom she has known for years, and also for seeing the potential in stories. So when Min shared his idea for The Four Immigrants: An American Musical Manga, Leslie was instantly intrigued by the story and by the unique way Min wanted to tell the story. She brought the show to TheatreWorks as part of our Writers’ Retreat where we were all introduced to the musical and excited by what it could become.

What inspired TheatreWorks to commit to a full production of the show?
The audience response during last year’s New Works Festival was undeniably powerful.  I was sitting next to Rajiv Joseph, a playwright with whom TheatreWorks and I have a long history, and he turned to me at the end of the show and said, “This is remarkable.” Rare and high praise from an artist with a discerning eye. Our New Works Fellow, Akemi Okamura, had tears running down her face at the end and she was not alone. We all realized how deeply this show taps into the immigrant experience and how magnificent it is in telling the story of this complicated experience. The style is as unique as the Manga (Japanese comic book) that inspired it. The vaudevillian nature of the musical allows it to be as playful as it is profound.

Since that first workshop, how has TheatreWorks supported The Four Immigrants’ development, and what has that process looked like?
We look at The Four Immigrants as a true TheatreWorks success story. This piece came to us as just an idea. Not a word had been written yet. From our Writers’ Retreat to our New Works Festival—we are so proud to see this musical make its way through TheatreWorks’ development pipeline on its way to its full World Premiere!

In the years between the Retreat and the Festival, we’ve helped with workshops and in finding grant money to further the development (Thank you NAMT!). Leslie, Min and dramaturg Oona Hatton have spent countless hours on their own working on the musical knowing that TheatreWorks was as invested as they were. We all wanted the show to have a World Premiere at TheatreWorks.

How has the show grown and changed throughout the development process?
I was struck by the bold and brave revisions Min made between the first and second readings of our New Works Festival. Vaudeville was the original entry point for Min’s idea. After the first reading the team bravely decided to strip away the original vaudeville framing device which allowed the immense heart of the story to shine at the forefront of the musical. The audience response from the first reading to the second transformed from warm enjoyment to an explosion. It was then that our suspicions were confirmed. We had something special on our hands.

Why should everyone make their way to sunny California to check out this world premiere?
Because it is a fantastic new musical! I love it so much that I’m flying my father out to see it because I know he’ll relate to the story of coming to a new country. I know he’ll be dazzled by the story and the style in which it is told. Min and Leslie have created something special. This musical is everything I want my theatre to be—entertaining, thought-provoking, relevant, moving, and fun. This is a Bay Area story told by one of the Bay Area’s premiere theatre companies.

For more information, and to buy tickets, visit TheatreWorks’ website.

Leave a Reply