I Loved Broadway: Part I by Jessica Wu
A lot of my childhood in the 1990s was spent in the car with my Mom, driving to dance class. I grew up as a ‘competition dancer’ in very white, rural Canada - taking jazz, tap, and ballet classes after school 4-5 days a week at the Hanson School of Dance in Kindersley, Saskatchewan and supplementary ballet technique on Saturdays and Sundays at La Danse in the big city of Saskatoon. In a week, we’d clock upwards of 10 hours in the car together. We’d listen to show tunes. I used to sing along to Lea Salonga, Sarah Brightman, Daphne-Rubin Vega, and Idina Menzel on my precious Original Broadway Cast Recordings and Broadway Compilation CDs. Twenty years ago, I brought those course-of-life-altering CDs with me when I came to NYC, where they’ve survived a dozen apartment moves and now reside scratched to hell but safe on my East Harlem bookshelf.
I loved Broadway.
When I was a teenager, visual confirmation that Broadway existed was like gold to me. I coveted and compiled a cherished collection of VHS tapes bootlegged off PBS - their labels written in various sharpies and ball-point pens: “Hey Mr Producer”, “Les Mis Anniversary Concert”, “Cats”, and my absolute favorite “Singing’ in the Rain”. And every year we’d tape the Tony Awards. I would watch the broadcasts and their subsequent recordings on repeat - sitting on the floor of our living room (while working on my center splits of course) literally looking up at those incredible performers, dreaming of being one of them one day.
I loved Broadway.
I loved Broadway so much that, even though I’d never actually seen a show on ‘the Broadway,’ when I was 16 I went on the interwebs and found a college program that was offering training to help you ‘make it on Broadway’ and applied. Despite being from a literal backwoods, my absurdly-supportive parents scraped together the resources to back my pie-in-the-sky dream. I, rather cluelessly, prepared a selection of audition songs and monologues, and my jet-setting cool aunt brought a wide-eyed Jessica to the big city of NY to audition.
On that trip, I saw my first Broadway show. Fosse. I was enraptured. It was sexy and seamless. Those superhuman athletes and entertainers were riveting. It was everything I dreamed it would be. And there was even an Asian woman in the cast!
God, I loved Broadway.
In my Junior year at NYU’s Musical Theatre Performance Program I was cast in my first school production. Babes in Arms. It’s about a bunch of starry-eyed kids “puttin’ on a show in a barn.” My character, Edna, was young and sweet and played the recorder. The thing she wanted most in the world was to have a tap solo. I loved every moment being in that show.
A little secret: It was my first production ever. I don’t know why I felt so embarrassed about that insignificant fact in what was supposed to be an educational setting, but I did. When it came time to submit my bio, I had nothing. Zero credits. So I lied. I picked a show that sounded plausible: The King and I.
I loved Broadway.
Later that year, my best friend would drag me to a summer stock audition. We would be the last two at that cattle call to be seen and somehow I got cast. 3 months, 7 shows, building our own sets and living with 20 other artistic hopefuls in a dilapidated cast house. The roof fell in on us at one point that summer, but we got to put on Hello, Dolly!, My Fair Lady, Crazy For You, Footloose, Evita, Fiddler on the Roof, and A Chorus Line. I know I got hired specifically for A Chorus Line (Connie Wong would be a dear friend of mine for many, many years to come), but I got to dance in the ensembles of the other six shows and I even played the Fiddler in Fiddler on the Roof. Because Asians play the violin, right?
I loved Broadway.
Fast forward. In 2004, I graduated college and booked a job. A tour of - will wonders never cease - The King and I. I joined Actors’ Equity, signed my contract, kissed my college boyfriend goodbye, and was off exploring the country, doing a beautiful show with an incredible family of Asian-American professional actors all bowing down to a white man playing the King of Siam.
I think back to that year and half on tour quite a bit. I am embarrassed to say I don’t think it was obvious to me that something was wrong with this scenario - the scenario, I repeat, being a cast full of Asians bowing down to a white man playing the King of Siam. Oh there were red flags - like the Actor-playing-the-King’s pre-show make-up routine of heavy bronzer and dark eyeliner. Like the Asian-accent and broken-English-grammar used in the show that was so unlike the Actor-playing-the-King’s east-coast American cadence. And, low-key and subtle, there was an undercurrent of discontent that was never voiced, but in retrospect could only have stemmed from a year and a half of a cast full of superbly talented Asians (many of whom could have easily played the role) bowing down to a white man playing the King of Siam.
Why didn’t we revolt? Why didn’t we quit? Why didn’t we strike until the role was re-cast with an actor not requiring yellow-face?
Because, I think: We all loved Broadway.
But Broadway did not love us back.
For decades we, Asians and Asian-Americans, have reached out our arms yearning for Broadway to return our embrace. We ached for our humanity to be explored and celebrated in story and song and dance in the ways Broadway has adored and revered white humanity since its inception as an art form. We are still longing for our Hello, Dolly!, our My Fair Lady, our Crazy for You, our Footloose, our Evita, our Fiddler on the Roof, our A Chorus Line.
And Broadway tried, sort of… But, like a bad boyfriend, Broadway exoticized us (see The King and I). It other-ed us (see Pacific Overtures). It’s never really seen us Asians or Asian-Americans as more than our ethnicity (see Flower Drum Song). And it certainly has never treated us as fully-realized humans, deserving of joy and respect. It pigeon-holed us into stories of pain and suffering (see Allegiance), and worse - relegated us to supporting roles in our own traumatic histories while patting itself on the back for its generosity (see Miss Saigon). Broadway is a classic narcissist.
In the more than 15 years since that fateful tour, a million tiny cuts have injured my love of Broadway. I know now, Broadway doesn’t really give a shit about me. Hindsight is 20/20 and I wonder in earnest how I could ever have taken part so wholeheartedly and for so long in an industry that thinks so little of me and my culture. Broadway’s institutionalized racism and archaic canon is the reason I’ve played an Asian prostitute over a dozen times. Not just a prostitute. A specifically ‘Asian prostitute’. I’ll unpack that at a later time in another blog.
I loved Broadway. And now, due to the Covid-19 pandemic, it is closed. And, somehow, I do not mourn it.
Before that statement sends you to get out your pitchforks, please hear me out. I’m not a monster. Of course I mourn the loss of the thousands of jobs and careers of all those who work in our theatrical industry. Of course I mourn the lives lost and lives forever changed. We stand in solidarity. And I will fight for and next to each and every one of you to build back the industry of our dreams and livelihoods.
But in the same way I get a little twinge of satisfaction mixed with sadness when I see a shady ex-boyfriend fall on his ass, I can’t help but feel a little heartbroken and a little judgmental.
“I loved you, Broadway. Do better.”
JESSICA WU is an award-winning NYC-based playwright, director, songwriter, dramaturg, and actor-in-a-past-life. Her performance credits include the Broadway Revivals of Miss Saigon and A Chorus Line and she has crossed the US in a half-dozen National Tours, performed at Shakespeare in the Park, Radio City Music Hall, NYC Opera, Lincoln Center, with numerous Regional theatres, and in late-night sketches with Jimmy Fallon and Stephen Colbert. Jessica has written a number of short-films and theatrical works, including two full-length musicals. “You, Me, I, We” has won several development awards (including The National Asian Artists Project’s Discover: New Musicals Series) and was a Finalist for Live & In Color’s Development Retreat, as well as a semi-finalist for The National Alliance of Musical Theatre’s O’Neill Conference. Upcoming is “Poupelle of Chimney Town”, a new-musical based upon the best-selling Japanese picture book of the same name. Currently in development, it’s slated to debut next season Off-Broadway. Jessica is an adjunct Theatre Professor at American University and has also spent the last several years in Non-Profit Arts Leadership as an Associate Artistic Director. Last fall she founded Inspirate Creative Consulting and Development, a practice dedicated to providing clients with purposeful creative coaching and open-hearted, collaborative development sessions for works in-process. www.jessica-wu.com