See, I'm Smiling: THE LAST FIVE YEARS at East West Players

See, I'm Smiling: THE LAST FIVE YEARS at East West Players

On January 9, Los Angeles theatre company East West Players staged a one-night only benefit performance of Tony Award winning composer/lyricist Jason Robert Brown's song cycle, THE LAST FIVE YEARS.  Starring 2009 Ovation nominees Michael K. Lee and Jennifer Paz - with Jason Robert Brown himself on the piano - proceeds from the concert went towards Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS, one of the leading non-profit AIDS fundraising organizations. The performance was a reprise of last spring's production, which received rave reviews and was featured in The Sondheim Review.

Jennifer Paz as Cathy--from

Jennifer Paz as Cathy--from

Artistic Director Tim Dang recently answered some questions about the production for MTI.

MTI: Jamie and Cathy, the two characters in THE LAST FIVE YEARS are specifically written to be Jewish and Irish-Catholic respectively, making it not an obvious choice for an Asian-American theatre company.  What about the material did you feel was perfect for East West?  Was there any resistance to doing the show?  Have you done other shows with characters whose specified ethnicities were non-Asian? Do you plan to in the future?

Tim Dang: Our productions can certainly be eye-openers. Some audience members can be surprised and even shocked at our some of our productions. But after about 5-10 minutes, with our very talented actors, the audience is engrossed in the storytelling and they believe the actors are the characters.

The important aspects of these characters is that they are 1) two individuals experiencing the joy and pain of a relationship together, 2) they are artists struggling to succeed in a very difficult entertainment business, and 3) they are many other things such as American and happen to be Jewish and Irish Catholic.

People can be so many things - 3 dimensional. So can Asian Americans. But we're often stereotypes as foreign because of the way we look. EWP doing a play like THE LAST FIVE YEARS breaks down the stereotypes that many of us have in our minds.

Only one word was changed for the production. What was originally "Japan" in [the song] "Shiksa Goddess" was changed to "Sudan" because our actress could actually look like she was from Japan. Other than that everything else in the story telling remained the same in a very honest and real context.

People in the performing arts are pretty open minded these days and are usually open to having a diverse cast. Isn't the reason why we're in theater is to open ourselves to new experiences, new stories, be on the cutting edge or have a different take on a particular experience. That's when theater can be exciting.

We definitely plan to give more opportunities to Asian American performers in the future of many classic plays. When a play or musical becomes a classic, it can transcend race. Maybe an all Asian American cast of THE GLASS MENAGERIE or how about an Asian American version of DREAMGIRLS.  I think our community may be ready for it. With the world becoming so global, shows like LES MISERABLES and MISS SAIGON are already translated into different languages for different countries with casts of different ethnicities.

Michael K. Lee as Jamie

Michael K. Lee as Jamie--from

MTI: Do you feel that the actors brought out anything new or unexpected in their performance of the material?

TD: I think the actors are being true and honest to the story so I don't think there was anything new or unexpected on their part. They do their research however. BUT you definitely know the audience is discovering and re-imagining and reacting on a different level. They are thinking "There is something different about this production so my eyes and ears are more enhanced than usual. I'm more aware of what is happening in the story." So the audience experience is going to be different because their perspective is being widened and broadened in a good way....a great way.

MTI: What was the general audience reaction?  Did people easily accept that Jamie was Jewish and Cathy Irish-Catholic? What do you hope audiences took away from the production?

TD: Oops, I sort of answered that above. After the initial reaction of some audience members, everyone usually settles in and accepts the actors as the characters of the play. Theatre audiences are a lot more open minded to non-traditional casting. And with our production happening in a diverse city as LA, and East West Players' history of Asian American casts, our production is based on the quality of the performances and not on the ethnicity of our actors.  The audiences are certainly in for an adventure at East West Players.

MTI: In his song "Shiksha Goddess," Jamie expresses that part of his attraction to Cathy is the differences between them.  How did this idea play out in this production?  Were there steps taken to emphasize the cultural differences between the characters?

TD: With our audience being 60% Asian American and 40% non-Asian, it is always a joy to watch the differing combinations of audience on any given night. There seems to be a lot more laughter in the song as the audience comes to terms with the uniqueness of the production since the songs comes on early in the show.

MTI: What was the most memorable part of the production for you?

TD: The most memorable part of the production is when they meet in the middle and they actually see each other eye to eye. Regardless of who they are looking at, they see a certain similarity that maybe they are really not that much different after all. All the common ground of the play takes place in that single moment when they are in the same place and the same time. That's the magic of the play - for all that we predict in what will happen to us in the future and for all the events that have shaped us that has happened to us in the past, we don't realize that is it is living in the present that is most magical.

It's like what we always learn in acting school - being in the moment.

The wedding scene in THE LAST FIVE YEARS--from

The wedding scene in THE LAST FIVE YEARS--from

About East West Players

East West Players is known for its history of diverse programming - consisting of new work by authors such as David Henry Hwang, Philip Kan Gotanda, Julia Cho, and Sujata Bhatt ; classics by Shakespeare, Chekhov, and Brecht; and contemporary pieces by writers like Stephen Sondheim, Kander and Ebb, Stephen Schwartz, Peter Shaffer, and Yazmina Reza.

EWP has always been an artist driven company. Founded in 1965 by 9 artists, East West Players gave opportunities to Asian American actors to play leading roles that were three dimensional. Many roles offered Asian American were that of servants, prostitutes, evil characters. Worse still, when an Asian lead role came along, it was often played in Yellowface by a Caucasian with heavy eyeliner and scotch tape around the eyes. Slowly, roles for Asian American are getting better.

Today, EWP has had the pleasure of presenting all Asian American casts of SWEENEY TODD, EQUUS, THREEPENNY OPERA, A CHORUS LINE and now THE LAST FIVE YEARS with critical and popular success.

Click here to learn more about East West Player's production of THE LAST FIVE YEARS.

To license THE LAST FIVE YEARS, visit its MTI show page. Discuss THE LAST FIVE YEARS and view production photos and videos on its MTI ShowSpace page.