Caro Meets Musicals & Opera Interview

Maryhee Yoon: Tokyo Rose

By | Published on Monday 20 September 2021

You may well be aware of ‘Tokyo Rose’, a new musical about real life events that won acclaim – and an award – and enjoyed a sell out run, at the 2019 Edinburgh Fringe.

Since then, it has been newly expanded into a two act show, and is currently on a UK tour, imminently calling at London’s Southwark Playhouse.

To find out more about the show and the creatives behind it, I spoke to Maryhee Yoon, co-writer.

CM: To begin, let’s start with the narrative of the show – what story does it tell and who are the central characters of the piece?
MY: The show is based on the true story of Iva Ikuko Toguri D’Aquino, who was an American woman of Japanese descent alive in the 20th Century.

She got trapped in Japan during World War Two and through a series of decisions or coincidences ended up on trial in San Francisco for treason – one of America’s most expensive and controversial trials of the time.

The story mostly focuses on her narrative and the people who come in and out of her life – especially her family!

CM: What themes does it explore?
MY: While the show touches on themes including nationalism, war, and anti-Asian sentiment, the most important themes are the universal ones of family, belonging and identity!

CM: How close is the narrative of the show to the truth of what happened?
MY: There are direct quotes sprinkled throughout the show, and I would like to believe that Iva would be happy with how we’ve decided to tell her story.

But to be honest, it’s hard to really know how accurately we’ve depicted the true events – research books give a lot of dates and facts, but they don’t give as much insight into what makes the story really interesting: all the humanity that lies behind each fact.

We had to put ourselves in the shoes of these real people and try to justify each decision that every single person involved made. I’d like to believe that we’ve done them all justice. But of course there are areas that Cara Baldwin -my co-writer – and I had to take creative liberties on. It’s impossible to fit an entire life-time of love and fighting into a two hour ten minute show without simplifying and leaving things out.

I think one of the biggest creative licences we took as a team was the choice to leave Felipe D’Aquino out of this version of our musical. Felipe and Iva were married during her time in Japan – they met shortly after the war began and both shared loyalties to the Allies, which is what drew them together.

I think Felipe must have been a really wonderful person – he quite literally saved her life when she was suffering with malnutrition even before they were married and he stood by her side throughout the trial. Sadly, Felipe was not permitted to stay in America when the trial ended, and the two never saw each other again.

I definitely encourage our audience members to do their own research into Iva’s life to learn more about what we didn’t have time to say – I recommend the book ‘Tokyo Rose: Orphan Of The Pacific’ by Maya Duus, which is the only book that Iva ever approved for publication herself.

CM: What was the inspiration for creating a show about it? What made your team want to tackle this subject?
MY: Cara was on the train home from Edinburgh Fringe 2018, after putting on Burnt Lemon’s debut show ‘The Half Moon Shania’, hungry for new ideas for new theatre. She was researching real-life female disc-jockeys when she came across Iva Toguri D’Aquino’s story and knew that there was a show to be created.

When Cara and Burnt Lemon Theatre initially came to me with this little nugget of history, I was instantly intrigued. I’d never heard a story like this – especially not in any of my history classes. I don’t think I realised how hungry I was to learn the real stories of the women who came before me in the AAPI community – until I started learning about Iva.

Because of that, it was clear to me from day one that it was a story that begged to be told and that needed to be heard.

CM: Can you tell us a bit about the music? How would you describe it in terms of style and genre?
MY: William Patrick Harrison has done such an amazing job mixing electronic, neo-classical and cinematic music with the structure of musical theatre to create something entirely new and exciting. Having the music be so current and modern allowed us as writers to take an innovative approach to the book and lyrics, despite exploring a story that begins over 100 years ago.

The music is punchy, catchy, and moving – it makes you want to dance, sing, and cry all at the same time! Definitely check out our cast album that features eight of the songs in our show – it’s available to stream on all major platforms. Though there are many more that we have saved exclusively for the stage!

CM: Can you tell us about the creative team involved in putting the show together?
MY: Cara Baldwin is the other writer and my go-to. We’ve worked for over two years to develop the book and lyrics together – over a lot of Zoom calls. It has been really magical to be able to take the best part of two different brains to create something together.

We were so blessed to work with our composer, William Patrick Harrison, who has an incredible attention to detail and who really gave this show the excitement and gusto it has – Will also provided dramaturgy.

We worked with Jonathon Man and then Haruka Ueda as our main dramaturgs, with Haruka also serving as our cultural consultant. Having that outside eye was absolutely life-saving at times, and we really owe so much to them. The show is directed by Hannah Benson, who also vocal arranged the show and also worked as a dramaturg throughout the writing process.

Other creatives include Amelia Muus, Associate Director; Erin Guan, costume designer; Jamie Lu, sound designer; Holly Ellis, light designer; and Luke W Robson, set designer.

CM: Can you tell us specifically about your own role? How did the process work for you?
MY: I’ve been working on this show for so long, I can really only describe the process as a journey full of ups and downs! As I’ve said, I’m the co-writer, so I worked with Cara and the rest of the writing team to write the book and lyrics. We were responsible for the actual story that we were telling.

Cara and I had to take a real, messy, human life and turn it into a satisfying two-act show, so there was a lot of research involved and lots of rewriting and reworking and rejigging over the past two and a half years. And we never expected to be working on this instalment for so long – but of course there was that little thing that happened that totally turned the world upside down. To be honest, I think we all benefited from having that extra time.

I would love and am hoping to be involved in telling Iva’s story for as long as people are willing to listen!

CM: Can you tell us a bit about the cast?
MY: We have a beautiful cast of six women, including Cara! Maya Britto plays Iva Toguri, with Yuki Sutton, Kanako Nakano, Lucy Park, Amy Parker and Cara forming the ensemble and taking on various characters throughout the show.

The cast are absolutely a dream for any writer. Each and every one of them is incredibly delicate with the material, taking ownership and care over the text, and quite literally bringing the life to the show! Without actors, our show is just a bunch of abstract ideas and scribbles on paper. And they really have brought so much.

It has been wonderful to see the way that they’ll transform a character with their own personal quirks and qualms in a way that is impossible to imagine while writing. It is such a beautiful collaboration. I feel incredibly grateful for all of them – they have been so generous in doing this show, and it’s definitely not an easy show to do!

CM: Can we talk about you, now? I believe you’re an actor, a writer and a director – do they have equal weighting for you? Or is one more important than the others?
MY: Yes! I’m a writer and an actor – I’ve dabbled in directing before but have definitely put that one on the back-burner for now. I definitely switch between knowing what I want to focus on… it seems to change every day!

But I’ll say that while I can imagine being a writer without being an actor, I don’t think I could ever be an actor without also being a writer. I just love the creativity and braininess that comes with writing. I think I’m really just a bit of a nerd.

In general acting jobs come and go, so I think the consistency that writing brings is really important to me. I also just love talking people’s ears off and telling stories…

CM: Did you always want to work in the arts? How did your career begin?
MY: I discovered writing when I was eight years old and I joined the theatre department at school when I was twelve years old… so yes, I do think I’ve always been inclined to have a career in the arts. I definitely kept myself busy with theatre throughout my teenage years, and had the privilege of attending drama school in London, which is what really started my career.

Growing up, a lot of people told me not to pursue theatre professionally, saying that it would be really difficult and that I would be broke. They definitely weren’t wrong… but I also don’t regret for a single second my decision and I cannot imagine having any other career!

CM: What hopes or ambitions do you have for your career in the future?
MY: I really want to continue telling stories that centre on ESEA women and non-binary people as well as queer ESEA people – one thing I’m especially interested in is telling stories that don’t necessarily focus on trauma, but rather the everyday joys and nothings of being alive. I’d love to work more in comedy and maybe write a sitcom one day.

The other thing I’m really interested in – outside my work as a writer/actor – is improving accessibility in theatre and the arts.

CM: What’s coming up next for you?
MY: I don’t know – are you offering me a job?

I’m joking – next year I’m planning on working with a good friend of mine from my time in Korea on a really exciting project that will take us around Europe and combine different mediums including art, photography, poetry, and writing! And of course, hopefully, ‘Tokyo Rose’ will continue developing!

And this is me manifesting, but I am going to get a dog as well.

‘Tokyo Rose’ is on at Southwark Playhouse from 23 Sep-16 Oct, see this page here for info and to book.

The show is on a UK tour, and is also calling at Curve Theatre Leicester, The North Wall Arts Centre in Oxford, Corn Exchange in Newbury, and Birmingham Hippodrome. See this page here for booking links.

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