The Japanese première of The Pirate Queen played between 28 November and the 25 December 2009 at the Imperial Theatre in Tokyo before transferring to the Umeda Arts Theatre, Osaka from 1 January to 11 January 2010. It was produced by the renowned theatre company Toho. Western musicals are immensely popular in Japan, especially those by Boublil and Schönberg. They had no less than four musicals playing in Japan in 2009!
Western musicals are always translated into Japanese. For The Pirate Queen, first the script was literally translated by Mie Kakigahara and then lyric writer, Machiko Ryu had to discover how to make the songs work in Japanese. It is a particularly difficult process because the Japanese language requires more syllables to express something than English does, for example, the Japanese word for ‘I’ has three syllables. So it is much harder to get the full meaning of a song into the fixed beats of music which has been written for English or even French words.
In conversation with Mie, she told me that at first she had some concerns that a Japanese audience may not fully understand the historical context. But then she realised that the conflict for women in a male dominated world would be very familiar to them. The traditional role of women being expected to bear children and be at home all the time was something they could understand very well indeed and it was something that Japanese women had long been fighting against.
Japanese productions run rather differently from those in the West where long runs are the norm. It dates back from the Kabuki days when everything was run for one month and then put away. So now a new production will run for only one or two months and then be ‘put in the fridge’ so to speak and, if successful, be revived the following year with the same cast or with a few replacements. Quite often the shows will have two simultaneous casts with matinees every day as well as evening performances. This was not the case with The Pirate Queen, but there were an amazing 10 performances a week in an 1800-seat theatre.
Theatre critics, working for newspapers and magazines are much less influential in Tokyo than in London or New York. They seem to spend much of the review telling the story and mentioning a few performances without giving any decisive opinions as to whether the reader should see the show or not. The popularity of the show is almost solely dependant on word of mouth recommendations, which often result in sell out performances.
In Japan you don’t have the same tourist audience as London and New York, where there are many English speaking tourists. In Tokyo not many foreign visitors will see Japanese language productions of Western musicals. However, from a personal point of view and knowing the show well, I found that language was no barrier at all and thoroughly enjoyed such an amazing production. It was just wonderful to hear again the haunting, ethereal cry of the lone whistle and the rhythmic heartbeat of the hard shoe Irish dance, which, together with the powerful melodies and strong, emotional storyline, make an unforgetable evening. The director of Les Misérables, John Caird, seeing the show for the first time on the opening night, clearly loved it and described it as being ‘like a joyous folk opera’.
The staging of this production was somewhat different from the Broadway one. The sets had some different physical structures, most notably the complete prow of the ship and a complex set of masts, rigging and sails. The use of a revolve enabled the ship to turn on the stage and so provide intriguingly different aspects to the action.
Another important feature was that the orchestra was placed at the back of the stage, almost out of sight. In the Chicago and Broadway productions Claude-Michel had wanted musicians to be able to play on stage from time to time but this had proved logistically impossible when the orchestra was in the pit. However, in this production it was easy for individual musicians to play at the front of the stage, either on their own, to great effect, or as an integral part of the cast, playing a fiddle at the wedding, for example.
Among the Japanese cast and dancers were four very talented, young European IrishDancers: Noreen Boyle, Brian Shinners and Ciaran Dillon from Ireland and ConorO’Sullivan from Birmingham. They were clearly having a ball and enjoying this exciting new experience of working on a Japanese production. Brian Shinners, playing the Bodhrán drum in amidst the other Irish dancers gave additional vibrancy and real authenticity, particularly to the ‘Boys’ll Be Boys’ scene. Carol Leavy-Joyce choreographed the Irish dances quite brilliantly and found the Japanese cast extraordinarily hard-working in learning the Irish dances. Alain Boublil called Irish Dance the lynchpin of the show – the perfect expression of the soul of the Irish – graceful and grounded, sweet and violent.
This production, innovatively directed by Yamada Kazuya, had a stellar cast, many of whom have played leading roles in previous Japanese productions of Les Misérables and Miss Saigon. The stunning performance of Hosaka Chizu as Grace O’Malley was well matched by the enormously popular musical theatre star Yamaguchi Yuichiro as Tiernan. Equally impressive were Queen Elizabeth (Suzukaze Mayo), Dubhdara (Imai Kiyotaka) and Donal (Miyakawa Hiroshi), while Ishikawa Zen most effectively brought a touch of Kabuki extravagance to the role of Bingham.