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Seattle by David-Edward Hughes

Interview with
Christine Toy Johnson

Christine Toy JohnsonI first became acquainted with the versatile and charming Christine Toy Johnson a few years back. My old friend Ann Harada (now knocking 'em dead on Broadway in the hit musical Avenue Q) invited me to attend a cabaret show called A Tribute to Julie & Carol at Carnegie Hall at Manhattan's Triad, featuring Christine as Julie Andrews and Ann as Carol Burnett. No less than Carol Burnett herself - who graciously asked to attend a dress rehearsal - was as impressed as I was by the way this pair of talented ladies paid tribute to their idols, not by imitation but through their own unique talents.

Christine has a vast range of credits, from two Off-Broadway Sondheim revivals (Merrily We Roll Along and Pacific Overtures), roles in such films as L.I.E. and Conspiracy Theory, and primetime TV roles on such shows as "Law & Order SVU," "Grounded For Life," and "Crossing Jordan." She also is recognizable from her run as Detective Lisa West, the only Asian-American character on ABC daytime's "One Life to Live," a job that vanished when the show changed producers, but it won her an Ammy award nomination (given by A magazine to Asian American actors).

Flower Drum SongWhen I learned Christine would be playing the role of Madame Rita Liang in the tour of Robert Longbottom's Broadway revival of Flower Drum Song, I wanted very much to interview this spirited, multi-talented Asian American actress, who keeps breaking down stereotyped casting through anti-discrimination advocacy.

DEH:  Welcome to Talkin' Broadway, Christine!

CTJ:  Thanks! We are so excited about coming to Seattle.

DEH:  How long has the tour been out on the road?

CTJ:  We just opened in Dallas on September 2nd and played sixteen shows there. And then we had a three-week break. Actually, it's been nice because we rehearsed for five weeks in New York, and then did the two weeks. Everybody worked hard for the big opening, and then we got a little break.

DEH:  And the reception for Flower Drum Song in Dallas?

CTJ:  It was fantastic! It was a very large theatre - the Dallas Summer musicals at the Music Hall has 3,400 seats. It's always great to reach that many people per performance, but it's very large, and the show is beautiful and flashy, but I think being in the back of the house you don't get to see as much. Because of the law of physics, or something. But it was very, very full and we had standing ovations every night, which Michael Jenkins the lead producer and producer of Dallas Summer musicals said was not that common.

They got letters from people who were so moved by the show. In one instance, Michael saw a family in the lobby and they were sobbing, so he went over to make sure they were all right. They said they had been so moved by the opening of the show, with the escape from China by some of the characters, and it was the same way they had come to America. It really hit them so profoundly.

DEH:  I think the opening and closing sections of the show are the most captivating and emotional portions of this revised Flower Drum Song.

CTJ:  One of things that is so wonderful about David Henry Hwang's book is that it addresses Asian American issues in a way that has never been done before in a big Broadway musical. What resounds for all of us in the cast is playing Asian Americans, whether second generation or first generation. This is not something that has really existed much in musical theatre. Many of the cast's parents have had journeys similar to Mei-Li's. David Henry Hwang's book tells so much history in a short period of time, along with the romance of the story. I think that's why this version of the show has touched people in a different way.

DEH:  How did you become a part of the show?

CTJ:  About a year ago, one of the associate directors actually talked to me about being a future replacement. The role was actually written for Jodi Long; ahe is a friend of the playwright and as I understand it, the role was always written with her in mind. But when they were talking about who else eventually might play the show if it had a long run on Broadway, my name had come up. So when I heard the tour was on, I let them know I was available. I had spent a lot of time in L.A. last year, and when they called to see me, I had to come back to New York, which they arranged. And that was it. Not really a very dramatic story.

DEH:  You came, they saw, you were hired.

CTJ:  Yes, and it's really been a love-fest. This cast is so close. We're often at dinner in a group of twenty-five. Even now, we're on break and we email each other every day. The show means a lot to each one of us in different ways, and as an Asian American cast we share different bonds. It's just a very happy group of people.

DEH:  The role of Madame Rita Liang is a brash, sharp, wordily woman, about a million miles away from some of your past roles like Maria in West Side Story, or Sister Leo in Nunsense and Nunsense 2. It's very, sort of, well Eve Arden.

CTJ:  Exactly. As I was working on it, I started hearing Rosalind Russell's voice. That's really different for me, and it's been a great challenge to play. I've had the good fortune to play all these beautiful leading lady roles or, as I say, the girl who falls in love. I still get to fall in love, but the character is very different in energy than the other roles I've played. I've really enjoyed it, because it's always good to have a new kind of viewpoint. To see through the characters eyes in a different way.

DEH:  And vocally?

CTJ:  It's funny because as a soprano I have done all these really high roles: Cunegonde, Maria, Julie Jordan, and Maria in West Side. But the show I did right before this was a production of Crazy For You in L.A. as Irene, and that was the first time I really belted in a role. It was really fun. It's a whole different part of my voice that I don't really use in musicals. The voice of this character in Flower Drum Song is lower and louder, so it's fun to do. The orchestrations in this show are so fantastic, and the Rodgers and Hammerstein score is this great old-fashioned musical theatre score.

Of course they've mixed it all up. If people know the original Broadway show or the movie, be advised that different characters are singing the songs than they're used to. But it is so great, and our leading lady, Yuuka Takara is just stunning in this. Her energy has warmed all of us. You have no choice but to love her from the second she walks on stage. Yuka was Lea Salonga's second understudy from Broadway; she got to go on once. And we have several others from the Broadway show, Jose Llana, Alvin Ing, Allen Liu, and our Linda, Emily Hsu understudied Sandra Allen. James Saito is my partner on stage as Sammy. He was in Golden Child in Seattle. He is fantastic; we've known each other a long tine and we just have a lot of fun onstage. We are both looking forward to being back in Seattle. We talk in terms of what types of food we are going to have. Our company LOVES to eat. We are looking forward to that and Nordstrom.

DEH:  Sounds like you are in a happy place right now.

Ann Harada, Carol Burnett, and ChristineCTJ:  With this show, absolutely. It's like when I've worked with Ann and our director Alan Muraoka on Julie & Carol, and Off-Broadway in Falsettoland. Those were self-produced, but they were blessings, and I don't take them for granted. And with this, not to go on and on, but this is a blessing, too. Not every day you have a job that you absolutely love and you believe in the story, and enjoy going to work every day. I feel really, really lucky!

DEH:  I was happily surprised to note in your credits that you had played Ethel Toffelmeier in The Music Man on Broadway. How did that wonderful bit of non-traditional casting happen?

CTJ:  Another big joy in my life. I got the job on Election Day 2001. I was doing a workshop at that time of Heading East, another Asian American musical by the very talented Robert Lee and Leon Ko. Out of the blue I got the call for The Music Man. And I thought, "Ethel Toffelmeier???? OK, I'll go!" I knew it wasn't being done in the traditional way, that Susan Stroman had conceived her not as a heavyset older woman, but as this babe in town who made Marcellus want to stick around. It was really fun. That Close to 9/11, it was so great to be in a musical that really celebrated America. The finale with the American flag dropping in the background was so powerful.

I did an interview right after that, I was directing something, and a journalist said to me "Let's talk about how it's possible that you were in The Music Man on Broadway. I mean it's such an all-American show, and I'm looking at your picture, and you clearly look Asian." I was just so stunned ... I said "I can't believe a journalist is even asking me to address this! I consider myself to BE all-American." Needless to say, I never read the interview. I thought we had come farther than that.

DEH:  We still have a long way to go, it appears.

CTJ:  Some people try to say that the majority of audiences are Caucasian and we have to give them what we think they want. Then you really look out in the audience and you see that it's a multi-cultural audience, drawn from our multicultural society, enjoying all kinds of different stories about all kinds of different people. And I can't help but find that heartening.

DEH:  Where does Flower Drum Song go onto after Seattle?

CTJ:  We have two weeks in Sacramento and then another long break 'til January when we go to Houston. It was originally supposed to be this very long tour and then it got shortened, and now they are trying to add cities next year. Michael Jenkins is very committed to this show and he's invited a lot of presenters to see us. It's a great job that I love, and we hope to tell the story in more cities. So, we'll see!

Flower Drum Song runs Oct 7 - Oct 26 at The 5th Avenue Theatre, 1308 5th Avenue, in downtown Seattle between Union and University Streets. For further information go to their web-site at www.5thavenuetheatre.org.

Photographs: Headshot by Bruce Johnson, Flower Drum Song image by Leon Le, and photo of Ann Harada, Carol Burnett, and Christine by Steven Bergman.




- David-Edward Hughes



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