by MICHAEL VAN DUZER
an odd coincidence, Waterfall, a new musical featuring a Thai protagonist, has opened in Pasadena at the same time that a revival of The King and I is one of the hottest tickets in New York. But, more striking than that coincidence is the fact that simultaneous productions of two American musicals featuring Thai leading men is nothing short of historic.
Of course, one can’t ignore the ambivalent feelings that the Thai community in particular, and the Asian Pacific Islander community in general, holds towards the venerable Rodgers & Hammerstein musical. Western paternalism and yellowface casting practices are the most frequent criticisms which have been leveled against the 64-year-old show. But the two productions, so far apart in time and cultural understanding, share a surprising number of thematic similarities.
Waterfall began life as a novel by Thai author Sriburapha, called Behind the Painting. This tale of forbidden love was filmed twice and then became a musical by the same title, directed by prominent Thai impresario, Tak Viravan. Viravan’s resume includes his direction of 14 plays and musicals in Thailand, as well as his presentation of international tours there. He has also been a producer on several Broadway shows.
After viewing a tape of the Thai production of Behind the Painting, acclaimed lyricist and director Richard Maltby Jr. (Miss Saigon, Baby, Big) believed the show was an excellent choice for the American market. Working closely with Viravan, Maltby began his adaptation. With a Western audience in mind, he modified the somewhat insular story of Thai aristocrats weighing their passion for one another against their duty to their families, although the idea of an impossible love remained at the work’s core.
Maltby’s book places the love story against the broader political context of the turbulent 1930s. Noppon, a Thai student studying in Japan, falls in love with a married woman. Noppon is enamored of all things American, but these pre-war years see Japan becoming more militaristic and anti-American, while the Thai (still Siamese at that point) absolute monarchy is replaced by a constitutional monarchy under the thumb of a series of military dictators.
An even more vital and substantive change reinvents Noppon’s love interest, Katherine, as an American. Katherine is married to an older Thai diplomat who notices her growing feelings for Noppon. He believes that his age and responsibilities keep him from making her happy, and, knowing that he and Katherine will shortly return to Thailand, he arranges for Noppon to escort her on a one-day excursion into the country. Once they reach the summit of Mount Mitake, Noppon declares his love for Katherine, who initially fights her feelings, but finally surrenders to him at the base of the titular waterfall. The day becomes iconic for both lovers as those brief hours of passion are all they will ever share. A moment in time indelibly etched in their memories.
Maltby, of course, looked to his longtime collaborator, Oscar-winning David Shire, to compose a score for the musical. Armed with the new book, Shire’s lush music and the participation of Viravan as director, they started the search for a regional house in which to try out the work.
As the Artistic Director of the Pasadena Playhouse, Sheldon Epps is deluged with plays and musicals vying for a chance to be produced at the theater. But he is clear that several things made Waterfall stand out from the pack. First, it was the quality of the creative team. It’s not every day that one has the opportunity to premiere a new Maltby and Shire musical. And, while director Viravan was not well-known in America, he would bring an authenticity to the production that others could not. Viravan also enlisted the original Thai designer, Sasavat Busayabandh and the show’s original star, Bie Sukrit, to play Noppon, giving the production a truly international flair.