BWW Interview: Thea Kano of HOW TO SUCCEED at Gay Men's Chorus of DC
The Gay Men's Chorus of Washington, DC's LGBT themed production of the classic musical "How To Succeed In Business Without Really Trying" will premiere at the Lincoln Theatre in DC on March 10, 11 & 12, 2017 at located at 1215 U Street NW. This is the first LGBT production of "How To Succeed" to date. Famous songs like "I Believe in You," "Happy to Keep His Dinner Warm" and "Brotherhood of Man." all appear in their original composition, just with a little more glitter!
How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying tells the story of J. Pierrepont Finch and his rise to the top of the corporate ladder with the aid of a simple self-help book. Along the way, he learns how to find your name on the executive door and win the secretary's heart quicker than you can say "nepotism."
I had an absolutely wonderful conversation with the show's director and the organization's artistic director Thea Kano about her background and why this production is so important.
Christopher Castanho: Having a background in the performing arts- playing piano and studying ballet since you were young, what was your most memorable artistic experience growing up?
Thea Kano: Oh my gosh, where do I start? [Laughs] I was studying ballet, tap, auditioning for the musicals at my middle school/high school, I also studied piano. I knew this was what I wanted to do when my Mom took me to New York when I was in middle school, and we saw matinees and a show every night. One of the first shows I saw was "Dreamgirls", we sat sixth-row center, Jennifer Holiday's spit was flying at us. Then we saw "A Chorus Line", being a dancer and seeing Cassie's role I thought "Ugh I wanna be her!" Theatre and singing were just things I knew I wanted in my life. Ever since I saw those big shows I got the bug and I've never recovered!
CC: When did you become the Artistic Director for The Gay Men's Chorus of DC? How did you become involved?
TK: I'm in my third season as the artistic director, I had been an assistant conductor there for ten years before I got this position. In 2004 I was finishing grad school at UCLA and a friend of mine who sings with the LA Gay Men's Chorus heard I was applying for jobs, he knew there was an opening here in DC for a conductor, and I'm a California girl- Washington DC was the last thing on my mind and I said to him "What would they want with me?" But I sent my resume and the rest is history! So I actually started part-time as a conductor for the first couple years and then added more responsibilities, became full time, and then when my predecessor announced he was leaving early 2014 and I thought 'Huh, I'll throw my hat in the ring.' This is my thirteenth season with the chorus
CC: What's it like to be the first female and heterosexual artistic director of the Gay Men's Chorus of Washington DC?
TK: Right?! It's humbling, that's the first word that always comes to mind. Even in the past years that I've been with the chorus, humbling is always the first word I think of. I'm always thinking "How did I get so lucky?" and I really mean that. Just like any job it's frustrating and you work hard for the product, but at the end of the day I am the luckiest person in the world. It's a huge honor to have the opportunity to make a difference with music and theatre especially when championing equality.
CC: It's so cool to see all of the different kinds of performances and outreach that your organization does. It's really inspiring, as a gay person in the arts it's something I think so highly of. You mentioned using the power of theatre, when was the first time you started directing musicals?
TK: After I graduated from college my first job was teaching at an arts high school in Los Angeles. I was both the chorus director and the music director for the musicals that we did. For many years the drama director and I would co-direct instead of having the stage direction and music direction be separated. So I was able to start then. Then when I came to Washington and started with the Gay Men's Chorus I also started teaching at the Capitol Hills Arts Workshop and I directed their summer youth Music Theatre camp. Which is camp in all forms you can imagine, kids all day long, and I did a MTI junior series with "Guys and Dolls JR" and "Into the Woods JR", it was a lot of fun. That was when I completely started directing shows. Originally John Moran was the director of this production and I was the music director, but unfortunately he passed away suddenly in December. He had been with the chorus for thirty years and we had literally lost a family member. I slept on it over the holidays thinking "How am I going to find a director with such a short amount of time?" Someone who recognizes the caliber of our work and maintain the integrity of John's vision. John and I programmed the show a year ago, we already had auditions, we already cast the show, had our first read through, it was a difficult proposal to have a director come in under those circumstances. So I thought "Why don't I do the stage direction?" and I asked our pianist to step into the music direction role. When we programmed this show a year ago I was not going to be the director at the time, but I decided to do it. I asked one of our members to be our co-director: Eric Peterson, he is an actor and has a lot of directing experience, he's helping a lot with character development. Having lost John, there's been such a beautiful team effort. When we all came back after the holidays we just locked arms, we are really taking care of each other and making it happen. It's been fantastic.
CC: It sounds like there's such a wonderful family dynamic, and I can't even imagine how daunting that must have been losing such a big part of the creative team. But I'm glad that it's being handled in a loving and collaborative way.
TK: Exactly! We're such a family oriented group of people, who are all trying to maintain John's vision of the show. Unfortunately, he and I didn't have all of the conversations that I would've liked, but a lot of it is following my own instincts and while I haven't recently directed musicals here I have been assisting on a lot of them in the past. Whenever we do a show here there has to be a beginning, middle, and an end with costumes, lights, and sets. So I'm definitely not brand new to this, but it's coming together really beautifully.
CC: You touched upon John's vision for the piece, how does the original story of "How to Succeed" lend itself to the LGBTQ spin that is being put on the show?
TK: It's a predominantly male cast, we have a few women in the chorus, a couple walk-on roles; Wendy Rieger of NBC News is going to be our TV announcer during the show. She's actually been the emcee for our spring fundraiser for a couple years now, so it's nice she can be a part of it. We're not changing the script, as we're not licensed to do that, but one of the main character's name is Rosemary- yes we have a man, playing a man and dressed as a man named Rosemary. We haven't changed the pronouns but in gay culture it's not unusual for a male to be referred to as a 'she' like "Hey girl!" So what's fun is that throughout the whole show it works, in the beginning the audience might have to wrap their head around the fact that a man is being referred to as a 'she' or 'Rosemary' but after a while it just works because it's part of the gay culture. Also the president of the company Biggley is having an affair with this beautiful secretary, who's being played by this very beautiful man. So when Biggley is on the phone with his wife it adds an extra layer of cheating on his wife because it's also with a male secretary. We haven't changed the script, but the fact that we have men playing what would have been female roles, there's inherent LGBT themes. One thing we're trying to avoid is putting an obvious time stamp on the show, it was originally written in 1960, so the costumes are not unified in a time period which I think is great. Telephones can give more of time period, so we're not using cell phones or rotary dials. We're really trying to keep it multigenerational.
CC: How To Succeed" is not the GMC's first LGBTQ themed production, you all did "Grease" in 2005, what makes this show stand out versus the rest of the productions you've collaborated on or seen here?
TK: When we programmed this, what we were looking for is--we hadn't done a musical in a while. One challenge of doing a book musical is that we have 330+ members, and any given time when we do a show we'll have 160-200 members audition. We can't do "The Fantasticks", because the cast size is too small and we have too many members who should be in it. "How to Succeed" was high on our list to produce because you can have as many secretaries and executives running around the office and still maintaining the integrity of the original story, while also working with our LGBT theme that we wanted to add to it. Especially when we had that crazy political storm brewing, who knew that it would end up the way it did...It's ironic that we are doing a show about a man who works his way up the ladder with no experience, and gets the job. [Laughs] So that alone makes our production relevant with the spin that we're putting on it. It's not that incredibly different from our shows that we've done, but different in a sense that this is the first time that this show has been interpreted in the way we are performing it. There is also one role we're doing in drag, which is Miss Jones. Her character is this silent thunder, being Biggley's assistant who is actually running the show. Our actor is 6'4" is barefoot, putting on those heels and wig, she's going to kill it during her eleven o'clock and her solo in another number "Brotherhood of Man".
CC: I read that you believe music has a strong power to nurture individuals and feel strongly that classical music should be accessible to all, how do you personally relate in making art more accessible for all people?
TK: What we at the Gay Men's Chorus of DC have learned over the years is that we make music accessible by bringing it to folks. Most of the time people can't come to our show because they physically can't get there or financially get there. There might be a cultural divide, maybe there's a young teen being bullied because he's just come out. The way to reach people like that is having our programming reflect diversity and inclusivity. We have several ensembles who travel out, taking our music to community centers, churches, so we can reach people and for them to see what we do, we have so much diverse repertoire. Next season one of the shows is going to be themed around diversity. The material is going to be cross-cultural: with South American countries, having a lot of Spanish songs. This is me personally responding to the concept of 'building a wall' and saying let's focus on 'building bridges' between these communities. A show in June of 2018 will be supporting the transgender community, bringing in a vocal ensemble for Los Angeles to be our guest and shed some light and education for folks who still don't understand the Trans community. Helping focus on the T in LGBT. I think that art and music can help open hearts and change minds, and that's why I do this.
Ticket prices range from $25 to $65 and can be purchased by calling 1-877-435-9849, online at GMCW.org or in person at the 9:30 Club box office, located at 815 V Street NW. Box office hours are 12-7pm Monday to Friday.
The production will be directed by GMCW Artistic Director Thea Kano, with music direction by Jason Sherlock, and choreography by Craig Cipollini. The concept for this version is by the late John Moran.
The Gay Man's Chorus of Washington, DC is celebrating its 36th season by a selection of dynamic and socially relevant material. Having over 250 singing members, two vocal ensembles, 100 support volunteers, 400 subscribers, 500 donors, and an annual audience of 10,000 they have made quite the impact on the DC artistic community.