Tom Pinkerton - The Ballad of Butterfly's Son

June 30, 2013

At the end of Puccini’s opera Madama Butterfly, the three-year-old son of Cio-Cio and B.F. Pinkerton is whisked away to America to be raised by Pinkerton and his American wife, Kate, even as Cio-Cio lies dying from a self-inflicted wound. This riveting and dramatic conclusion to Puccini’s beloved opera has inspired a new musical drama that I’ve created in collaboration with playwright Hiro Kanagawa.

Tom Pinkerton: The Ballad of Butterfly’s Son is set twenty years after this climactic event, when Tom is twenty-three.  We begin in Newport, Rhode Island in the year 1905. Since we’re proceeding as if the events in Madama Butterfly actually happened, it’s historically clear that treaty-port brides and samurai warriors ended around 1885, not where Puccini wanted them to be. Tom Pinkerton begins in 1905 as Japan has beaten the Russians at war and emerged as a military and industrial powerhouse in the early years of the 20th Century.

For me, Tom Pinkerton began in August 2006, when out of the blue I got an email from my old friend Hiro Kanagawa. We’d kept up since he’d received his MFA from Simon Fraser University in 1994 and I’d sponsored his candidacy. He had proved to be a brilliant mind and outstanding artist and he was searching for a composer to write the sequel to Madama Butterfly with him. What a great idea, I thought!

He sent me the script of his first draft and I was immediately struck by its potential. The first draft (called Trouble and Joy – a play with music) showed a story and characters rich in invention and intrigue (while mirroring details from Puccini/Belasco Butterfly), and possessing contemporary relevance because Tom is of mixed race and it’s a serious issue in his narrative. There was no music yet, of course, but there were bits of lyrics here and there, and places where songs could go.

Immediately, I said yes to Hiro, yes I wanted to work with him on this. (I’m always on the lookout for great librettos and here one landed right in my lap...) Yes, I wanted to magnify his creations with music that would take audiences beyond Butterfly and into our contemporary imaginations in a story about identity and race while continuing the narrative that began that fateful day of Cio-Cio’s suicide – the day that Kate Pinkerton brought young Tom into her marriage with the Captain. The day Kate became a mother.

But I wanted to expand the show to create an opera-sized score, not just ditties here and there. So I pitched the idea to Hiro that we expand his “play with music” into a full-fledged musical drama, a fusion of opera and musical theatre by using opera singers and musical theatre singers along with an opera chorus and a pit orchestra. I wanted our show to engage and respect its Puccini roots while becoming its own self – a contemporary musical drama that could stand on its own as the sequel to Madama Butterfly that would be called Tom Pinkerton.

To my delight, and after due diligence listening to my music, he said yes to this vision and in September 2006, together we accepted a commission from Rumble Productions to create Tom Pinkerton, The Ballad of Butterfly’s Son. Gratefully, the idea received funding from the City of Vancouver Office of Cultural Affairs and the Martha Lou Henley Charitable Foundation. We were on our way.

We worked feverishly for the next year, pushing each other harder and harder, sculpting the show into something we could be proud of. It was an intense time and as we hit the final climactic scenes in August, the heat of the summer and the drama of the story boiled over and we had to meet face to face a few times to clarify things. With generosity abounding, we kept going - riding out the storm. By October 2007, we had written 130 minute show with 100 minutes of music and we were ready to go into workshop. Whew!

Hiro let me cast the December 2007 workshop because I was looking for certain kinds of singers for each of the principals. From the beginning of this process, we’ve been fortunate to have Alessandro Juliani as Tom. Not only is he an outstanding actor with a beautiful baritone voice, but also he has superb sight-reading skills (says this grateful composer!). Tom is in nearly every scene, so it’s important that we have someone charismatic in the role. Alessandro fits the bill perfectly! And in real life, with his European father and Asian mother, he is mixed race, as is Tom.

Gracious, thoughtful, rigorous and fun, we worked the show from top to bottom with an outstanding cast led by Alessandro that included Andy Toth as Yuji (tenor), Tracy Neff as Nanami (soprano), Jonathan Winsby as Yoshimoto (baritone), Barbara Towell as Kate/Suzuki (mezzo soprano), and baritone David Adams as Pinkerton/Sharpless. (Pinkerton appears only once and he doesn’t sing.) The chorus included Heather Pawsey, Katherine Landry, Matt Stephanson, Michael Mori and Patti Allan as The Chanteuse. Kinza Tyrrell was music director, Rachel Ditor directed and Chris Allan stage managed.

An enthralled audience packed Canadian Memorial Church on December 14, 2007 to hear the first full performance of Tom Pinkerton in a concert performance. Following the performance, there was great excitement among the audience that indeed, we are onto something with this. “It was only a matter of time until you get a production”, said the theatre prophets.

Rumble Productions had commissioned Tom Pinkerton and they had produced the workshop. But the show had over-grown their small company and they passed on producing it. It would be a huge financial risk that simply couldn’t be borne by the company and we agreed with their decision.

Hiro and I were free to pitch it. We sent it to every big theatre in Canada and entered it into every competition. Many of those scripts/scores disappeared into oblivion but in 2012, Tom Pinkerton was recognized when it was shortlisted for the new prize of Best Musical (unproduced) by the Playwrights Guild of Canada.

Today is June 30, 2013. For the last four days (June 25-28, 2013), Tom Pinkerton has been the Featured Musical in development at the In Tune Conference – Creating the Great Canadian Musical co-sponsored by Touchstone Theatre and The Arts Club Theatre Company in Vancouver, Canada. Co-curated by Katrina Dunn and Rachel Ditor, In Tune is trying to build a national strategy around the development of Music Theatre in Canada. Naturally, both Hiro and I are thrilled to be part of that mission with Tom Pinkerton.

Working with outstanding Canadian director/dramaturge Robert McQueen (currently based in New York) and a talented, dream cast of actor/singers including the excellent Alessandro Juliani as Tom, Sam Chung as Yuji, Dionne Sellinger as Kate, Kazumi Evans as Nanami and David Adams as Pinkerton/Sharpless, along with music director David Boothroyd, we held a workshop of the Prologue and the first three scenes culminating in a public presentation at the Arts Club Revue Stage on Friday, June 28, 2013. It was a grand success! Influential people were in attendance. People who know other people. Maybe we’ll get a production.

Perhaps. But more importantly, we made changes to the show that are good for the show. Cuts. Cuts to the score and book. Rearranging some dialogue. Clarifying things. For us, for the characters, for the audience. The first act flows better now. And the new song for Tom called In Between is a good addition to the score.

But a pattern is emerging: why does it take so long to get a new musical theatre work to the stage?



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