Sixteen years into its run on Broadway, the musical “Chicago” is trying something new this summer: casting Ryoko Yonekura, one of Japan’s top actresses, in a starring role.
Yonekura will play Roxie Hart, one of the production’s two leads, in English, of course, at its home, the Ambassador Theater, from July 10 to 15. She will be the first Asian actress to star on Broadway since 1958, and the first Asian to portray a non-Asian main character in the heart of the musical theater world.
The 36-year-old, who fell in love with the show after playing the role in its Japanese production in 2008 and 2010, said it was a dream come true.
“I’m so much in love with ‘Chicago’ that I feel I was born to perform in this musical,” Yonekura said in a recent interview with the Asahi Shimbun AJW.
The die-hard fan grabbed the chance to appear in its Broadway production after sending in seven audition tapes of scenes from the musical in English.
“When I first heard the news in early March, I didn’t jump for joy or anything,” Yonekura said. “I absorbed it rather quietly. I pretended I was cool about it, but actually I was so happy that I was in tears.”
The popular musical premiered on Broadway in 1975, and was revived in 1996. It has been performed more than 6,000 times on Broadway and has frequently toured internationally.
Set in 1920s Chicago, the story revolves around two murderesses, Roxie and Velma Kelly, who both dream of success as vaudeville stars. In jail, they compete to win their cases, using everything from bribery and sex to a fake pregnancy to curry favor with a corrupt female warden, a greedy lawyer and the press. The satire is told through vaudeville-inspired dance and music with “All That Jazz” as its signature number.
The Broadway production has invited popular performers to play Roxie, including Michelle Williams, a former member of the rhythm and blues group Destiny’s Child, and pop singer Ashlee Simpson. Hollywood actress Renee Zellweger played the role in the 2002 movie adaptation.
“To me, ‘Chicago’ is perfect. I love the story and never get tired of the music,” Yonekura said. “And I love Roxie. She is cool, sexy and a little bit of a bad ass.
She’s tougher than the men around her, and is perfectly happy to take advantage of them to get what she wants.”
Unlike Roxie, Yonekura was not particularly vocal about her desire to take on the role in New York, she said.
That changed when she met Amra-Faye Wright, a veteran “Velma” actress in the Broadway production. The South African joined her for the 2010 Japanese production, reading lines and singing--all in Japanese.
“After watching Amra challenge herself in Japan, the possibility of me standing on a stage on Broadway became more real,” Yonekura said. “I felt the American production was not so far out of reach.”
It prompted her to “pop the little idea” when she met Broadway producer Barry Weissler and the show’s choreographers.
“I heard Amra was impulsive when she decided to take on the part in Japan, and I can relate to that,” Yonekura said. “There might be language barriers and other obstacles, but those hardships aside, I wanted to follow my heart.”
Yonekura has been rehearsing on her own since last summer when the Broadway production team started asking for audition tapes. She is focusing on memorizing the English lines and pronunciation.
“I am practicing one letter at a time. I ask my (English) teacher to tell me where and in what position my tongue should be in my mouth,” she said.
Besides this language training, Yonekura practices conversation with a member of the Broadway production team via Internet video phone. She acknowledges she has a way to go. “I wish I could express myself better,” she said.
The actress said she hated high school English classes. In high school, she got a 2 in English on a scale of 1 to 5, after notching a 5 in junior high.
“I can speak English better when I am drinking,” she laughed.
She enjoys acting in English, though.
“Once I learn them, it’s easier to read the lines in English, because it’s the original language they were written in,” she said. “For example, Japanese are not used to saying ‘I love you,’ but I can easily say that in English in ‘Chicago.’ ”
Does she say “I love you” to her lover in real life? “Not really,” Yonekura chuckled.
The slender actress, with 15 years of ballet training, started as a model when she was 17. She became popular as she appeared in numerous TV dramas, often portraying cool, career-oriented characters.
Yonekura tried to play down her upcoming “Chicago” adventure, saying, “Whatever I do is considered such big deal in Japan, but in America, it wouldn’t be.”
However, she will be the first Asian actress to tackle a lead role on Broadway since Nancy Umeki appeared in “Flower Drum Song” in 1958.
After this, her fans may expect to see her in Hollywood movies. “No way,” she said.
“I wanted to go where ‘Chicago’ was born,” Yonekura said. “There have been many different portrayals of Roxie by many actresses. My Roxie will be pretty orthodox. I hope the New York audience likes it.”
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