When I got the call from my agent that I was being offered the role of Ito, the Japanese manservant, in the recent revival of Mame at Washington, D.C.'s Kennedy Center, it was a mixed blessing.
On the plus side, there was the cast. I knew that Christine Baranski (Tony-winner for The Real Thing and Rumors) was going to play Mame, the eccentric, kind-hearted, wealthy socialite. And I knew that Harriet Harris (currently in the mega-hit "Desperate Housewives") was cast as the mega-diva Vera Charles, and that Emily Skinner (who was amazing as one of the Hilton sisters in Sideshow) had signed on as the quirky and hysterical Agnes Gooch. I couldn't think of a more powerful and exciting lineup than this one. I have been in awe of these three women for years. Furthermore, there hadn't been a revival of the show since 1983, so theatre fans were chomping at the bit to see a new version of it.
But then there was the challenge of the role of Ito itself. Most people are familiar with Ito from the 1958 Rosalind Russell non-musical film Auntie Mame. In the film, he is played as an effeminate, shuffling servant, giggling into his hands like a geisha. He is an Asian "Stepin Fetchit," with nothing remotely Japanese about him--and which, of course, he is supposed to be. Frankly, the portrayal is so offensive to me that I have trouble watching that otherwise fine film.
For Asian Americans, this type of stereotypical character is what we have been striving to change for years. But they still seem to pop up in both movies and television. So there is a stigma associated with the role of Ito. An Asian-American actress friend of mine calls it "that role," as in, "You're not going to do that role, are you?"
I knew that in order to change the role, I would need the director and creative staff to be open to a new interpretation. But would they be on board with such a radical change? And would a new interpretation even work with the script? Was the comedy of this character dependent on his subservience? Was the giggle needed to make Ito complete?
I also knew that I had been offered the part on the basis of my audition, in which I tried a new tack. My take on Ito is that he's a cross between Rosario from "Will & Grace" and Toshiro Mifune--with a little of my grandfather thrown in for good measure. This Ito would be more wry, understated, and definitely more masculine. Very Japanese, very guttural. But would this fly? And would anyone find it funny at all?
With so many questions flooding my addled brain, my first step was to pick up the script to reread it--to see what was on the page, as opposed to the images from the past that gave me that Pavlovian shudder. I was surprised to find absolutely nothing objectionable to Ito. Sure, he had an accent, but that didn't bother me. That would have been historically accurate. And the humor in Ito's role doesn't come from his misplaced "l's" and "r's," which it does so often when bad writers get hold of Asian characters.
What I discovered was that Ito was actually a valuable cog in the mechanics of Mame's life. He was chef, butler, chauffeur and organizer of the household. He also was the male influence in the house, and helped in the raising of 10-year-old Patrick Dennis. And, most important, Mame considered him a beloved member of the family. She treated him with nothing but fondness and respect, which was completely in tune with her progressive lifestyle.
AND THAT GOT ME TO WONDERING about how the actor who originated the role of Ito in the 1966 Broadway musical production of Mame approached the role. Were the issues that I had with the depiction of the role his issues as well?
Well, the actor who originated the role of Ito in the musical is Sab Shimono, and I had the privilege of working with him in the 2005 Broadway revival of Pacific Overtures. (He also was in the original 1976 Broadway company of Pacific Overtures.) Shimono was a role model for me when I got into the business, and he continues to be to this day. Why not call him and ask him about his experience with Ito and Mame?
ALAN MURAOKA: How did Mame come about for you back in 1966?
SAB SHIMONO: Actually, it was the fall of '65. I had just finished acting school, so, you know, I was doing Shakespeare, Tennessee Williams, Bertolt Brecht and all that! The reason I went to New York was to be a trained actor. I believed that in order to do other roles--roles other than Asian ones (this is how naive I was)--you had to have good training. Of course, when I got into it, I learned that you're typecast already by ... well, you know. So I get a call from my agent about this audition.
Did you have to sing for the audition?
(Laughs.) You know, when I was studying with Stella Adler, we had a musical comedy showcase for actors, and I did this song called "Get Me to the Church on Time" from My Fair Lady. And Stella Adler said, "Good. Wonderful. Now do it with an accent." "Accent? What kind of an accent?" "A Japanese accent." I was furious. Here I was trying to be a Shakespearean actor, an American actor, and she was asking me to do that. I didn't even know how to do a Japanese accent. But she made me do it. She said, "No, no, do it, because you're a character actor." So I did it with an accent for the showcase. Well, less then a year later, I sang the same song with the accent for that Mame audition. And it got me the job.
So in essence you have Stella Adler to thank for getting you the role.
Yeah, really! She was right. She got me to think about what it is to be a Japanese person singing a song. She helped me get this character going, and she forced me to learn the accent. I was definitely prepared for the audition thanks to her.
I sang "Sam You Made the Pants Too Long" with a Japanese accent for my audition. I figured, "What's the most absurd thing for a Japanese-speaking person to sing?" And the answer, of course, was a Barbra Streisand tune. Now, were there a lot of people up for the role of Ito? I'm sure you knew everyone who was in the room with you, right?
I did see Yuki Shimoda. As I came in, he was leaving and I said, "Oh, my God, I don't have it," because he did the original Auntie Mame--the play and the film with Rosalind Russell. I was sure he was what they wanted--and what I saw on the screen is not what I wanted to do. It just bugged the shit out of me. Especially his giggling. His Ito was a little too effete for me.
That is word-for-word what I say about the movie portrayal. I'm lucky in that our director, Eric Schaeffer, is smart enough to know that that interpretation wouldn't fly today. The whole concept of the giggle deprives the character of any masculinity. But you're proof that Ito didn't have to do that. Were there other incidents where you had to fight for your interpretation?
No, I think after the giggling discussion, I sort of established that this is the way Sab is going to go--without the giggle. I had to invent my own style, and I think they respected my space there.
I'm sure you brought the kind of dignity that you wanted the character to have.
Well, I don't know about dignity (laughter).
Work with me, Sab! I like to think of you as a dignified actor! It's interesting to me how during the late '50s and early '60s there wasn't as much political awareness, so a portrayal like that didn't offend as much. That was the same era as Mickey Rooney's portrayal of the Japanese neighbor in Breakfast at Tiffany's.
That was ... awful! You know, I was offered that part in the musical version of Breakfast at Tiffany's, but thank God I didn't do it.
Thank God you didn't because it lasted, what, three performances?
Yeah. But, in Mame, Gene Saks was our director. He's an actor's director, and even though it was a musical comedy, he wanted truth. Besides, I had a chance to work with Angela Lansbury, Bea Arthur and Jane Connell, and I was just out of acting school. Observing their discipline and their professionalism for two years was a wonderful training experience.
SAB SHIMONO AND I WENT ON TO compare enthusiastic notes about actresses in our respective productions. As for my decision to accept the role, I think it was a wise one. The jury is still out on whether my interpretation was valid, and I'm sure there were some still offended. But I found a person in Ito, where there once was just a shell and a stereotype. And a role that I first looked at with trepidation is now one that I love.
Alan Muraoka will direct Asian Americans on Broadway: Opening Doors at San Francisco's Alcazar Theatre Oct. 13-14, before returning as Alan on "Sesame Street."…