Currently starring in Broadway Bounty Hunter at Barrington Stage Company in the Berkshires, Scott Watanabe has had a long career as an actor, including roles in Allegiance and The Phantom of the Opera. In the tradition of 8Asians, we asked him eight questions and he offers some sage advice for those who aspire to the stage.
Tell us a little about yourself, e.g. What’s your background? How did you get into acting?
I was born in 1959 in Los Angeles, California to Japanese American parents from Hawaii. I got involved in acting in junior high school, but spent my high school education in instrumental music. I started university in Hospitality Management while working at Disneyland. Then got involved with the “Drama Club” and “Employee Madrigal Singers” at the park and community theatre in Orange County and found that I enjoyed being back in that world and discovered my singing voice. I gave up business school and went back to school earning a BA in Musical Theatre from California State University, Long Beach.
Following graduation I spent six years with the Los Angeles Music Center Opera, and split my time between the opera season and doing musical theatre and summer stock theatre. I’ve been professionally singing/acting for 30 years, ten of those years in various companies of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s The Phantom of the Opera.
How did you decide to make the switch from opera to acting/singing? Or do you still do both?
I was cast in the original Los Angeles production of The Phantom of the Opera in 1992. I had more of a passion for musical theatre than opera so I made the decision to permanently move in that direction in the early 90’s. An opera career would have been limited to “comprimario” (small supporting roles) which were being cast with young artist programs of the individual opera organizations. There was a limited future.
What about your current role in Broadway Bounty Hunter?
Shiro Jin is half Japanese, half Chinese, (at least that is how I justify the half Japanese, half Chinese name). He comes from a family of “bounty hunters” and is the head of his own company. He recruits our protagonist, Annie Golden, to his company and sends her on a mission to capture the notorious, “drug pusher”/“pimp daddy”, Mac Roundtree. Shiro provides the exposition of the musical as he introduces all the characters to Annie and sends her on her journey. It is later revealed that he has his own reasons for this dangerous adventure.
Moving backwards in your career, you were in Allegiance, both in Los Angeles and New York. How did you get involved? What was the experience like for you? Especially following it through its entire tour?
I was fortunate to be cast in the 2012, Old Globe Theatre production of Allegiance in San Diego. The show had been in development for 2 to 3 years before that production including a LORT workshop in the Summer of 2011 in NYC. I had auditioned for that workshop but was not cast. In the Spring of 2012, the show was casting for the Summer/Autumn production at the Old Globe. I was currently in the Las Vegas company of The Phantom of the Opera and flew out to San Diego for an audition. Was offered a part and had to leave Phantom early before its closing in September 2012. Following the Old Globe production, we had a development lab in NYC in the Spring of 2013. Changes were made to reflect what the creative team learned from the SD production. The show sat dormant for the next year and a half as the producers waited for an available Broadway theatre and finally getting a green light in early 2015 for a Fall, 2015 opening.
National auditions were held in March/April and I was fortunate to be able to continue in my ensemble track and cover both Tatsuo, the father of the Kimura family, and George Takei, who played the older version of the protagonist, Sam, and the grandfather.
Despite the long journey the show took to its Broadway debut, it was ultimately, thrilling and satisfying to bring the little know events of the internment of Japanese-Americans in the United States during WWII to the Broadway “musical” stage.
So what role are you most proud of? Alternatively, what has been your favorite part to play?
I was fortunate to play the role of Kayama in the TheatreWorks (Mountain View, CA) production of Stephen Sondheim’s Pacific Overtures. It was a beautiful production and was one of the most challenging but rewarding theatrical experiences.
What made Kayama challenging?
Most of my early career was spent being cast “non-traditionally” in Eurocentric shows. Being fourth-generation American, I identified with those stories and benefited from producers willing to cast an Asian talent in telling those stories. Pacific Overtures allowed me to return to my “roots” and explore my cultural heritage, challenging me to try to be as authentic as I could.
What advice would you give aspiring AAPI actors/actresses/singers?
All the things your Asian parents say: Study hard and strive for excellence.
Be knowledgeable of the canon of shows you will be “traditionally” cast in and explore the roles you wish to be “non-traditionally” cast in. You should prepare for those opportunities long before a casting notice comes up.
If you are planning to go into musical theatre, learn how to dance. A skill I’m woefully inadequate at. This will serve you well in that industry.
While the industry is making slow progress in accepting Asian talent, there will still be less opportunities for you than your non-Asian colleagues. Understand that fact and accept and embrace who you are and what you represent. Keep knocking on doors and putting yourself out there.
Be humble and grateful and most of all, have fun.
What’s next for you after Broadway Bounty Hunter?
I will perform a concert production of HONOR with the Prospect Theatre Company and the National Asian Artists Project. The show is a musical adaptation of Shakespeare’s As You Like It set in feudal Japan. The concert is on Saturday, September 10 in New York City.
And last, what is your favorite Asian comfort food?
I like dim sum.