By J.K.YAMAMOTO, Rafu Staff Writer
Nobuko Miyamoto is as busy as ever with her Los Angeles-based multicultural arts organization, Great Leap, but this past year she also took some time to celebrate the 50th anniversary of “West Side Story.”
The Academy Award-winning 1961 movie version of the stage musical, a modern-day version of “Romeo and Juliet,” was about two feuding New York gangs, the all-white Jets and the all-Puerto Rican Sharks, and an ill-fated romance between Tony (Richard Beymer), the best friend of the Jets’ leader, and Maria (Natalie Wood), the younger sister of the Sharks’ leader.
Known at the time as Joanne Miya, Miyamoto played Francisca, the girlfriend of one of the Sharks, and performed in all of the Sharks’ musical numbers, including “I Feel Pretty.”
“Our Story: Jets and Sharks, Then and Now,” has just been published. Each chapter was written by one of the surviving cast members.
In July at the Hollywood Bowl, the Los Angeles Philharmonic performed Leonard Bernstein’s score live while the movie was projected on a gigantic screen. David Newman conducted this show as well as “West Side Story” concerts by the New York Philharmonic in September and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in November.
In November, the release of the remastered film on BluRay was celebrated with a screening at Grauman’s Chinese Theatre, where “West Side Story” originally premiered. Actors Russ Tamblyn (Jets leader Riff), George Chakiris (Sharks leader Bernardo) and Rita Moreno (Bernardo’s girlfriend Anita) were on hand to push their hands and feet into wet cement. Beymer did not attend, and Wood (as recent headlines have reminded everyone) died in 1981.
Miyamoto said that there was a call for performers during “West Side Story’s” Broadway run. She wanted to join the show, “but I couldn’t because I was in ‘Flower Drum Song.’ But I always wanted to be in this show. When I saw it, I fell in love with it. Every dancer who’s seen ‘West Side Story’ has wanted to be in it.”
At age 15, she worked with choreographer Jerome Robbins in the movie version of “The King and I,” and five years later she was reunited with him in “West Side Story.” But she had to audition like everyone else.
“I’d never seen that many dancers in my life all in one place, just packed with young dancers, of every kind and every color,” Miyamoto recalled. Those who survived the elimination rounds were called back to do a screen test.
The producers did not require Latino performers for the Puerto Rican characters. Those with light-colored eyes would be Jets and those with dark eyes would be Sharks; some of the latter had their skin darkened.
“There were only two or three Puerto Ricans in the whole cast — one was Rita Moreno, another was Yvonne Wilder,” Miyamoto said. Noting that Chakiris is of Greek ancestry — and that Moreno played a Thai character, Tuptim, in “The King and I” — she added, “We’re not talking about strict (ethnic) lines.”
Training under Robbins was “such an intense process,” Miyamoto said. “In the morning we started with a ballet class, then a jazz class, then voice … He had us practice jumping a fence every day, wood fence and chain-link fence, like boot camp for dancers … He wanted us to be in tip-top shape … We did get injured, people did get sick because it was so rigorous …
“He was very demanding. He changed his mind all the time, looking for something and we were trying to help him find it. Each person that was picked for the cast was picked for a certain quality and something that he was looking for.”
To Robbins, she explained, “each person throughout the whole cast was considered important … In movies, dance was usually something in the background, but in this case dance was like a star of the movie. Dancers were treated with as much respect as actors.”
Miyamoto found the movie to be “an intelligent look at gangs, a lot of comedy and fun things in the movie talking about the serious problem of racism and poverty … doing it in a very artistic way. That’s why it had such a long life. The music was wonderful, the songs were memorable, every one of them … It’s just so well-written.”
Instead of bringing the story to a halt, the song-and-dance numbers pushed the story along, she said, pointing out that “America,” with lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, shows the conflict between wanting to stay in America and wanting to go back to Puerto Rico, as well as the prejudice of the times – “Life is all right in America, if you’re all white in America … Free to be anything you choose, free to wait tables and shine shoes.”
In an interview with Backstage magazine, Miyamoto and other cast members were asked, “When you were doing this film, did you realize it was going to have this kind of a lifespan?” For her, it was “something hard to imagine when you’re in it — you’re just doing it.”
But cast members did keep in touch, getting together every few years to catch up with each other and remember those who have passed away, she said. “The people who were in it, even those who were in the original show, it’s sort of a club. To experience that very special kind of artistic experience together — it’s binding.”
That’s what prompted them to collaborate on the book, which Miyamoto said will be “especially interesting for anybody who loves musicals and who liked ‘West Side Story’ … for people who are aspiring artists or dancers to see the experience of working with a genius like Jerome Robbins and Leonard Bernstein.”
For the Hollywood Bowl screening with the live orchestra, “they took the recorded orchestra off of the soundtrack and left the voices … It was wonderful to hear live. It gave it this whole other edge,” Miyamoto said. And the upgraded version of the film that was shown at Grauman’s Chinese was “exciting to see” and “looks much sharper.”
In the early ’70s, Miyamoto had an encounter that showed what impact the movie had. While in New York to help make a documentary about the Black Panthers, a Puerto Rican man who was part of the crew kept looking at her during lunch and saying that she looked familiar. The next day, he told her, “Now I know where I saw you. I saw ‘West Side Story’ 18 times.” As a youngster, the musical was the only mainstream movie that told his people’s story.
Journey of Discovery
Unlike some of her castmates, Miyamoto did not go on tour with the show. She took a few acting jobs, but found them unfulfilling. Her credits as Joanne Miya include a 1963-64 TV show, “Arrest and Trial,” which had a format similar to that of “Law and Order.” She played Janet Okada, an assistant to attorney John Egan (Chuck Connors).
“I was under contract with Warner Bros.,” she said. “It wasn’t particularly an artistically satisfying situation.” Since her character was given very little to do, she felt like “a prop.”
Miyamoto explained, “I didn’t know how to follow ‘West Side Story.’ My desire up until that point was to cross the color line as a young person training as a dancer and finally working in so-called show business and films and Broadway … I wanted to do something more universal than the stereotypical shows that Asians usually got to play in … How can I cross the color line? … I passed for Puerto Rican in an amazingly beautiful piece … I almost felt like ‘What next?’
“That set me on a journey to find my own voice. That’s when I started studying singing. I felt like if I could choose the songs that I sang, I could define myself as an artist in a better way.”
It was then that she got involved in the Black Panther project and learned more about the black and Asian American movements. While she was living in New York, long-time activist Yuri Kochiyama invited her to a meeting of Asian Americans for Action.
In 1970, Miyamoto and fellow singer/songwriter Chris Iijima went to the JACL National Convention in Chicago, where they met with other activists, including Warren Furutani (now a member of the State Assembly and a Los Angeles City Council candidate).
“Young Asian Americans from the West and East Coast came together … At night, Chris brought his guitar and he started playing … We wrote a song, that was the first song we wrote. The next day we sang it at the JACL convention … I had never sung for an Asian audience before (and it was the first time) for them to see two young Asians sing a song they had created.”
The murder of one of the youth participants, Evelyn Okubo, in her hotel room during the convention was “a shock for us,” Miyamoto recalled. “We wanted to go to Stockton to do a memorial for her. We wanted to see what was going on on the West Coast. We did a benefit concert at the Buddhist temple in New York and we raised enough money to get to the West Coast. From then on, every few months we were touring like troubadours around the country to every Asian community center or event … Music helped to really organize young Asian Americans and also helped them connect with the black community and Latino community as well.”
This led to the formation of the group Yellow Pearl and the recording of the album “A Grain of Sand: Music for the Struggle by Asians in America” in 1973 by Miyamoto, Iijima and William “Charlie” Chin. In 1972, Yellow Pearl got nationwide exposure by appearing on “The Mike Douglas Show” at the invitation of Yoko Ono, who co-hosted the show with John Lennon for one week.
Memorabilia from that era are included in “Drawing the Line: Japanese American Art, Design and Activism in Postwar Los Angeles” at the Japanese American National Museum, and Miyamoto will look back at her Yellow Pearl Days in “What Can a Song Do?” on Jan. 24 at L.A. Contemporary Exhibitions (LACE) in Hollywood as part of the “Pacific Standard Time” series (www.pacificstandardtime.org).
“I wanted to do something that was a challenge and that had content and I could say was something that I believed … Being part of the Asian American movement was really the place where I was able to find my voice,” Miyamoto said. “It gave me the context from which to find something greater than myself that I was a part of. I didn’t particularly miss the big screen or Warner Bros. I felt like creating the alternative. Asians never had a voice within the movie business or Broadway at that time. There were stories about us, but we never told our own stories. That’s when I became interested in telling our own stories, singing our own songs … our own dreams.”
These days, Miyamoto and Great Leap are taking on environmental issues through live performances, workshops, and YouTube videos like “BYO Chopstix” and “Mottainai.” For more information, visit www.greatleap.org.