By Jana Monji, AsAmNews Arts & Culture Writer
Lessons learned from Sesame Street are helping Alan Muraoka mount a virtual production of the laugh-out-loud funny musical, A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder.
Don’t worry. This isn’t Gonzo gone Holmesian, Fozzie Bear isn’t in as Watson and this isn’t a mix of Muppet puppets and live-action actors. Muraoka is doing an all Asian American cast Zoom version of this Tony Award-winning musical with Broadway caliber talent to benefit Stop AAPI Hate.
A Gentleman’s Guide won four Tony Awards in 2014, including Best Musical. Written by Robert L. Freeman (book and lyrics) and Steve Lutvak (music and lyrics), the musical comedy has California roots. Although it premiered at the Hartford Stage in Hartford, Connecticut in 2012, that was a co-production with the Old Globe Theatre in San Diego where it played in 2013. The title comes from a confessional that Lord Montague is writing while in jail, awaiting his execution in 1909. Flashing back to 1907, the young man recounts how he rose from poverty to an earldom via various murders while romancing two different women.
Reflecting on his Sesame Street Career
Speaking with AsAmNews via Zoom, Muraoka talked about how working on Sesame Street during the pandemic helped hone his skills as a one-man filming crew. Of course, growing up in the San Fernando Valley (Mission Hills), Muraoka remembered watching “Sesame Street.”
“I was a little older but I was a latchkey kid; both of my parents worked. When I got home in the afternoon, I would grab a snack and watch TV. More often than not, it was PBS,” Muraoka said.
One of his favorites was Sesame Street because like Looney Tunes, “What’s great about Sesame Street is it is played on two levels. There’s always an adult layer of humor that’s a little more sophisticated.”
Like many of us, Muraoka remembered being introduced to opera through the Looney Tunes episode What’s Opera Doc? As kids, we don’t realize this is a famous opera using funny lyrics. Yet that’s something our parents can appreciate and looking back we can appreciate as well, Muraoka noted.
When asked who were his Sesame Street favorites, Muraoka said his favorite Sesame Street characters growing up were Cookie Monster and Grover. Cookie Monster was his favorite “because he was a lover of all cookies.”
“I was and still am a person who loves to eat; I am a foodie,” Muraoka said.
Grover was a little different.
“He always got himself into predicaments that were avoidable,” Muraoka said. “He created chaos around him, but in the end everything ended up fine.”
Sesame Street might have influence Muraoka’s understanding of clean humor because “the comedy was so great, both the physical and written comedy.” When asked if he had a favorite episode, Muraoka recalled enjoying the Sesame Street gags.
“There was always a number of the day and at the end, they’d have an animated segment and they’d have a baker,” he said. “He’d have cakes or pies. He’d sing and then he’d trip and fall.”
As an adult member of the Sesame Street gang, Muraoka said he couldn’t name a favorite character.
“I can’t answer that!” he laughed when asked who his current favorite character was. “I love them all. My company answer is: I love them all. The characters that I love to do episodes with–obviously Elmo, Cookie and Grover, who are all still there two characters who aren’t there as much are Telly Monster and Baby Bear.”
For those unfamiliar with Telly Monster, he’s big and purple with the personality that Muraoka compares with Jon Lovitz (SNL from 1985-1990). Muraoka recalled that things generally played out as “Telly comes into Hooper’s Store and chaos ensues.” Still, “Telly always comes from a place where he was worried about someone else, how it was going to affect someone else.” Baby Bear was a sweet and gentle character with a slight speech impediment.
Last and this year on Sesame Street, Muraoka was able to show just how much representation matters.
“When the pandemic started, we realized there was a lot of content that needed to be discussed because Sesame Street always takes what’s happening in the world and where it’s necessary, creates content for it,” he recalled.
One of the things Muraoka was involved with through Sesame Street was a town hall. Muraoka explained that CNN helped produce and co-sponsor this event where kids could ask questions that were answered by experts and characters from Sesame Street. Muraoka was on a panel that took on the topic of anti-Asian incidents.
On how Sesame Street Addressed anti-Asian racism
While Muraoka himself hasn’t been targeted for any hate crimes, he grew up aware of both the shape of his eyes and the legacy of hate: His father was in Manzanar internment camp and his mother was first at Santa Anita Assembly Center before being sent on to Heart Mountain in Wyoming. One of the Sesame Street responses to anti-Asian hate crimes was a video addressing anti-Asian bullying, Proud of Your Eyes.
With the attacks on elderly Asian Americans in the news, Muraoka said his father is now on hyper alert about his daily routines. Where he currently lives, Muraoka heard of two incidents.
“It made me so angry and confused and scared,” Muraoka recalled.
What didn’t help was how some leaders reacted.
“It surprised me how quickly things can just turn, how a few misspoken words by leadership can create that,” Muraoka said.
But the recent rise of anti-Asian sentiment became a call to action.
“Because of that, I and 32 other Asian American performers created this video, I Am Here, that speaks out against anti-Asian violence,” he explained.
Muraoka directed the video with music by Adam Gwon and an introduction by George Takei.
You might think that’s a huge leap for a guy on Sesame Street, but Muraoka has also acted on Broadway and directed stage musicals. He was a replacement performer for the Engineer in Miss Saigon and was Lord Ishido in Shogun, the Musical. He also performed in the 2004-2005 production of Pacific Overtures and the 1996-1998 production of The King and I. More recently, Muraoka played Iago in Disney’s “Aladdin.”
Besides acting, Muraoka has also directed on stage and for television. In 1998, he directed a highly praised production of William Finn and James Lapine’s Falsettoland for the National Asian American Theater Company in New York. He directed the 2018 New Year’s Eve on Sesame Street. This year, Muraoka has also directed several Sesame Street videos about acceptance and taking a stand against racism.
Last month, Muraoka co-directed this Family Day segment for “Sesame Street” that introduces a gay couple:
Muraoka also directed an episode explaining race that was posted in March:
On filming Sesame Street during the pandemic
During the early days of the pandemic, every actor had to wear many hats at home before the cast and crew were allowed back into the studios. There’s an artistry to avoiding “Zoom fatigue,” Muraoka explained. Like a television show, one needs to vary the camera angles. Moreover, actors take on the roles of makeup artist, lighting crew and camera person. Muraoka acknowledges that this also increases the stress level. He knows some actors, have opted out, turning down jobs until things returned to normal or at least the new normal.
What took the most time for Muraoka is “when you’re setting up the shot, figuring out where the camera is and remembering that you have to talk to a certain spot.” At home, Muraoka used a remote to turn on his camera, but the Bluetooth technology wasn’t a hundred percent reliable.
One advantage he had was Sesame Street‘s use of mini-monitors. Sesame Street puppeteers can look down at a monitor to see how their puppet is framed within the shot and judge how to move. Muraoka received one of those monitors early on when he knew he’d be filming from home.
The music in Sesame Street added a layer of difficulty. Those can’t be shot in one take, even with pre-recorded music. Performers listen to the pre-recorded music with earphones and sing into another device to record their voice without the music. The orchestration is then put in over the a cappella voice by the audio team. Then for the video, the actor has to lip sync to their recorded voice with the music.
On incorporating the methods used to film Sesame Street in isolation into production of “A Gentleman’s Guide”
This process is similar to what the five actors involved in A Gentleman’s Guide have to do in order to get a finished product. Each actor had to get a green or blue screen, light it and themselves and make sure they were the proper distance away from the screen to make the postproduction editing work.
While the virtual filming techniques used in Sesame Street and A Gentleman’s Guide may be similar, the subject matter is not.
Murder might not be something you’d associate with Sesame Street, but Muraoka is a fan of murder mysteries and crime dramas. For a while, he followed all the CSI dramas. More recently he’s been watching multiple true crimes dramas, including one that happened in his hometown of Los Angeles–the four-episode true crime documentary Crime Scene: The Vanishing at the Cecil Hotel on Netflix. That was about the 2013 death of Chinese Canadian Elisa Lam (also known by her Cantonese name Lam Ho Yi, 藍可兒). For fictional crime series, Muraoka used the pandemic to binge-watch Broadchurch (2013-2017), starring former Doctor Who David Tennant and the current Queen Elizabeth in The Crown, Olivia Colman.
Neither show is remotely like the “murder with a wink and a smile” farce of A Gentleman’s Guide. This is not dark like Sweeney Todd. Think of an Agatha Christie parody but instead of the denouement taking place in a drawing-room, the action begins in a prison cell.
When the show was done on Broadway, where Muraoka first saw it, there was no diversity at all.
“With five Asian American actors in a turn-of-the-century Victorian murder-mystery-comedy, I’m pretty sure what’s going to happen is you’re going to notice the ethnicity for the first minute and then you’re going to enjoy the show. The show will transcend ethnicity,” he said.
Much the same happened with the musical he directed about five neurotic Jewish New Yorkers (Falsettoland). Fans of local Asian American companies like the Los Angeles-based East-West Players, which Muraoka had formerly been involved with, will know this to be true.
All Asian American productions give Asian American actors a chance to show they can do something other than The King and I or Miss Saigon. It calls for more inclusion and more opportunities for Asian American and Pacific Islander actors.
That’s something positive that’s come out of the pandemic for Muraoka.
“The amount of content we are creating that shows positivity and that kind of inclusion,” he said. “On Sesame Street, we’ve been dealing with some very hard topics this past year, but dealing with it in a very loving, empathetic way that has brought me joy to be able to share that with the world, share it with families.”
Muraoka noted that the response to rising anti-Asian hate has been different this time around.
“This generation has refused to accept that,” he stated. “Now we’re saying, ‘We’re here; we’re not going anywhere. We’re drawing a line in the sand.'”
Muraoka is sure that this wave of anti-Asian sentiment will pass. While A Gentleman’s Guide is not recommended to Muraoka’s Sesame Street young fans, his adult fans will appreciate the laughable murderous machinations and romantic adventures of one ambitious man and the importance of raising funds to fight anti-Asian hate.
Tony Award-winner and Disney Legend Lea Salonga will host this abridged version of CollaborAzian’s production of “A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder” on July 15. Directed by Muraoka, this virtual musical stars Cindy Cheung (“13 Reasons Why”), Karl Josef Co(“Pacific Overtures”), Ali Ewoldt (“The Phantom of the Opera”), Diane Phelan (“School of Rock”), and Thom Sesma (“Sweeney Todd”). Steven Cuevas (“Once On This Island”) serves as music director. The production is produced in partnership with Broadway On Demand and a promotional partnership with Broadway World.
Tickets are available online through Thursday, 22 July 11:59 p.m. here. Once you RSVP, you’ll receive a dedicated link and password. This performance benefits the nonprofit coalition Stop AAPI Hate.
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