Frances Kakugawa, a life-long poet, author, teacher, caregiver and Alzheimer’s advocate, never imagined that her words and books would be resources for a musical play.
Thus, like a dream come true, “Wordsworth: The Musical” will receive its world premiere Nov. 4 at the University of Hawaii-Hilo campus theater. It’ll be a short three-day run.
“I was on cloud nine,” said Kakugawa, a Kapoho native who previously taught and authored poetry books in Honolulu. She now resides in Sacramento, and has been commuting to and from Hilo (with emails flying back and fourth) to collaborate and consult with the script writer, a director, a musical composer and a choreographer, to shape the show, based on two of Kakugawa’s books, “Wordsworth the Poet” and “Wordsworth Dances the Waltz.”
Wordsworth is a wise, fictional mouse whose wisdom, words and warmth have been reimagined from the printed page into a musical that resonates with island folks and life. He resides in a rainforest and shares a sunny disposition when things get tough.
Perceived and pampered since 2020, the book and the intent to transform it into a stage musical, survived the pandemic clouds and the sunshiny launch of “Wordsworth: The Musical” finally happens this fall.
“They (the production team) had involved me every step of the way; I felt so honored to be given such respect for Wordsworth,” said Kakugawa, speaking via phone from Sacramento.
So real is her zeal for the production, that her portfolio of the give-and-take script is aptly filed away under the title, “Off Broadway.” The Tonys may a far-off dream, but the tension of opening night is real in sleepy Hilo, a continent away from the Great White Way.
In actuality, there already exists a digital performance of “Wordsworth,” translated in Hawaiian with a Hawaiian-speaking cast. This version targeted a Hawaiian-speaking community, and provided a template for the staged musical version, which is youth- and family-friendly, with many fetching Hawaiian surprises.
“When I saw the filmed version in Hawaiian, I wept and thought, ‘If I died tonight, I would have died happily,’” Kakugawa said.
“Wordsworth is a humble little poet, so he keeps me under wraps,” she continued. “He’s simply delighted that his poetry is being set to music and dance. He’s also pleased that they didn’t change his aloha shirt.”
The notion of birthing a musical is credited to Lizby, a health care worker in Hilo, who had earlier invited Kakugawa to speak on “Poetry and Caregiving.”
Liszby is Dr. Elizabeth Logsdon, known in the movie and stage costume realm, who had the instinct that the Wordsworth had characters and situations made for a musical, rich with relatable folks ranging from a youngster struggling to fit in with his peers to an aging and fragile tutu wahine. Plus plenty butterflies.
Justina Mattos, who is directing, said the play has 15 speaking roles, plus a small chorus of extra “neighbors.” Dancers are from an advanced campus class, serving as the dance ensemble.
Wordsworth is portrayed by Kamau Beaudet , who is a football player when he’s not acting. The cast also features
Ben Publico as Father and Amy Erece as Mother.
Jackie Pualani Johnson, who adapted the Kakugawa book for the book of the play, is cast as Tutu Wahine.
Big Island school groups will be taking in special matinee performances, prior to the formal debut, but these youth tickets sold out quickly.
“I’ve been told that teachers are reading the Wordsworth books with their classes, to prepare for their visit to the theater,” said Mattos.“I think having a musical that is rooted in a book makes it much easier to draw an audience. Young readers are already familiar with these characters and the world of Wordsworth.
“Mounting an original work for the stage is tricky because the team is creating everything from scratch. I think our creative team appreciated having the opportunity to try things out for video first, before doing a fully-staged production for live audiences,” said Mattos.
Jackie Pua Johnson, who scripted the play, wanted to capture Kakugawa’s spirit of the printed poetry, transferring that element to the script. “I wanted to keep the integrity of the sources– the nuances found in life in the rainforest, the interaction of the mouse community, familial connections, the rich poetry -— all the elements that Frances shaped that make Wordsworth so appealing,” said Johnson.
“It became obvious that I needed a style that paid homage to the books in their original form,” she said. “Ah! Rather than take the story line and do the usual job of creating a narrator and assigning lines to each character, I decided on a ‘reader’s theatre’ approach. That meant that I would preserve every word Frances wrote and build Wordsworth’s world in real time, right before the audience.”
The biggest challenge? “Integrating the two books so neither storyline suffered from the melding,” said Johnson. “Since I left Francesʻ original text intact, it was the structure and juxtaposition of characters that I focused upon. I placed Grandma in Wordsworthʻs life from the very beginning, showing her joie de vivre, dancing with her moʻopuna at every turn and never wavering in her enthusiasm about how he processed the beauty of the world around him. It also seemed right for Grandma to speak her native language, so she peppers Hawaiian throughout, as real tutu wahine do in our lives. I worked hard to give a sense of place, too, because the rainforest is both sacred and magical for the characters, a place where nature appears in all her glory and love and friendship heal and rejuvenate. Again, just like wao kele in real life.”
Choreographer Kea Kapahua staged the dancing in the digital version as well as the stage musical, acknowledging each medium is different from the other.
“Choreographing for a musical is much different than choreographing for a dance concert,” she said. “It’s a different kind of a collaborative process. In a dance concert the dances are the main focus. In a show like ‘Wordsworth,’ dance plays an important and delightful but supportive role in bringing out the storyline. The dance is not the end-all, but a way to help the audience connect with the narrative.
She continued, “When choreographing for film you are always viewing everything as if through the eye of the camera lens and thinking of angles and what you might want to highlight or frame for the viewer.” On stage, the choreography needs to blend with Wordsworth’s imagination and creativity to life, “to make visible what he sees for the audience,” she said.
For composer Wendell Ing, the task was to create songs from poems. “From having been music director for many theater productions through the years, I had definite ideas about how I wanted to approach composing this music,” he said. “I wanted to stay true to her (Kakugawa’s) text and the underlying feelings. To compose music to fit the poems, not vice-versa. There is more repetition of phrases and a different narrative flow to most songs. Poems are often more elliptical. I wanted to preserve the natural beauty and flow of her poems.”
The lyrics, he said, shouldn’t be his but should reflect the characters.
“Since this was a children’s musical, that constrained some of the musical choices and styles,” said Ing. “I wanted to create music that was melodic and pretty, but not overly complicated.”
The score features six main tunes and more than a dozen underscores suiting different scenes. Being an islander, Ing wanted to enrich the show with island traditions tapping keyboards, ukulele, bass and flute.
And he created varying moods. “My particular favorites are ‘Of Sand Sea,’ a personal ballad sung by Wordsworth; ‘Circus Time in the Sky,’ sung by Kolohe Brother, which is the most bombastic and visceral; and ‘Rainbow,’ a group song that is the happiest.”
He added: “Yes, I read both Wordsworth books before I composed the music, to get a feeling for her poetic style,which is fairly direct and imagistic.”
And that’s Show Biz. …
‘WORDSWORTH: THE MUSICAL’
Playdates: 7 p.m. Nov. 4, 7 p.m. Nov. 5 and 2 p.m. Nov. 6.
Where: Performing Arts Theatre, University of Hawaii-Hilo.
Tickets: $20 general, $15 seniors 55 and older, faculty, staff and alumni; $7 UH Hilo and Hawaii Community College students and students 17 and under.
Where to buy: https://hilo.hawaii.edu/depts/theatre/tickets/