This summer we ventured into Los Angeles to see a performance of Jacques Brel Is Alive and Well and Living In Paris at the Odyssey Theater (see our July 12 review) and were most impressed with the performance of singer/actress Miyuki Miyagi. Two months later, we were pleasantly surprised to find Miyagi in the ensemble for 5 Star Theatricals’ forthcoming production of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. This prompted a sit-down interview with Miyagi, who turns out to be a relative newcomer to Southern California theater.
VCOS: Where are you from?
MIYUKI: I grew up on Long Island, in Nassau County.
VCOS: So what brought you out here?
MIYUKI: I moved to New York after graduating from college to pursue musical theater but got bogged down with day jobs and wasn’t pursuing theater anymore and was just in a bad place. I was living in Bushwick in East Williamsburg and was kind of in a rut and not performing at all so I felt I needed to be in a new place. My boyfriend had moved out here to start a branch of our tutoring company so I closed the distance in our relationship and came out here. It’s been quite an adventure.
VCOS: What kind of tutoring company is this?
MIYUKI: I tutor mostly SAT and ACT tests but there is a lot of subject tutoring too, executive functioning, teaching kids in elementary school through high school and we even have some college kids that need help with things like calculus and stuff like that.
VCOS: So is that your day job?
MIYUKI. That is still my day job, but it has become a smaller portion of my overall time. It was full-time for two years. It’s a fantastic company and that’s what I loved about it so it was hard to wean myself away from it.
VCOS: Where did you get your degree?
MIYUKI: I went to Princeton. I majored in politics and minored in theater and environmental studies. Princeton does not offer a Theater major because it is too much of a practical or vocational degree. You can be an English major on a theater track or you could be a music major, which entails a lot of history and composition, but there are just minors for the performing arts at Princeton.
VCOS: What was your background in theater when you were living out there?
MIYUKI: I was in the Triangle Club, which has been around since 1891 and has a bunch of famous alums like F. Scott Fitzgerald and Jimmy Stewart. We did all student-written musical comedies and sketch shows, so I did that in my junior and senior years. It takes up all of your life and there are jokes about how F. Scott Fitzgerald flunked out of Princeton because he got too involved with the Triangle Club. So it kind of does that to you, where it takes over your life. So I really majored in Triangle (laughs). We usually did one big show that we would take on tour so I did two of those with them and one sketch show. They were all great experiences but the one I did during my junior year was probably the best. It was fun because the business team was all students, the writers were all students, and the performers and musicians in the pit were all students. We’d do these very political comedies with lots of creativity. Very cool people to work with.
VCOS: What happened after college?
MIYUKI: I did summer stock at Princeton Summer Theatre and did four shows that summer, a typical non-Eq summer, working seven days a week, 12 hours a day, in other words, a union disaster. Then I moved to New York and, naïvely thought I could do theater, but I literally had no money and no job and didn’t know where I was going to live. So I just took on all the “actor jobs” I could find at once – I was a nanny, I was a personal assistant to a producer who used to be on SNL, and so forth.
VCOS: Sounds like the average New York theater experience.
MIYUKI: Yes! I sang to children with puppets, I temped, I worked in P.R. writing press releases, and was working at a coffee shop when I started getting into tutoring, which turned out to be the solution to no longer having ten jobs at once. Tutoring paid really well and a lot of my friends fell into doing just that also. It’s rewarding and lots of fun.
VCOS: Did you get an agent?
MIYUKI: No. And I still don’t have an agent. I’ll get one eventually, I’m just trying to get work right now.
VCOS: Did you have goal in mind for your career path?
MIYUKI: No, I never really had a clear goal. I was really kind of burnt out after school ended.
VCOS: Has any of that changed now?
MIYUKI: I’m not burnt out anymore. That’s the biggest difference in my life right now! I’ve always been kind of torn between theater and politics. The whole time I was in the New York I was asking myself, “Why do you want to pursue theater. Do you want to be poor your whole life?” All my friends were going into journalism and consulting, so for a while I convinced myself that I wanted to be in journalism. I just finished a year interning at KPCC and that was really interesting but after the election I felt motivated to get back into the arts.
VCOS: How long have you been in California?
MIYUKI: It’s coming up on two years.
VCOS: Was Jacques Brel your first show out here?
MIYUKI: Yes, that was my first. I started auditioning right after the election and was just auditioning for a ton of stuff. The director, Dan Fishbach, was my boyfriend’s theater teacher in high school so my boyfriend passed the audition notice over to me.
VCOS: Were you familiar with the show?
MIYUKI: No. Not at all. I kind of knew who Jacques Brel was because I took French in high school, and my French teacher, with whom I’m still close friends – she’s also an actress – decided to teach us French by bringing us books and songs and a couple of the songs were by Jacques Brel.
VCOS: Did Brel’s songs impress you?
MIYUKI: Oh, yeah. During my audition, I remember thinking, “Oh, wow, I really want this.” I hadn’t had that feeling in a really long time, and in the last round of auditions, he had us sing “If We Only Have Love.” And I remember breaking it apart in preparing it, but he wanted us to do it as a monolog as opposed to singing. I was just a mess. This was back in April when I auditioned. I had a really emotional winter because our country is so divided and I was feeling so sad and that song really hit me hard. His lyrics are just packed with meaning .
VCOS: When you do a revue like that, it’s theater, but it’s not theater because there aren’t really any characters that you maintain throughout the show. How did you feel about that? Did you approach your songs as if you were a character singing them?
MIYUKI: It’s a weird show. I can’t speak for anyone else in the show, but my part had the least to do of the four in the show. “Desperate Ones” wasn’t supposed to be my song. Up until two days before we opened, it was the four of us singing in unison. I only had “Timid Frieda” and “Brussels,” which are both narrative songs. So when I was given “Desperate Ones,” it was also a narrative song, so I couldn’t sing it like it were an objective, here’s-my-intention, here’s-what-I-want kind of song. So for me, no, I wasn’t playing any kind of character. The end of the process was the most daunting because we had to find some motivation to go from a super upbeat song to a song about death. That was our challenge as actors.
VCOS: Was that difficult for you?
MIYUKI: It was really difficult but at the same time, it was really interesting how you can grow through a show that way, to not find a character, but to make it work through a six-week run.
VCOS: And now you’re transitioning into something totally different in Joseph.
MIYUKI: Yes, it certainly is that. I don’t know if I want to say this, but Andrew Lloyd Webber is historically not my favorite composer. I had never performed one of his shows before so I’m glad that I’m doing one because I can see the value in it now. It’s fun, it’s really fun. I understand, operatically speaking, how he writes very clean, voice-leading, easy to sing, well-arranged numbers. So I get why people like him. It’s fun to perform and you can’t stop singing it for the next few months. But I’m more of a Sondheim person. I was skeptical about doing it with hip-hop dance so we’ll see how people like it. I think it’s working well. I’ve actually been really impressed as to how well it lends itself, it’s a high energy show and Dave Scott’s choreography is really high energy dancing.
VCOS: Do you have dance training?
MIYUKI: Yes, though I’m rusty. I’m getting back into shape right now and this show is certainly helping me do that. I started ballet when I was five and have done tap and jazz and theater dance. In high school I went to a conservatory where I was dancing four or five times a week, but I got pulled away from dance in college and was singing in a cappella groups and musical theater instead.
VCOS: I’ll have to be frank with you. When I saw your name in Jacques Brel, I expected you to have Japanese features and when I saw you, I checked just to make sure you weren’t an understudy.
MIYUKI: Yeah, I get that a lot. My dad is Japanese and my mom is Jewish-American. Her family came from Latvia, they came here after the turn-of-the-century and before the Russian Revolution. My dad is a first generation American, he moved here when he was in his early 20s. In Japan you’d say my name MEE-yu-kee, but it doesn’t really flow with Americans and now even I saw I’m called mee-YOO-kee.
VCOS: How about your goals now?
MIYUKI: I’m trying to pick what my goals are. I had another conversation with someone this morning that gave me pause about what I wanted to do. I thought I might make my way back to New York now that I’m actually performing again. I’m still just 27 so I’m not too old to break into the theater world back there.
VCOS: Do you have a credo or something that a teacher or mentor said to you that you go back to when you’re needing motivation?
MIYUKI: Van Jones was my professor when I was in college and he told us in class that when it gets harder to love, love harder. He was an advisor for the White House on climate change and that meant a lot to me then, but I like it as a concept for humanity in general. Professionally and as a teacher I’ve read things like Grit by Angela Duckworth who believes that success is not necessarily a measure of talent, it’s a matter of grit and determination, which is especially valuable for a performer. I’ve heard this from people who are in theater and they’ve told me that people who end up on Broadway aren’t necessarily the most talented, they’re just the ones who stay in the game, don’t get discouraged, and just put themselves out there and never give up. I definitely didn’t have that a couple of years ago, but I think I have it now.
Look for Miyuki Miyagi in the ensemble in Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, which opens October 13. For dates and showtimes, see the VC On Stage Calendar.