The first genuinely “real” musical that Takeshi Ota ever experienced was Grand Hotel, playing on Broadway. At the time, Ota was a senior at his university in Kyoto, but he had a real hankering to travel in the U.S.
“I backpacked my way across America for two months and my final destination was New York City,” said Ota. “The city was amazing to me, like nothing I had ever experienced. I walked around and ended up in Times Square. A guy in the streets saw me, handed me a flyer and told me with a smile that it was ‘crazy good.’ I had no idea what he was talking about, but then I saw the words Grand Hotel.”
Ota promptly went to see the show and what he saw was “completely different from the musicals I was seeing in Japan.”
He decided then and there that he must become a composer of musicals and that someday he would return to Broadway.
Ota kept that promise. In 1996, he got a scholarship to the Mannes School of Music, where he studied under music greats like Carl Schachter and David Loeb.
Now in his 40s, Ota is a composer of musicals in his own right, mainly for Takarazuka — Japan’s unique, all-women theater troupe. A native of Osaka, Ota is based in Kobe, which allows easy access to Takarazuka headquarters. He often travels to Tokyo for meetings and stage work too.
“I get to do a job that I love,” laughed Ota, who added he had always loved music and musicals. “I feel so blessed but I wouldn’t have gotten here unless I studied English.”
During his undergrad years Ota went to an English conversation school. He knew he was “really bad at listening skills.”
“People think that because I’m a musician, I can pick up a foreign language easily, but it didn’t work like that. Music is a language unto itself, completely different from learning English. There really were no shortcuts.”
Ota watched Broadway musicals on DVD and listened to songs, straining to make sense of the lyrics while analyzing the music as well.
“English is a muscle, and you have to train it the way dancers and singers train for a musical,” said Ota. “The other thing is to have confidence. Don’t be afraid to say what you think and never mind the grammar. Don’t get stage fright. Overseas, people will always commend you for speaking up, rather than keeping quiet because you were afraid to say the wrong thing.”
Ota describes his Broadway baptismal as “totally enthralling.” Apart from what he witnessed on stage, he was impressed by the way the audience reacted to the musical with thunderous applause, cheers and even tears — as they threw themselves heart and soul into what was happening on stage.
“I could understand that what I was seeing was wonderful,” said Ota. “Unfortunately, I couldn’t follow the story as well as I wanted to. I just didn’t have the English skills for that.”
Ota said that by nature, musicals are all about language — the story comes first and the music is composed to match and enhance the storyline.
“It’s different from an opera, where the composer’s name gets top billing,” he laughed. “In musicals, it’s imperative to have a deep understanding of the scenario and the characters.”
Of Japanese musicals, Ota said that the overall quality has really improved in the past decade.
“But there are still few people who can compete on an international level. We need performers who can speak two kinds of English — American and British. Plus, they need to be able to sing and dance. In London’s West End and on Broadway, excellence on all these fronts is the norm and it’s very hard for a Japanese to break into that world. Still, things are changing — more Japanese universities and colleges with musical departments stress the need for English skills.” (Kaori Shoji)
Words I tell myself