Diversity, Royal Family Productions, and Jess Wu’s “Brass Heart”

Alex Chester

OnStage New York Columnist

As I sit here in rehearsal for Jessica Wu’s semi-autobiographical musical “Brass Heart” I can’t help but feel so much awe and pride to be part of such an awesome show. Not only is the story moving and the music hum-worthy, the cast is as diverse as the streets of NYC, and stupid talented.

I am one lucky gal that I get to be part of this.

Producing “Brass Heart - The Musical” is Royal Family Productions. The artistic team consists of: Chris Henry (Artistic Dir/Director), Jess Wu (Associate Artistic Dir/Composer/Playwright) and Lorna Ventura (Choreographer). They were kind enough to sit down with me on one of our 15 min breaks, and I got to ask them some questions about “Brass Heart,” diversity and the Emerging Artist Program here at Royal Family Productions.

Alex - Jess, I’ve known you a while, what made you decide this story needed to be told and is it based on real life experiences?

Jess - it is based on real life experiences, for me, it was really important to show women in a different light that has traditionally been shown in musicals.

Alex - Chris would you like to add to this?

Chris - One of the things I asked Jess, after the reading, was it important for “Her” to be from a Chinese background? And how did that affect the telling of the story? Because I don’t think we hear that voice either, and one of the things you said to me, Jess, is that, not to dis Rogers and Hammerstein, but I will. So there are revivals, continuous revivals of plays that don’t have voices of the people they are writing about. It’s interesting and that’s really important that we hear not “King and I” eight hundred times. And we hear a voice of a person that could potentially be cast in that in a different way.   

Jess - I’m nodding.

Chris - So that we are not hearing the same bullshit.

Alex - I love it!

Jess - It’s different stories than we’ve seen, especially in musicals. You know with plays we have a larger diversity of voices and playwrights, but musicals I don’t feel like there are ones currently represented... definitely not on Broadway in the last decade...with a contemporary voice. I can’t think of one.  I could be wrong.

Alex - I can’t think of one either.

Jess - And female-centric!

Alex - As the choreographer what is your vision for movement in this show? And how do you feel it will move the story along?

Lorna - I was drawn to this piece because, as discussed, there is a female central character who’s interesting and (her) story’s unique. I think it’s a collaboration. This feels like a play with movement. I think we started discussing how that’s all interwoven, and I love to work on that sort of material.

I think that there are opportunities because the music is so diverse as well. Where Jessica has created these pieces that allow you to go from style, such as swing, to sort of seventies jazz movement, to fifties girl group movement. And so I think there’s a lot of opportunity there to play with different sorts of movement,  which is attractive to me as a choreographer. And I think also, the way the story is so closely knit together, the ways the songs come in and out of this character’s mind, also call for movement that is just sort of transitional movement. That has pedestrian type movement because we must move, not because it’s choreographed movement. And I think Chris is great at finding those little moments too. So we are collaborating, trying to find the places where the character is moving, the actors are moving when it’s not orchestrated, but just because it’s furthering the story.  So I guess the vision is very open, at this point, there’s not a specific type of movement that I would say, is “Brass Heart.”  I think “Brass Heart” has so many different types of movement that are appropriate for the story.

Alex -  Awesome. So back to the whole diversity thing. Since you know you are an Asian female playwright, why is casting this show with so much diversity important to all of you? Does it further the story along?

Jess - It was very important to me, it has always been very important to me that the cast is as multicultural as New York is. It was really important to me the show stays set in New York. There’s something very New York about my experience, living here for a very long time. But, I’m also from Canada. These two different identities and also being Asian... going to back to your point... it needed to represent the incredibly diverse people that I met in the last 17 years of living here.

Alex - Anything you would like to add to that?

Jess - I could probably talk for an hour about this, I don’t know why I stopped... as you know I still am an actor auditioning in this business and I see so many people that are my “type,” and at the end of the day there are very few shows specifically for us... I don’t want to say specifically for us... but specifically for us and that will also see us in a certain way, and put us in certain roles. And it was important for me to write a show that was also for the people that I’ve spent so much time... I’m gonna cry... that I spent so much of my career with doing things like “King and I,” doing things like “Saigon,” and for us to have a different venue to showcase talents.

Alex - Now you’re gonna make me cry.


Chris - The other interesting thing you said, the amount of talent, the incredible amount that people do in this city, and in this art form, that was the other thing Jess very much wanted to showcase. That these people have been in choruses for years and years, that they are actually featured.

Jess - Everybody these days does everything, everybody has so many talents, whether or not you play drums and guitar and do circus work and act your face off and sing your face off and kick your face off when you dance, that our community is so talented and I wanted a piece that was really a troupe ensemble piece where everybody gets to showcase how talented they are. And not in a kick line in the background.

Chris - And you purposely didn’t want to star...

Jess - I didn’t want to, no.

Chris - She was not interested. I mean that was the other thing. She said I wanted this group of people and I think that is something that really resonated with me.

Lorna - I like that it feels authentic because basically the story written is your story. So there is an authentic story of diversity there to begin with. And it’s New York City, so the formula is there. It feels organic, it doesn’t feel forced, it doesn’t feel the casting is diverse for the sake of being diverse. It is authentically and organically that way. So I like that.

Jess - Thank you.

Alex - Art reflects the society we live in. So tell me about this benefit concert and how will it help Royal Family Productions.

Chris - So we are in a real transitional period and we really started this year; for me specifically, again with Trump being elected, it is like how do you change the paradigm of what can I do? Being part of the solution. One of the things we really focused on this year is the Emerging Artist Program. Lorna and I spoke about this a little bit... where there’s really not the space in the city anymore. It’s sort of like Producers Cub or MTC. This (Emerging Artists Program) lands in the middle. I think there is a really important need for funding, for taking chances on people and I think the money that is gonna be raised, which is hopefully hundreds, and hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Jess - Billions

Chris - Billions of dollars, will go to continuing to build this Emerging Artist Program which I just think is really important. This is Jess’s first musical, and shouldn’t she have all the talent and all the time that she’s put into other people’s shows, supporting her?

Lorna - That’s really true.

Chris -  I mean I think that’s the shot. That’s the real shot.

Jess - I’m crying again.

If you happen to have some extra cash available you should come see “Brass Heart” and support Royal Family Production’s Emerging Artist Program.

Gala Benefit Performance Info:

Sunday, April 2, 2017 at 5:00pm Tickets are $250 ($200 tax deductible) includes a pre-show cocktail reception with special guests and preferred seating.

Benefit Performance

Sunday, April 2, 2017 performance starts at 6:00pm Tickets are $100 ($50 tax deductible)

Benefit Preferred Seating

Monday, April 3, 2017 at 12:30pm Tickets are $150 ($100 tax deductible) includes a pre-show cocktail reception

Benefit Performance

Monday, April 3, 2017 at 1:30pm Tickets are $50

All tickets can be purchased by visiting www.royalfamilyproductions.org

Royal Family Performing Arts Space is located at 145 West 46th Street, 3rd Floor