LOS ANGELES - Since 1991, I've been working from time to time with a gifted symphony conductor, David Warble, on a project that has become increasingly fulfilling. He asked me then to provide the narration for a symphonic composition by Johan de Meij inspired by the great Tolkien classic, "The Lord of the Rings." It was an intriguing offer. The trilogy is an epic adventure of imagination. But how can that complex heroic fantasy be summarized in a musical narration? This was, I rationalized to myself, to be in concert with orchestral music. That should help bridge the inevitable gaps in the narration. More out of curiosity, mixed with a dash of actor's audacity, I agreed to do it.
The concert was to be performed with the California Wind Orchestra at the Orange County Performing Arts Center, a dazzling new cultural complex south of Los Angeles. The venue, too, was an attraction. Performing there would be a prestigious addition to my credits.
At the rehearsal, I heard the music for the first time. I was blown away! It was soaring. It was dark. It was rousing and lyrical. Altogether, it was richly complex. At that instant, I realized what an extraordinary privilege it was to be working with Dave Warble on this project. The music embodied the splendor and the intricacies of the classic story. The concert was a great success. Since that presentation, I have been performing with him and the glorious music of Johan de Meij all over the country.
Last month took us to Long Island, New York, to perform with the Long Island Philharmonic at the Tilles Center. This time, Dave, the crafty showman that he is, built the evening around symphonic music that have their source in science fiction. The program opened with Gustav Holst's "The Planets." There was John Williams' music from "Star Wars: Episode One-The Phantom Menace." And, of course, "Star Trek" with the works of four composers, Alexander Courage, Jerry Goldsmith, Jay Chattaway and Dennis McCarthy who contributed to the body of "Star Trek" music. The final number on the program was "The Lord of the Rings." The evening was a sell-out success -- in no small part because of the huge turnout of Star Trek fans. After the performance, I visited with many friends and long-time fans.
Thanks to the concert, I had the opportunity to spend some time in the greatest performing arts center in the nation, Manhattan. As I am addicted to doing in New York City, I lived in the theaters. I was finally able to catch up with "Kiss Me Kate," a show I had attempted to see many times before and been disappointed because no tickets could be had. It was a wonderful production, great fun and well worth the tenacious effort to get the tickets. "Dirty Blonde," with Kathy Najimy was both hilarious and moving. The most surprising was "The Full Monty." In the face of the obviously sexually suggestive title, playwright Terrence McNally had written a moving drama of the devastating impact of unemployment on marriages, on a father-son relationship and on one's sense of self-worth. And the music was terrific. It's the best transposition of a popular movie to the musical stage that I have seen. At the Public Theater downtown, I saw a powerful drama by Jessica Hagedorn titled "Dogeaters." Her inspired metaphor for the tortured recent history of the Philippines was soap opera with all its over-the-top emotions and gravely extravagant morality. This edgy drama was galvanized by razor sharp performances by gifted actors like Alec Mapa, Hill Harper, Mia Katigbak and Jo Jo Gonzales. Every production I saw on this visit was -- each in its own way -- superb.
This Manhattan sojourn also gave me the chance to get together with New York friends. A special treat was having lunch with Pat Suzuki, an actress who I worked with some time ago in New York in a production of "Year of the Dragon." This vivacious singer/actress made her splash on Broadway as the star of the original production of Rogers and Hammerstein's "Flower Drum Song." The Japanese American National Museum will be honoring her with the Lifetime Achievement Award next month so I was able to share our plans for the event with her. But without discussions of awards and honors, lunch with Pat is always an entertainment in itself. These were the delightful bonuses I got from travelling to New York for the concert version of "The Lord of the Rings" -- so, thank you Dave Warble.
I gave myself another bonus last week - a weekend in another lively theater city, San Francisco. I saw a marvelous production by the American Conservatory Theater of the award winning British play, "Goodnight Children Everywhere." When I see an American play in London, I'm always impressed by the British actors' amazing ability to do American accents so credibly. Well, the cast of "Goodnight Children Everywhere" does American actors proud. The British accents of these American players were not only astonishingly convincing but specifically south London and one fine actor, Jesse Pennington, even captured the subtle influence that his character having lived in Alberta, Canada, for five years had on his south London accent. The drama was about the resilience of and the heavy cost to children who were moved out of London during World War II to avoid the Nazi air bombings.
The other play of the weekend had enjoyed great success all over the country, in part, I supposed, because of it eye-catching title -- " The Vagina Monologues." I discovered the title to be an absolutely precise description of an evocative play, a passionate assertion of women's sexual individualism. And it was blessed by a company of marvelous actors; Kathleen Califant, who was superb in the prize winning drama, "Angels in America," Lorri Holt, a fine San Francisco actor, and Jill Eikenberry, whom I loved in the television series, "L.A. Law."
Some of the best bonuses though are serendipitous. Just by chance, I happened across one of the people that make San Francisco such a wonderfully unforgettable town. It happened on a trolley.
Almost equal to my love of theater is my passion for all modes of public transportation. And San Francisco is the quintessential city of public transit. It has subways, buses, ferries, light rail and, of course, the fabled cable cars of song and legend. I love riding them all.
San Francisco just added another reason for me to love it more. They installed a new trolley line along the bayshore from the old Ferry Building to the fisherman's wharf area where the ugly Embarcadero Freeway used to be. The freeway had been torn down after the devastation of the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake, opening up the beautiful bay to the city. A silver lining can be found even in the awful rubbles of an earthquake. Not only that, but San Francisco, true to its style, placed on the new tracks a system of historic trolley cars. They searched the world over for old trolleys and found them in places like Buenos Aires, Paris and Sydney, Australia. They even bought up the streetcar named Desire from the city of New Orleans. The new trolley route along San Francisco Bay is lined with stately palm trees. A stylish and urbane city has become even more enchanting.
A red trolley came rattling down Market Street. It looked like the kind I used to ride in Los Angeles as a boy. I hopped on and tried to slide my dollar into the fare slot. "My god," the conductor shouted at me. I thought I'd done something wrong. "You're Sulu! Captain Sulu!" he shouted with delight. Immediately, I realized that I had been recognized -- even with my sunglasses on. He stopped me from pushing my dollar in and insisted, "This ride is on me. You've given me some wonderful rides on Star Trek so this one is on me." He absolutely wouldn't allow me to pay my fare. I thanked him and sat down in front near the conductor. From that point on, he regaled not only me, but the entire car with the history of the new trolley system, his love of his job, his passion for San Francisco and his long-time devotion to Star Trek. He told us about his little daughter who he takes with him to the sights around his beautiful city. He had everyone on his car smiling. Then he asked me to sign a piece of paper. I was more than happy to reciprocate for his joyful hospitality. I asked him for his name and he told me it was David Sparks. What a perfect name, I told him, for such a sparkling personality, the sparkplug of the trolley and the spark that lit up the spirits of his passengers.
This city is the captivating city that it is because San Franciscans love San Francisco. And David Sparks is the quintessential San Franciscan. Thank you, David, for a memorable trek in your unforgettable city.