As a young reporter, one of my mentors, Agostino von Hassell (a very challenging name for a very sweet guy), told me, you will never be out of work as long as you have your own ideas and you don’t wait for an opportunity, you make one. He was right. And, when “Un-Block The Music” spoke to Alan Muraoka in December about directing the original holiday musical The Nice List, he told me that was the same philosophy he used to navigate his career. “Un-Block The Music” wondered what drove Alan. He wasn’t after all from a performing family. While Alan said his father liked to sing, he was not a professional, and to this day, “he still worries about my future,” Alan laughed.
Alan got the performing bug young. If there was a school play or musical, he was a part of it. By Junior High School he was directing and performing, and it was in high school that he started to think about performing as a career. Alan ended up as a theatre major at UCLA, where he received the Carol Burnett Musical Theatre Award for performance.
“I always knew that talent alone would not get me to my goals. I have never been one to wait around for a job to find me. I always try to jump into the deep end regardless of the consequences. Sometimes I float, and sometimes I sink. And both are valuable learning situations,” Alan said.
One of the things Alan said he is most grateful for are the mentors in his life that helped chart his journey. “When I was at UCLA, I was introduced to an Asian American Theatre Company called East West Players. It was started by the Japanese American actor Mako, who was the first Asian American man to be nominated for an Academy Award (The Sand Pebbles in 1967). I learned so much from him and all of the other Asian American actors about both telling our stories, but also about non-traditional casting and how important it was to show the universality of theatre and storytelling.”
“When I began performing, I knew that I needed to be good at everything because my opportunities would be much more limited because I was Japanese American. So I went to dance classes, voice lessons, etc. The classes and shows that I was involved with at UCLA helped to train me in certain ways, but I also had to look outside of school as well. Having that training allowed me to land the seven Broadway shows (most recently Aladdin) that I performed in as well as the television show Sesame Street.”
Alan moved to New York from Los Angeles in the late 1980s with a show that was a big hit in LA and then moved to Broadway. It was called Mail. “It was a small show that was not as well received in New York as we had hoped, but it gave me my Broadway debut, and I got my agents out of it, so I am very grateful,” Alan said.
The lack of traditional opportunities for him, led Alan to forge his own path and create his own projects. He offered this example. Back in 1998, he wanted to direct an all-Asian version of the William Finn musical Falsettoland. “I knew I had a group of artists that would absolutely be perfect. So I pitched it to Mia Katigbak at the National Asian American Theatre Company (NAATCO) in NYC as a concert for their gala. Mia graciously and generously said yes. She took a chance on me, and I will always appreciate her for that.” It was a rousing success, and William Finn came to the concert and loved it so much that he granted the rights to a full production. It opened the summer of 1998 at the Vineyard (an Off-Broadway theatre company dedicated to developing and producing bold new plays and musicals by both emerging and established artists.) The New York Times loved it and they played to sold out crowds for most of the summer, and that helped launch Alan’s directing career, he recounted.
If you don’t know Alan from Broadway, there is a good chance you recognize him from Sesame Street; still one of “Un-Block the Music’s” all-time favorite programs. He has completed his 22nd season on the show. “I got the initial audition back while I was doing the Broadway revival of The King and I back in 1997.” They were looking for a new owner to run Hooper’s Store. He went to a general audition and hundreds of actors were seen. “I kept getting called back and had four auditions before I landed the job. I loved it from the very first time I stepped onto the set. Here’s a show that is educational, and teaches everything from the ABC’s and numbers to empathy and kindness. Here was a place where my ethnicity was both important and not important. I was a part of the fabric of inclusion that Sesame Street has always weaved. I felt safe. I felt heard.”
What is amazing about Sesame Street “is that we continue to tackle issues of great importance. I was able to co-direct a special on Racism called The Power of We that aired in May of 2020 and I am so proud of it.” As he should be. Sesame Street reaches out to the young before they can be jaded by society. The show asks important questions, and “Un-Block The Music” has hope it will continue to play a part in getting our nation back to “the kinder gentler one” that Republican President George Bush called for in his nomination acceptance speech back when we were a not so divided nation. Alan said,“Sesame Workshop will continue to educate the world on important topics, and I hope to be there for many years to come.”
Alan said his passion for directing continues to grow. “I enjoy that more than acting at this point. I think performing was a passion when I was in my 20’s-40’s. And now that I’m in my 50’s, it has switched over to directing. I’m getting to direct more and more at Sesame Street, and I just got to direct my first full episode of the show this year. It was very fulfilling,” he said.
As for 2021 plans, staying safe is really on top of the list. “My husband Herb is the Nurse Manager of the ICU over at Beth Israel Hospital (in NYC), and his unit is the COVID unit. Back in March he saw his unit grow from 1 floor to 5 floors as more people became sick. And in April he contracted the virus and so did I. We both were lucky that we had milder versions of it. We have lost friends, family and colleagues to this pandemic, and I think we are forever changed by it. There is nothing like being a part of live theatre, and my heart breaks for all of my friends and colleagues who are out of work because of this pandemic. So, we are so grateful for the vaccine, and for what we hope is the beginning of a return to normalcy. It will take a while, but we are grateful and hopeful for the future.”
Check out the articles about The Nice List and its composer, Phoebe Kreutz.