By Aiko Komai / Yomiuri Shimbun Staff WriterActress Wakana Aoi, who played the lead role in the NHK serial morning drama “Warotenka” (Laugh It Up!) and impressed viewers with her cheerful smile, is taking up a new challenge — playing the heroine of the musical “Romeo & Juliette.”
For Aoi, who has been active mainly on screen, this musical scheduled to kick off in February is her first theatrical job. The sought-after actress recently gave an interview to The Yomiuri Shimbun shortly before the start of her full-fledged training for the musical.
“Things I know don’t work at all.” “It’s not like going back to basics. I know nothing.” Aoi, 20, made those candid remarks at a press conference in October last year to announce the production of the musical. It will be her theatrical debut, and she has been given the role of Juliette. Surrounded by renowned and more experienced stars, Aoi can’t hide her nervousness.
The work she is taking on is the rock musical “Romeo & Juliette” created by French composer Gerard Presgurvic. The work breathes new life into Shakespeare’s tragic masterpiece “Romeo and Juliet” with a modern touch. Since its premiere in Paris in 2001, the mega-hit play, supported by passionate and romantic music, has been performed worldwide, attracting more than 5 million people. In Japan, the work was first performed by the all-female Takarazuka Revue’s Star troupe in 2010, after which its Snow and Moon troupes followed suit. The musical saw another Japanese production in 2011, in which Yu Shirota and Ikusaburo Yamazaki played the role of Romeo.
The upcoming production, which will triplecast Aoi along with Haruka Kinoshita and Erika Ikuta as Juliette, is a revival of a 2017 version directed by Shuichiro Koike, who has undertaken the directing job since the Takarazuka versions. The production will also costar Yuta Furukawa and Takuro Ono as Romeo.
A big fan of Takarazuka
Aoi developed her interest in the Takarazuka Revue through her work. She received an offer to appear on a program designed to give a guest unfamiliar with Takarazuka an opportunity to understand its attraction. Minato Sakuragi of Takarazuka’s Cosmos troupe served as a guide on the program, and Aoi was enthralled by the star’s posture, thinking, “There is a person who can stand so beautifully.” She thought it would be great not only to perform splendidly onstage but also look splendid off the stage.
As the musical has been performed by the Takarazuka Revue, which she much admires, Aoi first experienced it as a member of the audience. However, after hearing about an audition for the upcoming production, her desire to perform in it grew.
“There are all kinds of stories about love and destiny, but they often hark back to ‘Romeo and Juliet.’ I thought I would want to jump into the work’s world,” Aoi said.
Aoi made her debut as an actress in 2009 with the Nippon TV network’s serial drama “Samurai High School.” It was only recently that she began formal vocal training for musicals, but she already had a foundation, as she had practiced singing since she was an elementary school student. When she was informed that she had passed the audition, Aoi jumped, screaming, “I did it!” At the same time, she felt relieved.
“I made preparations with a firm resolution to play this role at any cost. I’m happy to have achieved what I really wanted,” she said with a smile.
However, it was not long before Aoi faced difficulties.
“Come out while looking into the far distance.” Aoi said she was perplexed by that instruction from Koike during preparations for a performance before the media at the press conference in October. She didn’t know how to act in a scene in which major characters appeared one after another and sang songs onstage.
“I didn’t know where to look. I didn’t know what facial expressions I should make when others are singing. After being instructed to walk slowly, I looked like a person who is just taking a walk,” she said with a grin of embarrassment.
For rehearsals, she simply asked basic questions like “What should I bring on the first day?” and “Is it all right to go there in a sweatsuit?” It was almost hard to imagine Aoi played a big role on an NHK drama for half a year.
Aoi became familiar to TV viewers by playing the lead role of Ten Kitamura in the NHK drama “Warotenka,” which was aired until the spring of 2018. As more than 2,000 people auditioned for the role, she said, “I thought it was just great to have been able to advance even to the third stage.” She seized the role in that self-effacing way.
Based on the life of Sei Yoshimoto, the cofounder of major entertainment company Yoshimoto Kogyo Co., the drama centers on Kitamura, who transforms Osaka into a town of laughter. Rehearsals and shooting continued from the morning to late at night every weekday. Before picking up her pace, Aoi said she would run out of energy every night. Despite that, she researched the background behind the drama, such as going to see comic performances, and finally did justice to the role, keeping in mind a line from the drama, “I should smile especially in hard times.”
In the character’s innocent girlhood, Aoi played a role exuding freshness. As Kitamura grew older through life, Aoi presented a composed characterization, even though the actress’ actual age was only 19 at the time. Her performance won much acclaim.
After maturing significantly through the morning serial drama, Aoi will likely, with a clear mind, absorb new knowledge and experience from her first attempt at a musical role. Her training much focuses on singing. “I appreciated the beauty of the songs anew. It’s amazing that all the songs are so impressive,” she said.
Asked to name a song she likes in particular, she selected “Itsuka,” of which the original French title is “Un Jour.”
“As Romeo and Juliette sing for their destined soul mate they haven’t met yet, their eyes don’t meet on the stage. But I like the way they sing in harmony like a duet,” she said.
As the original play is a famous masterpiece, Aoi’s enthusiasm is very strong. “The two meet and fall in love, but eventually die. If that is put into words, it’s a simple story, but I want to carefully perform the part that can’t be put into words,” she said.
The inquiring actress has many hobbies, including theatergoing and reading. This year, she will also work on narrating a documentary film and do an audio guide for an exhibition.
“Even if I do say so myself, I’m still young, so I want to actively take on challenges,” she said with a gleam in her eyes. “I like plays very much. It would be great if I can continue performing in plays next year, the year after next, and in 10 years’ time, too.”
The musical “Romeo & Juliette” will be performed at the Tokyo International Forum in Tokyo from Feb. 23 to March 10; at the Kariya Cultural Center in Kariya, Aichi Prefecture, from March 22 to 24; and at the Umeda Arts Theater in Osaka from March 30 to April 14. Speech