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It's not just her talent that earns this theatre fan's adoration
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Even as someone who sees a lot of shows, it's rare that I get excited about someone in the chorus. It makes a kind of sense since (save for a handful of individual moments) they're usually meant to blend together into a cohesive unit. But every once in a great while there is someone in the ensemble who makes me sit up, take notice, and wonder, who is that? That happened to me when I saw Seussical's out-of-town tryout in Boston. Near the end of the musical, there's this verse:
"This is the case of the people versus Horton the Elephant,
Judge Yertle the Turtle presiding. Everyone riiiiiiiiiiiiise!"
That last note seemed to go on forever. Who was this Marshall of the Court, this diminutive woman with the huge voice? At that moment, I was not looking at Horton or any of the other main characters on stage. It was the first time a chorus member had so completely captured my attention.
After the show, as I waited at the stage door to say hello to Seussical songwriters Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty, I caught sight of the chorus member I had so admired and blurted out, "You are my favorite ensemble person!" She was taken aback, but also gracious and appreciative. I introduced myself and learned her name: Ann Harada. I told her I would be seeing the show in New York City and looked forward to hearing her belt out that couplet again.
Whenever I saw the show on Broadway and waited at the stage door -- which was fairly often during the musical's too-short run -- Harada and I would exchange pleasantries. When Seussical was set to close, I gave her my email and asked her to put me on her list so I would always know when I could see her in something. A few years later, she wrote saying she was doing "a little show" at the Vineyard Theatre Off-Broadway, a musical with puppets. I had no idea what to expect, but I wanted to keep my promise, so I went.
That "little show" turned out to be future Best Musical Tony winner Avenue Q, the show that changed her career. Finally, she graduated from no-character-name chorus member to playing Christmas Eve, a wisecracking therapist from Japan who gave out hilariously blunt advice. From her farcical accent, which never crossed the line into offensive, to her crack comic timing, Harada's Christmas Eve made her mark as one of only a handful of human characters in the puppet-populated musical. All these years later, I still laugh out loud when I play the original cast recording and hear Harada scream, "GET A JOB!" with uproarious exasperation after watching her fiancé's stand-up set. And that powerful voice that so impressed me in Seussical is on glorious display in her show-stopping number "The More You Ruv Someone" in which her purposefully strident singing suddenly evolves into a full-throated, Judy Garland-type croon.
But it's more than just her amazing talent that makes Harada special to me. She faces several obstacles as a performer. She's tiny and, being of Asian descent, roles aren't necessarily plentiful even in this supposed age of diversity. Yet, she perseveres. In the years since Avenue Q, I have seen her in a slew of productions, from low-budget shows Off-Broadway and in festivals, to high-profile roles on Broadway like playing the title character's comically evil stepsister in Rodgers + Hammerstein's Cinderella, to her recurring role as Linda the stage manager on NBC's cult hit Smash. None of these gigs have made her a "star," but she works consistently. And she always makes the most of every opportunity she's given. I think I am drawn to her as a performer partly because I wish I could follow her example in my own life. She realizes she is different, but also that she is great, and she knows how to stand out. On a typical episode of Smash she'd have maybe three lines, but they would be ones everyone was quoting the next day. In Cinderella, her acerbic "Stepsister's Lament" was a highlight of the show. In the recent concert staging of Dear World at the York Theatre Company, a lot of her dialog was with an invisible dog and she even made that work!
To my eyes she is the polar opposite of me. I'm no actress; I am a librarian who tends to give up after one or two setbacks. I was born with cerebral palsy, and while I haven't let it define me, it has limited my world view. When I hadn't found my purpose by age 35, I mostly stopped looking for it and I have remained in a stagnant job. Harada is the antithesis of this. She always seems so confident and unapologetically herself. She embraces her differences instead of letting them hamper her. She often laughs at herself, which makes it easy for us to laugh along with her.
The path of Harada's career has been unexpected. She wasn't in Allegiance or The King and I or Miss Saigon or South Pacific. (She's gone on record saying she's had "a hard time getting cast in typically Asian parts.") Except for Avenue Q and her current role in Classic Stage Company's revival of John Weidman and Stephen Sondheim's Pacific Overtures, most of the roles I have seen her in were not written specifically for Asian women. I love that she has been brave enough to carve her own path. I love that she is still carving it. As someone who has lived a very safe, conventional, risk-averse life, I admire Harada's ability to pursue the road rarely taken.
I also love that she has such a huge heart. Even though we aren't friends in the conventional sense, she sends me a Christmas card every year. When I had a small showing of my artwork, she came to see it. She also gives back to the fan community at events like the Broadway Flea Market and BroadwayCon. And every year she reprises her famous Avenue Q role at the holiday cabaret Christmas Eve with Christmas Eve to benefit Broadway Cares. The character lives out her fantasy of singing duets with Broadway's hottest and most talented men and it is, hands down, one of my favorite nights of the year. The evening is always hilarious, fresh, original, and unafraid, much like Harada herself.
Last week I got a chance to catch her in her latest show, a wonderful mounting of Pacific Overtures, which runs through May 27 at CSC. She plays multiple supporting roles but, as usual, makes her lines really land. One is just two words: "For now," which made my Avenue Q-loving soul smile, and her unanticipated turn as a French diplomat in the number "Please Hello" is one of the comic highlights of the production.
Whenever I see Harada in anything, I know it's a sure bet. Even if I don't love the show, I know I'll at least love her.
Ronni Krasnow works as a librarian. In her far more interesting life as theatre nerd, she runs the Ahrens & Flaherty Facebook page, serves on the reading committee for the New York Musical Festival, and creates theatre-related collage art.
Top image: Ann Harada, center, in Rodgers + Hammerstein's Cinderella, photos by Carol Rosegg.