Ongakuza still going strong creating musicals

©︎Human Design Inc.
Nana Kono, center, and Yuji Hirota, left, perform in a scene from Ongakuza Musical’s highly-acclaimed “Sunday.”

For over three decades, Ongakuza Musical has been creating original musicals. Having overcome being disbanded at one point, the Tokyo-based company is back as big and better than ever, using its own system to create productions that includes more effective management. Currently on a roll, its original musicals have been staged even by major theater production companies such as Toho Co.

Let’s look back on Ongakuza’s past and explore what it’s up to today.

Launched in 1987, Ongakuza Musical produced a succession of new works in its early years, such as “Shabondama Tonda, Soramade Tonda” (1988), “I Love Botchan” (1992) and “Nakanaide” (1994). Such shows pulled on the heartstrings of audiences and won many awards, including The Yomiuri Theater Awards. In its heyday, the company saw about 300,000 people flocking to see its musicals in one year.

The company was founded by playwright-director Reiko Aikawa, a businessperson by trade who ran several businesses. Her group companies financially supported Ongakuza, but it was always struggling to stay above water.

©︎Human Design Inc.
Ongakuza Musical actors and students remotely interact during an online training program that the company provides.

“Musicals were Aikawa’s life’s work. She would never tighten the company’s purse strings when it came to production expenses,” said Ongakuza Musical chief producer Seiko Ishikawa.

The company disbanded due to financial and other reasons in 1996, but restarted in 2004.

In 2016, the company lost its charismatic leader with the death of Aikawa. She was succeeded by her second son, Taro Aikawa, who had been working outside the theater world, including the gaming industry.

“He comes from a nontheatrical background, but I feel he takes after his mother when it comes to color senses and stage direction styles,” Ishikawa said.

Since Taro took over, the company has produced two new musicals: “Goodbye My Darling’” (2017) and “Sunday” (2018). The latter work won praise for its layered structural storytelling. Nana Kono, who starred in the musical, won the newcomer’s award in the theatrical category of the Cultural Affairs Agency’s National Arts Festival Awards for fiscal 2020.

Word has it that the six new members who joined the company this year all decided to do so after seeing “Sunday.”

Actively involved

Ongakuza Musical is financially supported by the training programs it runs, aimed mainly at corporate executives and employees to teach them the significance of working and equip them with the right mental attitude. The programs came into full fruition in 2015. Courses for students have been added as well.

A poster for “The Little Prince”

The company initiated an Art & Creation Workshop, a manpower training program for high school students, in August. The company’s actors served as workshop guides for students taking part in the program.

“Now, then, each group needs to make a commercial,” said one of the actors to the participants through a remote conference system. The students were split into groups, and each group could choose the subject for the commercial. They then remotely made a TV commercial-like movie together. Each group remotely performed their work for other students through the online conference.

At first, the students seemed to be at a loss for how to make a commercial, saying it was too difficult. However, encouraged by the actors telling them making mistakes was not something to be embarrassed about, they gradually started sharing their opinions with fellow members. They then decided on catch phrases and the structures of their commercials. The results included some unique content, such as a commercial for a “song vaccine” that quickly defeats viruses.

Ishikawa said: “I told 40 members of the company, ‘We will rehearse and perform between the training programs, which will not simply be something we do in our spare time. Is that all right with you?’ and they all agreed. They said they would accept doing the programs if that guaranteed their being able to do stage musicals.”

The company is trying to promote through these programs the same ideals it has for its musicals: Don’t leave things to other people. Get actively involved.

The made-to-order programs have been well received, and the company now annually fields about 250 orders for them.

The pandemic forced all training programs to be cancelled in April and May of last year, but when the company started offering the programs remotely, they became hugely popular. Orders are now about 80% of what they were before the pandemic, according to the company.

Ongakuza Musical’s goal remains unchanged from the beginning.

“It’s about creating productions that the audience find so amazing, they can’t stand up after the show,” Ishikawa said. “If we can produce good shows, then other companies will start saying they want to make original musicals, too, which will help raise the level of all of us. We have to stay alive until then.”

The Yomiuri Shimbun
Yoshio Inoue

In December, the company will stage a revival of the musical “Love of Seven Dolls” based on a novel by Paul Gallico.

A fan as a child now takes the stage

Since last year, commercial theater powerhouse Toho Co. has staged new productions of musicals created by Ongakuza Musical, starting with “Shabondama Tonda Soramade Tonda,” the title of which roughly translates as “Bubbles have floated up to the sky.”

Yoshio Inoue, who starred in the Toho production, said he had been a fan of Ongakuza Musical for a long time.

“I saw Ongakuza Musical shows on TV when I was a child going to school,” he said. “I had become a musical fan after I watched ‘Cats’ performed by the Shiki Theatre Company, and all the musicals I knew at the time came from overseas. Ongakuza Musical productions are often set in Japan, and I found it amazing that our everyday lives could become a musical.”

When Inoue appeared in “Shabondama Tonda Soramade Tonda,” he was impressed with the beauty of the music and the high quality of the show.

“I thought the production was so polished by being repeatedly staged under the company’s own creation system,” he said.

Toho staged Ongakuza Musical’s “Mademoiselle Mozart” in October and will put on “The Little Prince” in January. Inoue will appear in “The Little Prince,” a musical adaptation of the popular eponymous novella by Antoine de Saint-Exupery.

“I’m happy just being on stage for that musical,” he said.