HEADING EAST (Dink 1999)

An unproduced musical about Chinese American assimilation spanning one hundred fifty years, from unknown creators and a label you've never heard of, with a cast of fifteen -- well, Heading East sounds slightly dubious. But this "premiere cast recording" of the musical by Leon Ko (music) and Robert Lee (book and lyrics) is worth tracking down.

While the subject is Chinese American, and at least one of the authors is presumably Chinese American as well, there is nothing especially "Asian" about this score. This is modern musical theatre writing, and it is interesting, intelligent, and inventive. Ko and Lee apparently worked together at NYU's Musical Theatre Writing Program; the information packed liner notes don't tell us much about the production history of Heading East or its authors (who both appear in small roles on the disc). There is a thoughtful and appreciative appreciation by David Henry Hwang, which seems to assume that these writers speak mainly to a Chinese American audience. Again, nothing in the work labels Ko and Lee's ethnicity anymore than Floyd Collins indicates that Adam Guettel is a Kentucky hillbilly.

The plot tells of a young Chinese man who emigrates to California for the 1848 Gold Rush, and follows his family over several generations. Kind of a reverse Pacific Overtures, with a bit of Flower Drum Song thrown in. But the Heading East score stands on its own. Standout songs include the lovely "This Is How He Says 'I Love You'," the driving, torch-like "All We Can Do Is Remember," and the tender "Only Home." There are also some intelligently-conceived musical scenes, like "A Long, Long Way Back Home." Paolo Montalban, who sang Lun Tha in the recent King and I revival, gives an attractive performance in the leading role.

I don't suppose the prospects are bright for a musical about Chinese American assimilation spanning one hundred fifty years, at least in the commercial theatre. The authors, though, have demonstrated that they pretty much know what they are doing. If they can write like this -- and if they are still active -- one hopes that they will turn up in the future with something less specialized. And while I don't suppose the cast album of Heading East will be a big seller, I suspect that musical theatre enthusiasts will enjoy it if they can find it. If your local record store doesn't have it, it is available from the major Internet CD sources.

-- Steven Suskin, author of the new Third Edition of "Show Tunes" (now available from Oxford University Press) and the "Opening Night on Broadway" books (from Schirmer). Prior ON THE RECORD columns can be accessed in the Features section:. You can E-mail him at Ssuskin@aol.com