The Orient has always fascinated musical writers and some of the top guns such as Rodgers and Hammerstein (The King and I, Flower Drum Song), Stephen Sondheim (Pacific Overtures) and Boublil and Schonberg (Miss Saigon) have turned their hand in that direction. Heading East however is the genuine article, an Oriental musical written by Orientals, Robert Lee and Leon Ko. That said the writers can rightly be called Asian Americans and it that very blend of Oriental and Occidental that makes Heading East such a treat.
It tells the story of 150 years of Chinese immigration to America through a constant central character, Siu Yee, and contrasts the differing attitudes of Chinese and other immigrants from Asia to the New World. While some encompass and embrace all things American, other stick doggedly to their old ways and traditions. The music also travels a long and winding road gathering and using diverse influences along the way.
The early Chinese feel of the opening numbers quickly gives way to the music of the American west with lute becoming banjo. Many of the songs in the first act are particularly interesting, extended works that are self contained minor vignettes; the story of the gold rush is cleverly told in the effusive "Gold" while the tale of the many Asians who suddenly became native Americans in the aftermath of the destruction of the San Francisco Immigration office is amusingly told in "Good Ol' Uncle Sam". Much simpler but just as memorable is the lovely duet "A Long, Long Way Back Home" where the differences between life on either side of the Pacific is clearly illustrated. The real first act highlight, however, is the wonderful "Thanksgiving/ Family raditions", incorporating a series of thanksgiving dinners during which a family grows ever apart due to cultural differences.
Somewhere around the middle of this long recording (it clocks in at 74 minutes) things begin to drag a little largely due to an over profusion of segments of dialogue and the inclusion of the dream sequence song "Shame"; I'm sure it would be effective on stage but doesn't cut it on an audio recording. But just when you begin to wonder if the writers have used up all their good songs early on, back they come with a trilogy of crackers. It kicks off with the touching duet "Much Like You", where the estranged couple Siu Yee and Lee Fung pay testament to the attributes each has passed on to their son ("It took time to understand, each moment I was proud of, had something of your touch, and something of your flair, time to understand, he is so much better, for the life we share").
That's followed by a real gem, "Only Home", an elegant and tender testament to the pull of home, performed by Siu Yee's mother, who rejects the opportunity to trade a ramshackle shack in China for a luxury home in America. It is so beautifully crafted ("I am fool to say, I'd ever want to stay, watch it come apart, that a crumbling door, or spot upon the floor, could be something close to my heart, what's a stove, or pot, or rusty cot, or a chair that you think is made of stone, only home, my son, only home, my son, no nothing like a paradise should be, only home, my son, only home, my son, and nothing but a home to me") that you can understand why the woman turns her back on the four bedrooms and the Jacuzzi for the familiar and the memories. The proceedings are brought to a conclusion by "This Is How A World Is Made" which, despite tinges of a Coca-Cola adverts, is an impressive anthem and a worthy conclusion to a score festooned with little gems.
The talent that has graced the stages of Miss Saigon around the world will have dispelled any idea that there isn't a wealth of top class Asian talent around and Heading East has gathered together many of them by assembling a fine cast. Paolo Montalban is excellent in the arduous role of Siu Yee, Fay Ann Lee (Lee Pung) sings quite beautifully while Ching Valdez Aran deserves a name check for the tasteful and moving "Only Home". As most of the names will mean little to the average reader it is rather pointless to recount all concerned but no one lets the side down.
It is always nice to come across something that bit special. Heading East, released by Dink Records on Dink 1999, is just that.