JET! The Musical

Hawkeye

imageJET! Is a story of a ragtag group of graduates who wish to put their degrees to something fulfilling, something amazing, something magical. Unfortunately for them they think the Japanese Exchange Teaching program is the best way to go about it. The oblivious group of five consisting of a man who loves the Japanese culture, an otaku, a woman who only speaks Japanese, a over achieving seppuku snob and of course, the clueless “Japan is where pocky comes from right, right?” girl set off on a fantastic adventure to teach children in Japan English. Of course, they do it in song.

This amazing albeit amateur production was presented at Animazement 2007 by COUP, a local anime club located in Durham North Carolina. Phil Lee, writer and producer gives us an inside look at JET! and the making of a musical at an anime convention.

FMA WarCry: How did the musicals first get started here at Animazement?

imagePhil: We’re going to have to set the Wayback Machine to the year 2000, where I had the idea of putting on a parody of Iron Chef at Animazement. This was shortly before the show had been broadcast in the US. I received subtitled copies of the show recorded by a friend and was terribly amused by the idea. I pitched this to the Carolina Otaku Uprising (aka COUP, UNC’s anime club) as “Dormitory Iron Chef”, where we would actually cook and compete on stage. Where the food available was the sort of thing you’d find in the average dorm fridge, the only heating implement was a microwave, and the contestants played to lose, much to the chagrin of our long-suffering judges. Animazement agreed to let us put it on as a Saturday afternoon event and we confused and entertained the crowd with gross-out humor.

Dormitory Iron Chef went over very well and we put it on for two more years, drawing increasingly large crowds and reaching impressively low depths of cooking ability. Fortunately, our judges were armed with strong stomachs and brutal sarcasm. After the third year we decided that the joke had been thoroughly done and opted to give it a rest. Next year we tried a game show parody, which didn’t work terribly well, so we took a year off to think about it.

Inspiration came out of the blue one day as a batch of COUP members were en-route to a meeting. I stopped suddenly and yelled, “That’s it! Evangelion: The Musical!” Unfortunately, this was a few weeks short of that year’s Animazement, so I took a few notes and got back to it the next year. The appeal of the Iron Chef parodies was that they were improv and, aside from putting together video sequences, didn’t require a lot of advance planning, so this was very different from the events COUP had put on in the past. Still, I was able to get a script together a couple of months in advance, COUP loved the idea, and we presented Eva! The Musical at Animazement 2005 where it turned out to be far more popular than anyone anticipated.

After the success of Eva!, we wanted to put on another production the next year, with yours truly writing “It Seemed Like A Good Idea At The Time”, a musical comedy about running an anime con. That was even more popular, as word had spread about Eva! the previous year, so it seemed natural to perform another musical at this year’s Animazement.

FMA WarCry: What was inspired this years production JET?

Phil: COUP had discussed the idea of portraying an American in Japan ala “Lost in Translation” and showing that it wasn’t going to be quite what they expected, to say the least. I knew several folks who were either current or former members of the Japan Exchange and Teaching program and I thought that, as strange as it can be simply visiting Japan, trying to teach English over there must be even stranger. Chatting with said JETs confirmed this and thus this year’s musical really started to come together. It also provided a gratuitous reason to write a parody of “An English Teacher” from Bye Bye Birdie.

FMA WarCry: Why a musical and not just a play?

Phil: This goes back to the original idea of “Eva! The Musical”, because if a stage production making fun of Evangelion is amusing then a musical production can’t help but be even more amusing. Having done one musical, it seemed natural to continue the idea in subsequent years.

FMA WarCry: Was there any big problems that happened this year?

Phil: Fortunately, no. There were some minor glitches, but very little that could be noticed during the performance.

FMA WarCry: What’s the best memory you have of running a musical?

Phil: I’m torn, so here are two:

The Evangelion musical ends with the cast leading the group in a mass sing-a-long of “All You Need Is Love”, which I wasn’t sure was going to work until the moment it actually happened. In short order we had the whole room singing at the top of their lungs, which was incredibly gratifying.

Second, during “It Seemed Like A Good Idea At The Time”, we wanted to have a parody of anime music video contests. So, I drafted “Glomp” William Bloodworth, our AMV coordinator, to help me edit something together, the basic gag being that every single song was by German lounge schlockmeister Heino. These were short clips until the final one, which we made longer in case we needed extra time to work with. The final video was made using entirely non-action shots of Final Fantasy: Advent Children, with thrilling shots of Cloud talking on his cell phone or whatnot. The crowd lost it and Bloodworth, who was manning the video, decided to keep it running, despite the cast member on stage desperately giving the cue to end the video. He showed the whole damn thing, the crowd rioted the entire time, and our poor actor wound up curled up fetal on stage by the end of it. Which was, of course, great.

FMA WarCry: What’s the worst memory of running a musical?

Phil: Every year, the hour or so leading up to the musical is absolutely nerve wracking. We’ve always had difficulties getting good sound out of the musical setup – we’re trying to put on an event in a situation that is absolutely not designed for it, and the sound is always the trickiest part – so there’s a lot of fretting, last minute sound checking, and freaking out. Fortunately, once things actually start you don’t have time to worry any more.

FMA WarCry: I noticed the crowd was pretty packed this year, do you always get good feed back from the audience?

Phil: We’ve had good reaction from the audience each year we’ve put the musical on. While there are sometimes sound issues, with folks in the back getting restless because they’re having trouble hearing some parts, in general folks really get into it. Lots of cheering and laughing at the right spots, a willingness to jump in and sing along with whatever we throw at them (this year it was “Minnie the Moocher”), you name it. Afterwards we’ve always had a lot of positive feedback – which is good, because after two frantic months of preparations, we all need convincing that it’s a good idea to put on another musical the next year!

FMA WarCry: What advice would you give to someone interested in running an anime musical at a con?

Phil: First off, we’re proof that it can be done. You may have to scramble to talk a convention into letting you give it a shot, but it’s absolutely possible. Second, be sure to plan for the hurdles in your path – talk extensively with your AV guys about the sound issues you’ll need to work out, be sure to start working on the production well in advance, and get ready to be stressed out for several weeks. That said, the pay off is absolutely worth it. Finally, for folks who like the idea of putting on a show but don’t have a script, we’re planning on making all our materials – scripts, music, you name it – available on the COUP webpage, ready to be used with our blessings. Just drop the club a line if you’re interested.

The cast was’t stars of stellar singing, and you won’t see this title on broad way, but I thoroughly enjoyed this show full of funny antics. I absolutely can’t wait to see what COUP will bring us next year at Animazement 2008.

A special thanks to the cast of Jet! the Musical as well as Phil Lee and Cat the director.

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