Thai pop singer to take 5th Avenue stage in “Waterfall”

Bie Sukrit, third from left, and the Company of Waterfall. Photo taken at the Pasadena Playhouse. (Courtesy photo from the 5th Avenue Theatre. Photo by Jim Cox.)

The Thai pop sensation known as “Bie the Star” will be the star in a new musical opening this week at Seattle’s 5th Avenue Theatre.

Waterfall” is the U.S. adaptation of hit Thai musical “Behind the Painting,” based on the 1937 Thai novel by author Siburapha.

The director of “Behind the Painting,” Tak Viravan, is a hit theater producer in Thailand and is the mastermind behind the new U.S. adaptation, which is headed for Broadway.

The production not only brings pop star Bie Sukrit to the United States in the lead role, but also crosses the cultures of Thai and American musical theater traditions.

Sukrit reprises his leading role as young student Noppon, who falls into a forbidden romance with the wife of a Thai diplomat in pre-World War II Asia. The singer, who has released six pop albums, rose to fame in Thailand after being discovered on “The Star,” an American Idol-like television program.

Viravan enlisted lyricist Richard Maltby and composer David Shire, both Broadway veterans, for the U.S. adaptation. Maltby, who worked on “Ain’t Misbehavin'” and “Miss Saigon,” said by phone that it was important to “treat the cultures seriously and give them respect.” 

“We’ve had lots of discussions about ‘What does being Thai mean?’” Maltby said.

“Richard would write something, and Tak would say, ‘I like this [part], but a Thai man would never say that.’” said Shire, who was won Oscar and Tony awards for his work on film and stage. “He’s constantly been correcting us and pointing us in the right way.”

Retaining Sukrit in the lead was important to Maltby. When Viravan showed him a video of the Thai production of “Behind the Painting,” Maltby insisted that the pop singer needed to play the lead in the U.S. because of his charm, charisma and realness.

That Sukrit didn’t know English at the time was a minor detail. Sukrit learned English specifically to bring the role to the United States and now speaks the language well.

The story, which is a classic of Thai literature, takes place in 1930s Thailand and Japan, when Thailand’s monarchy has fallen and Japan may be heading to war.

To appeal to a U.S. audience, the part of the wife in “Waterfall” was changed to an American named Katherine. Laura Griffith is cast in the role, and is the only Caucasian actor in the cast of 20. Most of the actors are Asian American, Maltby said.

Viravan also brought in Dan Knechtges, the Tony-nominated choreographer of “Xanadu,” to co-direct. Broadway veteran Knechtges helped help the Thai director relate to the mostly U.S. cast members, who come from a different theatrical culture than Viravan, Shire said.

While culturally, Thai actors typically take direction from Thai directors without question, actors in the U.S. usually want to delve into why their character would do what they do, Shire said.

Shire also combined traditional Thai sounds with ’30s American jazz for “Waterfall.” “I love to blend styles,” he said.

Shire said the experience brought him out of his comfort zone, as he explored different Asian musical traditions.

“I used to lump Asian music as one, but found out that the Japanese pentatonic scale is not the same as the Thai pentatonic scale.”

Along with Viravan and some others who worked on “Waterfall” in Pasadena, where the musical premiered in June, Maltby and Shire have traveled to Seattle to continue to develop the musical.

Long-time collaborators Maltby and Shire hope audiences will respond as positively as they did in Pasadena, they said.

“We love writing musicals,” Shire said. “We’ve been doing it for 55 years together.”

“It’s exhausting, terrifying, debilitating and the most fun in the world,” Maltby said.

If you go

“Waterfall,” a new musical created by veteran Thai and American theatrical artists, opens October 1 at Seattle’s 5th Avenue Theatre and runs through October 25. Produced by 5th Avenue Theatre and The Pasadena Playhouse, “Waterfall” premiered in Pasadena in June and is slated for Broadway next year.