Jamie Ford receives a fair amount of poetry, songs, and artwork from fans inspired by his 2009 novel, Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet. So he wasn’t overly invested when a few demo songs arrived back in August 2015.
But then, “I pressed play on my computer and I just ugly-cried all over my keyboard,” Ford remembers. “They just nailed it.” Granted, the tracks came from Paul Fujimoto, a Seattle native turned New York composer and lyricist, and Broadway veteran Lainie Sakakura.
Their songs are part of a multimedia renaissance of sorts for the 10-year-old novel—the tale of a youthful romance between Chinese American Henry Lee and Keiko Okabe, a Japanese schoolmate growing up on opposite sides of the International District during World War II. Ford optioned the film rights in 2017 (George Takei will executive produce) and an anniversary edition of the book includes a new short story about Keiko. He also gave Fujimoto and Sakakura his blessing to develop a musical adaptation, Corner of Bitter and Sweet.
Fujimoto knew of the book from his mom, and mentioned it to Sakakura at an industry event. “I’d spent a long time on Broadway working as a Japanese American person,” she says, but “not ever working for anybody of any kind of Asian descent whatsoever.” Both collaborators had family interned during WWII, like Keiko, but Sakakura says their musical focuses on characters’ relationships, not historical lectures: “It’s an intimate story in a big situation.” Precisely why it resonates, even years later.