Jamie Ford’s bestselling novel set in Seattle’s Chinatown–International District in the midst of World War II is en route, slowly, to movie screens. But a musical version of Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet is also gaining traction.
Seattle native Paul Fujimoto, now a composer and lyricist in New York City, and Lainie Sakakura—whose three decades on Broadway include writing, acting, even choreography—have secured the rights to the novel’s musical adaptation. Their project, known simply as Corner of Bitter and Sweet, has been a bootstrapped endeavor thus far, but its creators are talking to Seattle’s 5th Avenue Theatre about a possible collaboration to develop the show.
Last year, the pair marshaled “every Asian American friend we could find in the business,” as Sakakura puts it, for a table read and rented a space in Manhattan’s Midtown for a sort of test show known in the industry as a 29-hour reading. The author and his family attended, as did some people attached to the film project.
Obviously there are many steps, and potential pitfalls, between the development stage and an actual stage. But there’s so much narrative potential inherent to Ford’s story of two pre-teens, Chinese American Henry Lee and Japanese American Keiko Okabe, who live on opposite sides of Chinatown–International District and befriend each other shortly before Keiko's family is interned at Minidoka.
“You can’t take all that text and translate that into musical form,” says Sakakura. She and Fujimoto delved into the story’s father-son dynamics, even working with a Cantonese consultant, and the two protagonists’ coming of age story. “It’s a tender story of young love told through this dark time,” says Fujimoto.
The composer grew up on Beacon Hill, and credits his mom for suggesting, years ago, that the bestselling novel would make an excellent musical. “Honestly, what I liked about it was that it was set in Seattle and half of it is set in the 1940s,” he says. “I’m a jazz guy.”
Sakakura, who had been looking for a project that showcases Asian American talent, liked that music was already built into the story, via Henry’s friendship with a saxophonist named Sheldon. “A young Chinese American kid that has a secret love of jazz? There’s a musical right there.”
They’re not the only ones reframing Ford’s story, which debuted a decade ago last month. The author himself wrote a new standalone short story solely about Keiko that’s part of an anniversary reissue of the book.