You might know him as the foreign-exchange student from the teen-cult comedy, “Sixteen Candles,” and as the voice of Ling in Disney’s “Mulan,” but Gedde Watanabe’s résumé spans a lifetime of many more roles.
With a career in entertainment that spans more than 45 years, the proud Japanese American has done it all in the realm of film, TV, and the stage (he was in the original Broadway production of “Pacific Overtures”), all the while remaining a humble student of his craft. As one who has earned a healthy respect among his peers for both dramatic and comedic turns, Watanabe continues to embody a dynamic spirit that especially translates well to a live setting. For this reason, among others, East West Players (EWP), the historic Asian-American theatre company in downtown Los Angeles, has asked Watanabe to return and headline Stephen Sondheim’s “Assassins” — for a second time after the first planned run in spring 2020 was canceled due to COVID-19.
The dark-ish musical comedy, which is directed by EWP’s Producing Artistic Director and USC professor, Snehal Desai, is perhaps more germane than ever today. In an age where the presidency has become polemical, and the notion of celebrity has become a currency to be garnered on particularly social media, “Assassins” signifies that some unfavorable things never change; in fact, they might even become exacerbated.
Using drama, satire, and of course song and dance, “Assassins” examines five would-be assassins and four successful ones, who in their misguided desire to avenge or achieve a timeless notoriety, target United States presidents. Most have also heard of the assassins whose plans immediately came to fruition, such as John Wilkes Booth (Lincoln), Lee Harvey Oswald (JFK), and maybe even Leon Frank Czołgosz (William McKinley). But many, even including Watanabe, had up until the last few years not heard of Charles Guiteau, who shot James A. Garfield on July 2nd, 1881.
Watanabe, who portrays Guiteau, recently discussed —among several other topics surrounding the musical, his career, and stepping back into the role after a near-two-year, COVID-mandated hiatus — how he researched the mystifying history of the gunman whose bullet, which was fired on the grounds of the Baltimore and Potomac Railroad Station in Washington, D.C., led to the 20th U.S. president succumbing a few months thereafter due to complications stemming from the incident.
How did your involvement in “Assassins” come together, and where does it rank on your list of best Stephen Sondheim musicals?
Watanabe: This came together by accident [laughs]. Marc Macalintal [the music director], whom I had worked with before doing “La Cage aux Folles” [in 2016] said, ‘I think Gedde could do this.’
I should have auditioned but I didn’t. And If I did, I would’ve known what I got myself into [laughs]. I’m one of those actors that, especially with East West Players, always says ‘yes.’ But then I wonder, what did I do? [laughs]
I ran over to Marc’s house and wondered If I could still hit the notes and I found out that I could. I’ve also been reading a book by Candice Millard called ‘Destiny of the Republic: A Tale of Madness, Medicine and the Murder of a President.’ It’s very informative and offers information on who Charles Guiteau is, as there is very little information on him, at least compared to the other assassins.
I also looked at his picture, saw his beard, and decided to grow out my own! I didn’t know I could grow a beard!
You’ve never had a beard before?
Watanabe: Never! [laughs]
I didn’t know much about ‘Assassins,” except for seeing it at a small theatre. It feels very interesting, but all of Sondheim’s musicals have grabbed me one way or another.
Tell us more about your character, Charles Guiteau, who is based on the real-life writer and lawyer who assassinated President James Garfield. Is there any possible way you can identify with such a person?
Watanabe: When you start excavating things, lots is revealed. I learned that the poor man [Guiteau] has his brain pickled in a museum somewhere [at the Mütter Museum in Philadelphia]. Back then, they didn’t have the capacity to diagnose many diseases, but apparently he had neurosyphilis and got it from a prostitute, which is ironic since he was very religious.
As you dig more and more, you go into what neurosyphilis causes, like paranoid schizophrenia. In researching the character, I realized It was scary but also fun. I knew I could do something like this.
He also didn’t wear socks, but we don’t know why. Maybe because they were very expensive at the time, but I read somewhere that neurosyphilis causes welts on the feet – which could explain why he didn’t wear socks. Ultimately, the questions presented are more fascinating than the facts themselves, and I’m making choices based on the questions that come up as opposed to the facts.
In this musical, you’re performing in “The Gun Song” and “The Ballad of Guiteau.” Tell us about how you vocally prepared for these pieces?
Watanabe: I’ve been singing all the time. I’m prepared but I was scared of the high notes. If you push, you’re not acting them. This is why I went to Marc’s house, sat down, and panicked [laughs]. But I was fine. You try to find freedom in your voice so you can do what you need to do.
‘The Gun Song,’ is frightening but funny. There’s something frivolous about it, and then it turns – kind of like Guiteau himself. It’s fun to play that.
This hasn’t been your first go-around with East West Players. What has your experience been like with the theatre company as well as working with East West Players’ Producing Artistic Director and director of this musical, Snehal Desai?
Watanabe: It’s been great. I get what he [Desai] wants and it’s very clear and exciting in how we can make this happen for him. There are many gaps in this piece; we just say what we do, and much of the research is not in what we’re performing, so you have to find what you can use. It’s beguiling!
Let’s take a quick detour for a second. One of the films you’re most known for is, of course, “Sixteen Candles.” Do you ever think a stage adaptation of the John Hughes picture could be done, and if so, what do you believe would be changed from the original script?
Watanabe: It should be a musical; it could be very interesting. Would it be historically changed if it were made today? You probably mean my character with all the controversy, right [laughs]?
My character in ‘Sixteen Candles’ did a rap song at the gym, but it got cut unfortunately, as it added to the frivolity of it all, including how he loved America.
With the #MeToo movement and everything, I think you would have to take this [hypothetical] ‘Sixteen Candles’ on the road and test it out with people before a Broadway run.
With political correctness, I think everyone having a voice is very important, and certain things need to be defined and exposed, but it can also take away [from creativity], which is why you have to lay it all out on the table. I’m a Pollyanna as I believe people can figure it out. I have a lot of faith in humanity to understand.
Of all the movies, TV shows, and stage performances you’ve done, what has been most fulfilling for you up until this point and why?
Watanabe: They have only been moments as I was able to go to a place that I didn’t think I would be able to visit. It’s hard to explain, and as a whole, they were great experiences in which I forgot myself in [the roles]. That’s how I relate to things; it’s all been very fulfilling and exciting for me.
When I did ‘Gung Ho,’ there was a drunk scene with Michael Keaton that I loved. In ‘La Cage,’ there was a scene with Zaza and her son reconciling. These were moments that resonated.
Back to “Assassins.” What was it like getting back together with your cast mates to rehearse again nearly 2 years after you were originally scheduled to run?
Watanabe: Honestly, getting back together after two years felt like we just picked up where we left off. I myself started off a little rusty since I had not sung in two years, but the others seemed to slide right back into it.
Has anything significant changed in the staging of the production?
Watanabe: The staging has had a few tweaks but the direction seems to have remained the same; just a lot of clean up. What did change is after what our country had gone through (e.g., Jan. 6th). The show resonates and seems to reflect differently now.
With COVID sparing no live events — even today with the Omicron variant being a concern — how do you and your stage colleagues try to stay optimistic?
Watanabe: COVID precautions are a pain in the…but necessary! It is always the ghost that haunts us. The uncertainty is very hard, testing three times a week. Everyone seems to have found a way to breathe and sing through the masks; for me I have to break and go outside to get some fresh air during rehearsals. But the cast is great and we all take it in stride but seriously. No one wants to get it. We are a fully vaxxed cast and crew. All in all, with what we have, we feel safe.
Ultimately, how do you think “Assassins” will be received by audiences?
Watanabe: I have no idea. It will be interpreted in some way whether you’re a Democrat or a Republican. I’m fascinated by this play. I was told by an actress that this particular piece really needs an audience, and I agree. I’m curious but I have no idea! [laughs]
For more information, and to purchase tickets to see Gedde Watanabe in “Assassins,” please visit:
What to know before you go: East West Players’ current COVID-19 policy requires guests to be vaccinated for all indoor events. Upon arrival and prior to entering the event, all guests must present a photo ID along with proof that they meet the CDC definition of being fully vaccinated against COVID-19, in accordance with the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health guidelines. Additionally, when not actively eating or drinking masks should be worn at all times.