Written by Yuko Kudo
Ever since I can remember, I have always been a musician. I started playing piano when I was 3, studied consistently till the end of my high school years. I practiced pretty much everyday, especially before the exams, when it was supposed to be a time for studying. Being 4’10”, having rather small hands, my reach was pretty limited. It never really occurred to me that I would pursue this as a career. It never did. There was no desire to go to the college to study piano. I didn’t even think twice about it. “I’m not going to pursue this, because I have small hands”. It made sense to me at the time, and it still does. But now that I am where I am, it is interesting how I already knew how much I could or couldn’t go because of my physical body. That being said, I knew I was good. Before I was 15 years old, playing things like Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata 3rd movement, Grand Sonata Pathetique, Chopin’s Fantaisie-Impomptu, Op66, that was fun for me. The dramatic movement of those music, and the fact that I was able to be loud and that was expected, that’s what drove me. Those were the music that I was drawn to. Around the same time, I also discovered the love for singing. I had music from J-pop, Disney Classics, Celine Dion, Mariah Carey, some soundtracks from the movies… That was my safe place, me, piano and music. I never really got into writing my own music.
When I moved to LA in 2003, a teacher suggested me that I should take an acting class because that would help me and my singing. That opened up my doors to musical theatre and acting world. I got sucked into it right away. “The characters in musical start singing, because they have absolutely no other option but to sing to express themselves”. I still remember that like yesterday. It was as if I were given a permission to express whatever was on the page. I was supposed to be mad, I was supposed to cry, I was supposed to be in love… All the feelings that I tried so hard not to feel, the permission was given to me the moment the script was handed to me. “I can be whoever I want to be.” And that line underneath was “because I can’t be whoever I want to be in real life”. That’s what I know now, but I had no idea back then. I was able to relate to those words, the music, the scene. Their story was my story. Their journey was my story. I was a finish that’s released into the water. The more I got into it, the more audience loved that performance. People would tell me how good I was on stage, how beautifully I sang. I was happy when I was on the stage.
In 2013, I finally made my move to NYC, to be on Broadway. I immersed myself with acting classes, singing lessons and a bit of dance lessons. And these trainings started giving me an access to even deeper part of who I was. They taught me how to be present, how to connect with people, how to really listen and be honest with myself… Then this question started popping up in my head, “WHO AM I?” I started feeling disconnected from my passion for acting and musical theatre. Noticing how I was dragging myself to go to classes, how frustrated I was to see all my classmates booking jobs and signing with agents while I was going nowhere. A place that was a happy place for me was no longer the same. One day, the meltdown happened. I cried in front of the class and shared how I was feeling. Then I left the class and decided to take time off from the whole thing. That led me to the journey of self discovery, healing, and personal development and spirituality. A lot has happened since then and still happening. I also know that this is a journey. Since then, this is how I see the whole thing.
“I loved singing, because those lyrics were not only giving me a permission to express myself, but also because it weren’t my words, I had no responsibilities. It wasn’t my own words. I also realized why I was loving all those dramatic piano music. Because that was my place to be me. I was bullied all the time, so I tried my best to hide, blend and be quiet. My goal was to blend in, not to stand out. But when I’m sitting in front of the piano, I had a permission to express myself unapologetically, again, without using my own words. On the stage, I was me.
I decided to sing again in 2016, right after the election. I wasn’t sure what to sing a few days prior to the day of the event. But in the morning, something clicked. I knew that I wanted to sing “Defying Gravity” from Wicked, for a reason that I never had before. Not because I love this song, I can relate to this song, or it feels great to belt out this song. For the first time, I thought “This message needs to be heard”. This message, that we get to defy gravity and not to play by other people’s rule, that needed to be heard. The song for declaration. I wanted to sing for people for the first time in my life. I became the vessel to the story and its message. For the first time, I didn’t play Elphaba. I was Elphaba. I was the story.
They say stage is a magical place for reasons. Stage gave me a place where I get to share things I couldn’t have otherwise. It gave me a permission to express part of me that I didn’t know how to. Scripts and lyrics gave me the tools to say things I didn’t know how to say in my own words. Acting gave me an access to express feeling that I didn’t want people to see. The applause from the audience gave me the validation that I wasn’t able to give myself. On stage, I was free. But that day, it showed me that there’s more. I can be the vessel for that story and the message. Using art as a gift and healing, that seed has been planted. How amazing would that be, if people can use their art to really tell their story, not only to escape from the reality, or to release their emotion. What if we can just create because that gives us joy as we did as children? Art is a powerful creative outlet for a lot of us, including myself. Without music, I don’t know where I would have been. And I don’t want to live in a world where there’s no art. We can use this amazing gift of arts to understand ourselves, heal ourselves, empower ourselves, share our journey. I think music helped me remember who I am.
Now, people know me as someone who sings “Defying Gravity” like nobody’s business. I am not pursuing singing as a career, or trying to be on Broadway. I sing, because I love it. Because these are the messages that I want to share. And these are the messages that I want to remind myself. It may not be the words I wrote, but those are my words. I sing because that’s my story. I sing because “I’m through accepting limits cuz someone says there are so. I’m through with playing by the rules of someone else’s game….. It’s time to trust my instincts close my eyes and leap”. This is my anthem. This is my song. And I want everyone to hear this message. Now, I’m defying gravity, beyond the 4th wall.