Now Lafayette’s Town Hall Theatre is opening its season with a newly revised version of Kahng’s first musical “The Song of the Nightingale,” which originally premiered in 2013 at Alameda’s Altarena Playhouse. Alameda playwright and composer Min Kahng has had a busy year. In July, TheatreWorks Silicon Valley premiered his musical “The Four Immigrants: An American Musical Manga” in Palo Alto.
The 35-year-old Bay Area native had to go back and forth between the finishing touches on his higher-profile new work and the tweaks he’d been meaning to make on his earlier piece ever since its original production closed.
“The Song of the Nightingale” is based on a fairy tale by Hans Christian Andersen set in ancient China. A kitchen maid gives a nightingale to the emperor as a gift, and he’s enthralled by its song and rewards her greatly. Soon enough, the emperor’s fancy drifts from the beloved bird to a new gewgaw, an artificial nightingale encrusted with jewels.
It may be counterintuitive to think of a play that premiered only four years ago as an early work, but Kahng had been playing around with this one for an awfully long time.
DC Scarpelli is the Emperor and Isabel To is Mei Lin in “The Song of the Nightingale” at Town Hall Theatre in Lafayette. Stu Stelland/Town Hall Theatre
“When I was in the third grade at Greenville Elementary School in Danville, we got to perform a kids’ play version of Hans Christian Andersen’s ‘The Nightingale,’ so that was my first introduction to the story,” Kahng says. “I believe that was the first role I ever played. Right around then is when ‘Beauty and the Beast’ hit theaters, so I think that event also got me excited about storytelling.”
It also got him in illustrating.
“I had a dream of becoming a Disney animator because of that movie. So I was sketching, I was drawing, and so one story in particular that I started to map out in my mind as a kid was Hans Christian Andersen’s ‘The Nightingale.’ I even have sketches from that age, where I was drawing characters out. I think ‘The Nightingale’ stood out to me particularly because they were Asian characters. As a kid wanting to tell a fairy tale, I think the fact that Hans Christian Andersen’s story takes place in China just appealed to me, to be able to see Asian characters in a Disney format. Years later, the animation dreams became less of a reality. But the Nightingale story stuck with me.”
Kahng says he’d been playing around with ideas for a ‘Nightingale’ musical at least since he was a teenager.
“I think somewhere in middle school or high school was when I discovered Broadway cast albums,” he says. “I oddly did not encounter the community theater world as a kid, so I didn’t even know that people were putting on musicals all around me, but I bought a lot of cast albums, and I was actually starting to write out the adaptation of ‘The Nightingale’ that early. There’s very little of that adaptation that exists in the current version.”
It was only after college, where he majored in music at UC Berkeley, that Kahng discovered local community theater and started to get involved.
“I started acting, I realized that I could play in pits for shows, I realized that I could direct music, and through that I started to see how other people had written their scores,” he recalls. “I realized like, oh, I could do this. In 2008 I reached a point with my corporate job where I was like, I think I want to try this arts career thing before I turn 30 to see how it goes.”
In 2010 Kahng self-produced a staged reading of his ‘Nightingale’ musical at Alameda High School, and three years later it premiered at Altarena. By then he’d also written his first of several pieces for Bay Area Children’s Theatre, so it wasn’t quite his first production.
“In my mind, though, ‘Nightingale’ is really the first project,” he says, “because it’s been a lifelong journey.”