"There's a kind of fierce dedication" among the 30 Asian Americans in the cast of "Shogun, the Musical," says director-choreographer Michael Smuin, who is bringing the extravaganza about 16th-century Japan to its world premiere Thursday night at the Kennedy Center. "It seems that they not only want a hit Broadway show; there's a bigger issue here."

The performers "want to show 'We have talent in the community; it's there and we can do it,' " says Smuin. This dedication may be rooted in a culture that places a premium on hard work, but it also relates to the recent controversy regarding Actors Equity, the casting of "Miss Saigon," and the relative scarcity of opportunities for Asian performers in the American theater.

"They feel a big sense of responsibility not only to themselves but to their community. That's very inspiring to me as a director. They're really disciplined. ... They're willing to try anything. I'll try something that doesn't work and I'll start to jump to something else and they'll say, 'No, let's work on this; let's see if we can manage it.' "

Otherwise, he has mixed feelings about Equity -- as does the "Shogun" cast. "Some think we should be able to cast as we damn please and others say no. But there has to be some kind of relaxing," he says. "Somehow, we have to lighten up. Productions suffer artistically because you're forced into certain modes of casting and operating that hurt the show; the show gets watered down. For instance, I had a chance to use two Chinese men; I auditioned them about a year ago, and they were sensational; they could dance, they could sing, they were acrobats, trained in the Beijing Opera. Equity blocked me on that, because they were not American citizens. It was a killer; I mean, it broke my heart. They were just great.

"When I did 'Sophisticated Ladies,' almost 10 years ago, we wanted to take it to London, but there weren't enough black artists in London who could sing and tap dance. The result was that we couldn't take that show over; it was a big loss. For a long time, I've wanted to do a production of 'Romeo and Juliet'; have an Arab Romeo and an Israeli Juliet and set it in the Middle East in time of war. But I'd hate to have Equity tell me, 'No, you can't do that; you have to use Italians."

In "Shogun," Equity did, finally, allow the company to use Peter Karrie, an English performer, as Blackthorne, the shipwrecked English sea captain who falls in love with a Japanese woman and becomes involved in the feudal society's politics and power struggles. "We wanted him from the beginning," Smuin says, "but we auditioned literally hundreds of guys and we went back to our first choice always. The producers felt so strongly about it that they said, 'We'll cancel; we're not putting in eight to 10 million to produce a new musical if we can't have the people we want.' "

An American Musical

Physically, "Shogun" involves 140,000 pounds of scenery, costumes and equipment, including 28 winches, 650 lights and 60 loudspeakers and more than 100 miles of cable to be used for spectacular stage effects that will include a thunderstorm at sea, a shipwreck and an earthquake. This production is bigger than the Berlin production of Wagner's "Ring" that played at the Kennedy Center last year, and it uses all kinds of high technology to create its illusions. "We can fill that stage with a solid wall of fog and smoke in a matter of seconds, then suck it away like a dissolve in a film," Smuin says proudly. "We have a highly sophisticated laser that we're using for a lightning effect. It doesn't look like a laser; it doesn't look like a high-tech rock-and-roll show. It's very painterly, like some of the old Japanese wood blocks."

Such descriptions make "Shogun" sound something like "Les Miserables" or "Phantom of the Opera," extravaganzas that have been coming over from London in recent years and pulling in millions while American musicals slowly die of box-office starvation. Smuin concedes there is a resemblance and adds, "We have a chance to reclaim our soul here, because it's definitely an American musical, even though it's about 16th-century Japan. The collaborators without exception are American-born and our sensibilities are all American."

He insists he does not approve of spectacle for its own sake: "It took this kind of craft and this kind of tonnage to create the simplicity I want. I didn't want it to look heavy; I wanted it to look light, graceful and rather elegant all the way through, and that took some really heavy equipment.

"Everything I do on that stage, I like to think I'm storytelling, even though it may also be a spectacle. Whenever I was in doubt about how to do this, I always went back to the novel, the story; that is really the backbone. I think there are times when you can back off from a story if what you are doing is atmospheric and true to the story. For instance, there is a scene where young Japanese women catch fireflies and put them in lanterns and you see the fireflies flying around in the lanterns. It may seem kind of frivolous and atmospheric, but it's a thing they did in that period of time, and you can watch it and let this atmosphere and that culture sort of wash over you. But spectacle for the sake of spectacle is gratuitous and useless. Unless there's an emotional reason behind it, I don't think it's effective. You go to a rock-and-roll show, and they do the most incredible pyrotechnics -- unbelievable stuff -- but somehow they don't touch you. You may admire them and you may be impressed, but they don't move you in any way."

Actually, he adds, the costumes and lighting are more important than the scenery and technical apparatus. "Not to shortchange the scenery; it's marvelous, but the costumes will tell us everything: who the people are, what their character is, what their station in life is; whether they're indoors or outdoors, whether it's hot or cold. The costumes are very complicated, very sophisticated -- 16th-century Japanese style, a very soft silk look."

Besides extensive research in books, he says, his direction of "Shogun" owes a lot to the inspiration of Japanese film director Akira Kurosawa. "I've always been a fan of Kurosawa's films," he says, "and I think the way I have directed this show has a lot to do with my admiration for him. It would be hard for me to point out exact areas where I was influenced, but I cannot believe that I was not heavily influenced by him. I've been digesting his films, especially in the past two years, and I have a stack of videotapes. Some I have watched 100 times or more. You're stuck for an idea, you've painted yourself into a corner, and you just slap on a videotape and all of a sudden it becomes clear to you what to do."

Bringing the Novel to the Stage

Smuin's connection with "Shogun" began in 1981, when James Clavell, author of the novel on which the musical is based, visited San Francisco to see his ballet "Shinju," based on a Japanese short story that had been made into a play for Bunraku puppets. "He liked it," Smuin recalls, "and he asked me if I would write a musical based on 'Shogun.' I said, 'James, I'm not a writer; I'm a choreographer and I direct, but I'm not really a writer.' He said, 'I've seen how you distilled that play into a ballet; I know you can take "Shogun" and make it into a musical.'

"Well, to make a very long story short, I took the novel off on a six-week vacation in Hawaii, worked on it every day for about six weeks and became terribly unsatisfied with what I was doing. I thought I was taking this huge historical landscape and dissecting it down into something that was not as meaningful and did not come up to the power and majesty of that book. So I called him in London and said it wasn't for me, I couldn't do it. At that time, I was very dedicated to the {San Francisco} ballet company, and I didn't want to take the time away for such a project. I knew it would probably involve more than a year's commitment over a three-year period, so I let it go and they went through a series of writers, a series of directors; for one reason or another, they were never happy with them.

"About two years ago, I was in London working on a project and James asked me if I would read the scripts. I said, 'Send me the music first,' so they sent me a demo they had made, and the music was just great; it gave me goose pimples. I thought, 'this is terrific, let's read the script.' Well, the script was a little intellectual; I didn't think it had a solid take on the emotional side of what this was all about. But I liked it. And here's the strange thing: The outline of that script was almost identical to the outline I had done almost 10 years ago. That gave me confidence; at least, my mind was in the right area. So, after talking with James Clavell and {producer} Joseph Harris about collaborating with the writers to sort of reshape the script to be a little more action-oriented and slightly less Zen, I thought we could make an American musical of it. It took us about 18 months to get a script into shape that we could take into rehearsal; then, through the rehearsal process, we have changed and rewritten on a daily basis."

Including various workshops with actors, he estimates, "I had a good 12 weeks prep on this before we went into full rehearsal. I brought experts in from Japan; I brought a fight master and a lady who taught us fans and tea and 16th-century etiquette -- walking, standing, bowing, moving; there's a certain way for everything. It was wonderful in rehearsals, you would hear a girl say, 'Oh my God, this is what my grandmother was talking about; now I know what she meant.' There were moments when people would break down sobbing, because they were recapturing or often for the first time finding their roots. There were days that were just thrilling -- exhilarating."

One of the things that had to be learned was the Japanese unspoken language: "Everything has meaning, even the way you set down a fan or take out a sword and set it with the blade pointing in a certain direction. You know, a fan can be used as a weapon, too; the women Samurai used to have their own weapon, tiny blades put on the edge of a fan; they could whip out a fan and cut a man's throat in the twinkling of an eye. You have a huge repertoire of all these rules and regulations, and when you get on top of it you find out you have committed some terrible faux pas and you have to go back and correct it. I stayed with this as long as it didn't get in the way of storytelling and the creation of an American musical. But we're not doing no and we're not doing Kabuki; it is an American musical, so it has to be sort of reshaped and seen through the eyes of Americans. That's what I've done; there are rules that have been broken, and I've done it deliberately, knowing it. But I haven't done anything intentionally to offend anyone or to annoy anyone or to push their nose in it.

"When you stop to consider: We're going to the Marquis Theater in New York, which is in the same building with the Marriott Hotel. The manager of the hotel told me that there are nearly 1,500 Japanese in the hotel turning over every other day. That could be half of our audience on any given night. And these are Japanese Japanese; they come on these three-day trips from Tokyo and go to Washington too. The hotel is working with a travel agency in Tokyo: Three days at the Marriott and you get a 'Shogun' T-shirt. So on any given night, we could have a half Japanese audience, or a quarter. But even if it's a twentieth, I think it behooves us to pay attention and try not to insult anyone."

In his preparatory research, "going through probably more than 100 books," he says he found "a thread that is sort of anti-Japanese. . . My reading tells me that, especially in the past two decades, there have been damn few books in English that are pro-Japanese, and 'Shogun' is one of them."

He confesses to "one little concern in the back of my mind: I hope the show is not too arty and so esoteric that it's not accessible. It's a very simple story: An Englishman goes to Japan, he becomes a Samurai, he falls in love with a Japanese woman; the Japanese woman is killed and he is probably left there in Japan for the rest of his life. That's what it basically is, with these two warlords fighting each other to become shoguns. That's the simplicity of it; there is also complexity with the Catholics, the Portuguese, the economics of silk, and a hundred things that go in and out of it. But it's boy finds girl, boy wins girl, boy loses girl, and I hope it will be as accessible to an audience as 'Romeo and Juliet.' "

The show's conventions, partly related to those of Japanese theater, are established right at the beginning, Smuin says, "Like the stagehands dressed in black; the audience will learn very quickly that they're not supposed to see them, and therefore they won't see them. I think audiences like you to challenge them a little bit and sort of titillate their imagination as well. I don't think you have to play down to an audience. I do think you have to make it a totally different experience for them; it can't be television, it can't be a novel; it has to be that theatrical time, and before they get out of there, before three hours are up, there has to be a reason why they got up from their couch, watching a baseball game or whatever else, to go to the theater. They have to feel they had a different kind of experience that they cannot get on television and they cannot get in a film."

For example, the feeling of being in a room where an earthquake is happening? "We do an earthquake that on paper is ridiculously simple," Smuin says. "But with the right lighting, the right action and the right sound, that audience will think they've been in an earthquake -- I hope." And he breaks into slightly nervous laughter.

Time to Smell the Roses

Born in Montana, Smuin became interested in dancing as a boy when he saw the movies of Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly. His parents, active in community theater, took him to all kinds of performances, and he became focused on ballet. He began to take dance lessons, joined the San Francisco Ballet and met and married a fellow dancer, Paula Tracy. They left the company in 1963, danced on Broadway, on television, in their own touring nightclub act and with the American Ballet Theatre where Smuin began to work as a choreographer as well. He returned to the San Francisco Ballet as associate director in 1973 and became co-director in 1976.

In 1985, Smuin was ousted as artistic director in an episode that created scandal and controversy throughout the dance world. He says his firing "had nothing to do with anything artistic. It was a situation where a person wanted to bring another person in as director because there was a romance involved." He remained "principal guest choreographer" for the ballet for several seasons.

Since then, in a career that has expanded to include stage direction as well as choreography and work in movies and television, Smuin has no regrets. "Getting fired was almost a blessing in disguise for me," he says. "When you run a ballet company and run it the right way -- and that means in the black for 12 years -- you don't have a lot of spare time or energy. I was spending from 7 in the morning until after midnight every day of my life making sure that the company was properly run, with little time for outside projects -- very little time for my family {his wife and a son who has just graduated from high school} ... But now I may do as many as three or four major projects per year and still have lots of time in between to enjoy life -- smell the roses, look at the sunset. Not this year, though."