Community News and Announcements
By Wendy Kobayashi
Parent of alumni
(The Internationalist Fall 2018 Vol. 61)
Do you know this young woman? If you have a child who watched the Disney Channel in Japan between 2011 and 2015, then, yes indeed, you may be very familiar with the happy, smiling face of Marika Dandoy ‘05, as the musical theatre professional was a regular presenter on My Disney Junior. Unsurprisingly, Marika is as upbeat and bubbly in person as she is onscreen – but this is someone with more than a few strings to her bow.
Born to an American father and a Japanese mother, Marika Lauren Dandoy made her first appearance in this world in New York City, since her dad was working there at the time; but the family moved to Tokyo soon afterwards and now, she says, she feels like a foreigner when she goes back there. Her parents had met in Osaka at Kansai Gaidai University, where her mom was studying English and her dad went as an international exchange student after completing his service Mission for the Mormon Church in Tohoku. However, although the family lived in Hong Kong for a year and have relatives in the States, Tokyo was always where they called home.
Marika and her two younger sisters, Emiri ‘07 and Lorea ‘09, all attended Nishimachi before transferring to The American School in Japan (ASIJ). Like Marika, Emiri graduated from grade 9, but after ASIJ she studied in the U.S. and now lives in San Francisco; Lorea left Nishimachi after grade 8 and now lives in Boston. Marika also has four cousins who all live in Arizona, so, when their American grandparents celebrated their 60th wedding anniversary earlier this year, a grand Dandoy family reunion took place in Phoenix – the easiest meeting point for the far-flung family members. Despite the long distances, though, it’s clear that Marika is close to her family and often talks on the ‘phone or online with her sisters. As for her parents, it was Mrs Dandoy’s love of watching musicals and big stage productions that directly impacted on Marika’s choice of career, since she often took Marika along. Of course, now her mom goes to see all Marika’s performances – usually multiple times. “My mom is a pro at watching shows”, Marika jokes.
Marika speaks flawless Japanese and English, and yet, talking about the cultural aspects of coming from a dual nationality family, she says, “Being half Japanese and half American, wherever I go, I’m a foreigner. Japanese call me gaijin here, and people call me Asian when I’m in America or wherever. I guess that’s just something you get used to. Because I went to Nishimachi, where there were so many other mixed race kids, kids who looked Asian but didn’t speak Japanese, or the other way round, I never felt it was an issue; I guess I always tried to take it in a positive way”. In fact, more than American culture or Japanese culture, she feels particularly strongly the third culture of having been to an international school, especially Nishimachi, where she was for so long. As Marika says, “The international school culture is a culture on its own”.
Perhaps coming from a bicultural family meant Nishimachi was a natural choice of school for the girls. The Dandoys had sent Marika to Seisen International School Pre-school in 1993, when they were living in Denenchofu. When they returned to Tokyo after the stint in Hong Kong they placed Marika in Nishimachi (as she “secretly” admits, she entered halfway through her kindergarten year; so she’s a Ten Year Veteran, “but not really... I’m actually a Nine and a Half Year Veteran!”). Marika of course never knew Tané Matsukata, who passed away the year before she was born, but she was always aware of the presence and the legacy of the lady who founded the school, and clearly remembers the picture of Matsukata-sensei that now hangs in the Reischauer Room where we meet. By the time Marika arrived there were no longer classrooms in the Matsukata House itself, and students were not allowed to walk around freely inside, even though the Reischauer Room was still the school library. However, apart from the Yashiro Media Center, which was built in 2008, all the buildings we see today were in place. The Red Building was then the Primary Building, and the kids played on
the roof, where they had a sort of bubble structure jungle gym. They also played on the gym roof and the middle school roof, although Marika says the playground itself now looks completely different. To Marika and her peers, the Matsukata House was sacred and she remembers being upset when the decision was taken to renovate and alter it. I advise her to visit the basement or the third floor to get her “Original Matsukata House” fix!
Asked what she remembers from her school days, Marika says that in her final year she was the Student Council (StuCo) treasurer, where her main duty was counting the money raised after bake sales. She also enjoys recalling how the girls basketball team, of which she was a member, won the Kanto Plain trophy that same year under Coach Gantner – a major highlight! She is reminded of her basketball days by a tiny scar, just visible, from when she cut her lip during a home game; there was a school dance that evening, and she spent the whole night holding ice against it. “I wore braces, which didn’t help. It was bleeding for 6 hours, but I didn’t want to go and get stitches ‘cause I’m scared of needles!”
When we walk around the Nishimachi campus, Marika is warmly greeted by many of her former teachers, whom she is delighted to find are still here; she also remembers with great affection her supportive teacher, Mr Fujino, who taught her algebra in grades 8 and 9. “We all loved “Fuj”– we all called him “Fuj”” she says, as she recalls that his classroom was welcoming and his door always open, ready to talk about math and whatever other matters that might be preoccupying the adolescent brain, “Which was really nice”. Other happy memories include an astronomy trip to the “new” Kazuno where they went out at night looking at the stars through telescopes, and activities with her Kurohone home stay buddy, Miki, with whom she kept in touch for some time. It’s interesting how other traditions have altered. Until the previous year, the grade 9 trip had been to Kyoto and Nara, but in Marika’s year this changed to Hiroshima, and she was so disappointed (and surprised when I tell her that grade 9 students now visit all three). Nor did she do the Mount Fuji climb, a feature of more recent grade 9 years. These days in Nishimachi Middle School, half the year is spent on art and the other half on music, but in Marika’s final year students had to choose one or the other – and Marika is amazed now by her own choice to study art! “When I was in middle school here, I wasn’t that interested in music, I guess. But I’m horrible at art; I don’t know why I chose that!”
“I was cleaning out my room the other day and came across a few booklets that I made at school – and the content of one of my Japanese books was which celebrities I thought were good-looking! But in 9th grade, we all wrote a page letter to each other, and the school put them together so that we each had a book of letters from everyone in our grade. I decided to put that back in my drawer instead of getting rid of it”. She is still in touch with most of the Nishimachi students from her grade 9 year. In 2005 there were 25 of them, 10 of whom went to ASIJ, so it was like having a family group all go together: “From grade 8 or 9 we all knew that we would be together”. There were about 130 people in her grade at ASIJ, however, which in the beginning was kind of intimidating; but she quickly got used to it – and there were so many opportunities for sports and music and volunteer groups, and generally so much to do that it was a great environment for Marika. And, as she says, “We all definitely kept our Nishimachi culture when we moved to ASIJ”.
The first time I met Marika was in 2013 when she performed at the In Concert! evening in support of Nishimachi’s Outreach Scholarship Program. It turns out that this was no coincidence: volunteering and helping others is important to her. Starting at Nishimachi and continuing at ASIJ, Marika developed a strong connection with the Philippines, particularly via Philippine Relief Organization (PRO), and recalls helping out with many bake sales to raise money. She supported a lunch programme for an elementary school in Cebu which at the time was the only local school serving a free lunch, and also donated money to get medicines for local people. During Spring Break in grades 11 and 12 at ASIJ she went to Cebu with the teacher in charge of PRO. The organisation sponsors potential university candidates via a scholarship programme, and she still keeps in touch with the student she helped to assist, who has since graduated and now has a job in Dubai. She also is still in touch with one of the school-kids she supported. After Marika graduated college she contacted her ASIJ teacher and went back to visit the elementary school in Cebu, something she’d like to keep doing. She was very much aware of the dichotomy between the local conditions she experienced there and the signs of over- consumption she could see everywhere on her way back into Tokyo on the Narita Express. “After the earthquake (in 2011) Japan toned everything down...convenience stores turned their lights off and so on. It’s important to maintain the mindfulness. We’re kind of going back to excess use”.
Marika is certain that her time at Nishimachi, with its focus on attributes such as being a “Global Learner”, deeply influenced her. “It becomes a part of you, which is a good thing. That “One Yen Makes a Difference”, I remember that phrase very well; I still feel that one yen does make a difference. My time here taught me that community service and donating and volunteering are important. Children don’t all have the same opportunities”. Marika’s volunteer work enabled her to keep going through some of her own tough times. “It’s great that the school still has these clubs and so many ways to volunteer. Because I have that relationship with the Philippines, I would love, eventually, to support schools and fund children there personally”.
When I ask Marika about her career and the various steps along the way that lead to her choice, she says that as a child she took lessons in ballet, Nihon buyou – traditional Japanese cultural dance – and piano (her sisters did the same, but they quit around grade 5, and it was only Marika who showed the enthusiasm to continue). She was always interested in music, as a singer, and recalls an anecdote from Mr Tanaka’s class in grade 1 or 2 at Nishimachi, when she made a “Me” poster, and wrote in the middle, “I want to be a singer and a person who makes plates”! (Mr Tanaka was a teacher of pottery, and Marika still has the collection of bowls she made back then). But as for her interest in musical theatre, Marika says she first got into acting in Nishimachi Middle School, when in grade 6 she wanted to take drama as an exploratory. (She wasn’t initially assigned to that exploratory, but one of her classmates, Alex Kaneko, went to the teacher, Ms Savant, to ask if Marika could take his place – thank you, Alex!). From there her interest grew, and she was in the school musical production for each of the 3 years she attended ASIJ : Seussical the Musical in grade 10, The Music Man in grade 11, and Grease in her senior grade 12 year (as the not-so-nice cheerleader, Patty Simcox). But Marika says that Nishimachi played a major role in developing what ultimately became her career choice: “If Nishimachi didn’t have drama classes, I probably wouldn’t have got so interested”.
By the end of her time at ASIJ, Marika had decided she wanted to pursue a career in musical theatre and applied for related college programmes; she was originally planning on going to school in the States, either to
Boston University or Pepperdine in Malibu (although, as she says now, “If I’d gone there, I’d definitely be a completely different person”). However, a few months before her high school graduation, her mom found out about an opportunity with Toho Entertainment. Marika auditioned – and was accepted. So, despite her intention to study in the States, Marika decided to apply to Waseda University’s School of International Liberal Studies (SILS) – and got in. This gave her a reason to stay in Japan and set her on her current path. “A part of me wishes I’d gone to school in the States and experienced college life there. Because I live here I wasn’t in a dorm... and, hearing my friends’ stories, it’s kind of sad not being able to experience that. But at the same time I’m glad I stayed, because it’s what I wanted to do. So giving up the idea of a college education in the States was an okay decision. But it’s definitely still an option to go to school in the U.S. and study theatre there, or even go to grad school”.
At Waseda Marika unsurprisingly took theatre as her major zemi (seminar), directly related to the thesis she wrote and the performance she prepared at the end of her four years (by which time she was already working in the performing arts arena – in fact, filming for the Disney Channel). “As for the other classes, we were free to take a wide variety. SILS (School of International Liberal Studies) offers classes in business, language, arts, science, and basically everything, so although I did take classes like American theatre history, pantomime theory, theory to work as a news anchor, and other theatre and performance-based classes, I also took classes in subjects such as the Buddhist religion and traditions, and art history”. She goes on to say, “The art history classes stood out – I ended up taking all the art history classes that they offered in our department. I found my art history flash cards at home recently – and I decided to keep those, too! So this is another option that is “floating around”. (At this point I’m thinking there really was a reason why Marika chose to do art at Nishimachi). Most of her classes were in English – Marika says she mainly took classes given by the foreign professors, although Japanese professors often gave their classes in English, too – but she also studied German for 3 years. This enabled her to understand various musicals in their original form, such as Mozart and Elisabeth and the dance musical Tanz der Vampire, which Marika had seen in Japan (with her mother, of course!) and also in Berlin and Vienna.
The job as presenter for My Disney Junior was her first major professional break. Marika says, “The reason why I went into Disney was... I auditioned for it! I got the initial audition through my agency, Toho, but by the time I reached the final audition (they made me do three auditions, I think) I really wanted to do it! I really like kids in general, too, so it was a good fit”. Her time at Disney ended a few years ago, and now Marika works full time for the Toho Entertainment Co., Ltd as a josei talento or female entertainer (“I think of myself as a singer and an actress”). This means being sent for auditions, as well as receiving offers for jobs where she has been specifically chosen without having to audition. She had been thinking of moving to New York and was in fact very set on moving a couple of years ago; but then she was offered a musical gig here and took it, thinking New York could wait. After that she just kept getting more work – sometimes lead roles, sometimes in ensembles – and New York is still waiting!
Marika sees Japanese musical theatre developing apace as more and more Broadway and West End shows come here. However people often go to watch particular performers rather than the actual show, and she feels Japan needs to work on that aspect. “It’s part of the culture: people want to see stars, and so production companies cast performers who will bring in the public – usually it’s a TV celebrity or idoru (star), who may not necessarily have the musical theatre experience – and then other professionals are cast around the main roles”. But this is gradually changing as Japanese audiences are starting to want to see productions for their music, storyline, and background, and there are a lot of foreign shows now, too, which are becoming increasingly popular. This year, for example, Marika did Jersey Boys in Concert at Theatre Orb in Hikarie, Shibuya, where the main male cast members were all very talented performers in musical theatre in Japan; it’s a 2,000 seat theatre and was full for each of the 4 performances. “Lots of shows are being imported to Japan; I think it’s remarkable that we have all these Tony Award-winning shows translated into Japanese”. She has been surprised that the casts and directors she has worked with here in Japan are really nice (compared with “old school” directors who might throw an ashtray at you!).
I ask Marika about her dreams. She plans to keep doing musical theatre here or in New York (or indeed other locations), but wants, above all else, to be able to sing in front of an audience and move them. “I like singing songs that mean something. I actually like singing ballads... songs that touch you”. She wrote the lyrics in Japanese for her song, “I’m Okay”, which you can find on iTunes if you search on Marika Dandoy, and says, “I wrote it, telling myself that I would get over something that happened to me. I want to write more songs. Writing your own lyrics is the best way to get your meaning across”. She and her friend Eliana (aka SHOWSTOPPERS) wrote some of the lyrics on their album GLAMOROUS Xmas, which they released on Billboard Records last year (also available on iTunes and at record shops). She admires soulful singers who can really convey meaning, such as Alicia Keys (“She’s amazing. She sings and writes her own songs... and I think there was a time she performed in Times Square with close to no make-up. I love that bold stance!”), Bruno Mars (she laughs as she recalls racing over to his show in Saitama immediately after finishing her own), and, of course, Beyoncé.
Marika modestly asserts, “There is always more to do in terms of brushing up my skills”. She says that she hopes to be cast in more major roles so she can build up her repertoire – and that in future audiences will be coming because they want to see the show itself, as well as certain performers. She wants to go to New York to see more productions, and, when there’s something a Japanese audience would enjoy, bring it back to Japan and work on the translation, since that can often be where meaning gets lost. Being ideally positioned to understand the finer nuances of both English and Japanese lyrics, Marika has also been demonstrating a vocation for translating musical theatre songs – for example for her friend RiRiKA, a former Takarazuka actress and singer who appears regularly on The Karaoke Battle on TV Tokyo, and who asked Marika to translate into Japanese a duet from High School Musical that she wanted to sing in concert. More recently Marika has been working with a well-known Japanese actor in translating hit rock songs (more information on this will be available next year).
I ask Marika if there are any areas she particularly wants to develop, to which she replies that her main challenge is to improve her dance skills, since she feels she is more of a singer than a dancer. She was thrilled, therefore, to be cast over the summer as a dancer in the musical Only You – Bokura no Romeo & Juliet starring Takahisa Masuda of the popular Japanese boy band NEWS. Also, she adds, “I tend to get cast in happy roles that are fun, but I want to be able to portray dark roles, too”. Her philosophy is that studying and having fun, doing everything and trying out different opportunities, is a plus. “You can always start and quit
if you really don’t enjoy something, but unless you try, you won’t know. Being open to new and various possibilities is a BIG thing in growing up”.
Young as she is, Marika’s theatre repertoire is already impressive. A recent list of Japanese productions of Broadway musicals in which she has starred includes Godspell (September 2018); Memphis (December 2017), directed by famous Japanese actor Koji Yamamoto who also played the lead; and Legally Blonde (March-April 2017). She has appeared as one of the Three Divas in Priscilla, Queen of the Desert (December 2016), directed by renowned director Amon Miyamoto; as Paradice in Brooklyn the Musical (May 2016), and as the lead, Jo March, in Little Women (September 2015).
You can see Marika Dandoy in Priscilla, Queen of the Desert directed by Amon Miyamoto at the Nissay Theatre in Tokyo, March 9-30 2019.