Brian Shimasaki Liebson
February 11, 2020
Miss Saigon is the second musical by Claude-Michel Schönberg and Alain Boubil to come through Pittsburgh this season after Les Misérables toured in November. A visual feast and almost operatic in score, the show sets Puccini’s Madame Butterfly in the Vietnam War as young Kim falls in love with GI Chris. Dramatic and still relevant, the show examines the US’ role in the Vietnam War and the nature of love and regret. It’s jam-packed with beautiful music high emotions and a wildly talented cast. But a swing in the show, Brian Shimaski Liebson, is not your traditional actor.
“I grew up in Los Angeles, California — Manhattan Beach specifically. I started off as a competition dancer,” he says. “Then, when I was applying to college, my mom and I chatted, and we were like, “well, you need a degree to do engineering” — and I’m very passionate about engineering — “but you don’t necessarily need a degree to do theatre. You can kind of do it for fun wherever you go.” And I was never the lead of every show or anything like that. I just really liked doing theatre because it was fun. So I went to college outside of Boston and got my degree in Robotic Engineering. I literally did the clubs at my college and then a nearby community theatre needed male dancers to do West Side Story. I can trace production to production which ended up with me working professionally my senior year of college in Boston at the ART.
“So my senior year, because I was so close to New York, I thought, 'Well, I should just try auditioning for some things.' I was actually kind of scouted by Newsies at the time because of my dance competition background, and they kept calling me in, kept calling me in, and I didn’t get it. But I figured, if I kept getting called in for that, I could probably book something else. So when I ended my senior year, I ended with a software engineering job lined up and an offer for the Cinderella National Tour. So I said that while my body could still handle it, I want
to do this. Everyone thinks that it’s like such a departure, oh he’s following his dream, but I actually love engineering, I love robotics. I love theatre also. It just makes more sense right now to pursue my theatrical dreams.”
“I’d always been just pretty good at math and physics and stuff like that. I’d always loved Legos and Connect and stuff like that. I knew I wanted to do something engineering-wise. I didn’t know if it was going to be physics or math or mechanical engineering. I actually started with the intention of being a mechanical engineer and midway through decided that I was more interested in robotics. But it was just something that I was always good at and seemed practical for a career.”
He sees potential for his love of theatre and robotics to cross over in the future with the technical aspects of theatre, even in Miss Saigon. Since rehearsals started, he’s been teased by his castmates about being a Mr. Fix-It man due to his engineering background. He says, “It’s funny because we have some pretty crazy technical aspects in Miss Saigon. Like the helicopter especially. So the big joke is that if anything ever goes wrong, I can be the one to go fix it all."
As a swing, Liebson is already a pseudo fix-it man; he has to be ready to perform any one of multiple roles on a moment’s notice. Sometimes he knows in advance that he’ll be performing if a performer is scheduled to have vacation or a personal day and sometimes he has to go on halfway through a show if someone is sick or injured.
“There are five swings in the show,” he says. “There are two female swings that focus primarily on our eight or nine girls. And then there are three male swings, including me. There’s one male swing, Brandon [Block], who focuses on the GIs and then there’s another swing, Joven [Calloway], who focuses on the Vietnamese men. And then I’m the everyone swing, because I’m half-Japanese. I cover twenty-six tracks. There are 17 men, which means there are 9 women, and I cover half of the women’s track. We all can kind of do all of the tracks, but we have our own focus.”
The show has a large cast of 42 people, which, Liebson says, increases the chance that a swing will have to go on every performance. The tour has completed 450 performances and Liebson has performed in over half of them. Now he’s a pro at keeping all of the different tracks (roles of ensemble characters and their blocking (set moves and actions) in each scene) straight.
“All the swings have different ways to keep track of their notes,” he says. “Actually, at this point, I’ve done every single male ensemble role in this show. For each man I have a stack of around 15 notecards and I just have notes that I’ve taken about what they do in each scene and the mandatory things like a mandatory prop and lift and entrances and exits. Luckily a lot of our show is kind of improvised while we were in the rehearsal process, especially the ensemble, so it’s fun that I can kind of create my own moments also. But every day I run off-stage, look at my notes, and just study them between every scene.
But even though Liebson has his notes, there are still times when he gets the different tracks he covers mixed up. He laughs as he describes some mid-scene panic he’s had where he thinks he remembers which way to go but then second-guesses himself about whether he’s remembering the correct track or one that he covered the night before instead. With all of the tracks he covers, his favorite moment is being a part of the nightmare scene.
“I really love being a Vietnamese character, especially for the nightmare scene [a scene where Kim flashes back to being separated from Chris at the storming of the US embassy in Saigon]. Because it’s so rare as an ensemble member that you get to really act and cry and scream and go there. Most of the time the ensemble is just there in the background doing a dance or cheering on whoever the principle characters are. The nightmare is the perfect opportunity for the ensemble to act their faces off.”
And act their faces off they do. The Nightmare scene is perhaps the most compelling and heartbreaking scene of the entire show complete with dramatic lighting and impressive technical aspects, including the famous helicopter. As Kim, Emily Bautista is a force. She is on stage almost the entire show and makes belting all of Kim’s complex songs seem easy to sing. She brings such a high level of emotion that it’s impossible for the audience not to be invested in her story. In the role of Chris, Anthony Festa manages to make Chris both world-weary and wholly innocent at once. And the ensemble shines in the opening number "The Heat is On in Saigon" and the incredible "The Morning of the Dragon."
Miss Saigon, set mostly in Vietnam and Bangkok, has mostly Asian roles, but the Asian characters, perhaps most notably The Engineer, have not always been played by Asian actors. For Liebson, who is half-Japanese, the fact that this production of Miss Saigon has cast all Asian actors in the Asian roles is laudable, though he points out that it should be normal, that there should not be whitewashing at all.
“It’s funny to say this, because it should be obvious, but one thing that we’re really proud about is that every Asian character is played by an actor of Asian descent. It sounds ridiculous that I should have to say that at all, but it’s great that it’s actually true in our cast. In order to do that, they held auditions across the US, Canada, and Manilla. We have international actors who are Korean, Vietnamese, Japanese, Filipino, Chinese, and Thai.”
And he does acknowledge that some people have taken issue with aspects of Miss Saigon, but he’s found a balance and a solution in this production. “People have issues with our show, but it employs so many Asian people. I’m just very happy to do a show that I think currently shows off Asian people not in a racist light anymore. We’ve had some updates with our revival that really give good stories and characters to all the Asian characters in the show. I think it’s something we’re all really proud to share.”
In an effort to create more visibility for Asian actors, he decided to add the Japanese “Shimasaki” into his Actors’ Equity Association union name.
He says, “My legal name is Brian Adam Liebson, but some of my Asian cousins were like, “When we go see theatre and see the Playbills, we look for Japanese names. You have to put a Japanese name in your stage name so people like us can see it and see that representation.” So Shimasaki is my mother’s maiden name.”
“I think a lot of these new shows that are not Asian-centric like Mean Girls or Hamilton—” Liebson would love to play the titular role “—I think there’re more shows now that are employing more actors of color. And I do think it’s changing in a good way, but I definitely see how and why people get frustrated. It’s still an issue that people of color aren’t hired as often as they should be.”
Even though Liebson hadn’t been to Pittsburgh before, in New Orleans, the stop before Pittsburgh, he said that he was looking forward to coming to the city. “I’ve never been to Pittsburgh before, but my cousins moved there two years ago and just had a baby so I’m actually very excited to come. I didn’t go to Pittsburgh with Cinderella, I think a year before I joined the tour.”
Getting to see family is one of the reasons why Liebson enjoys tour life. Even though the schedule is grueling — “It’s kind of like you’re in boarding school with everyone that you work with and you’re packing up your entire apartment and leaving every single week,” he jokes — he enjoys the traveling.
“I think it’s a great opportunity. Right out of school I can see all these places and travel across the US. I can see family members and relatives who I haven’t seen in a couple years because I go places that I otherwise wouldn’t go. It’s a great experience. Someone told me on Cinderella that to explain tour is that it is the best and worst experience of your life. I can say that is 100% true. But luckily Miss Saigon has really long stays. The shortest we’re in any city is one week, and our company gives us gym access, and I always opt out of housing and stay in Air BnBs so I can cook and stuff. I think this tour is much easier than Cinderella which had a lot of one night or two night sit-downs.”
A soaring musical that is sure to touch your heart, Miss Saigon is a show not to be missed. Liebson, who has been on tour for over a year and a half now with the show, will end his run when the tour closes in June. Whether he's dancing onstage or creating awesome robotic feats of technical theatre, we hope to see him back in Pittsburgh soon.
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