Lincoln Center Festival presents the North American premiere of Takarazuka CHICAGO from July 20 to 24. Here’s what you need to know about the unique, century-old tradition of the Takarazuka Revue, which launched the stars’ careers.
1. The company is composed entirely of women. This all-female model stems from the theatrical Japanese practice of separating the sexes, which began with Kabuki in the seventeenth century.
2. All of the actresses have undergone the same rigorous training. Young women train for two years at the Takarazuka Music School, which accepts only 40 to 50 students each year from the thousands who audition. Known for its strict discipline, the school requires students to learn music, acting, and dance before they sign seven-year contracts with the company.
3. The actresses are separated into two types: those who play male roles (otokoyaku) and those who play female roles (musumeyaku). Women train during their first year of studies before the faculty divides them. Those playing otokoyaku wear their hair short and speak in the masculine form in the classroom.
4. The company was founded in 1913…to boost train ticket sales. Ichizō Kobayashi, president of Hankyu Railways in Takarazuka, Japan, considered the city an ideal location for a tourist attraction to increase travel from Osaka. He decided on an all-female revue because Western song-and-dance shows were growing in popularity at the time. (To this day, the performers are officially employees of the railway company.)
5. Some 2.5 million people attend Takarazuka performances in Japan each year. More Japanese people experience Takarazuka annually than any other traditional form of Japanese theater, such as Kabuki, Noh, or Bunraku. Tickets often sell out within minutes of going on sale.
6. In Japan, women make up 90% of Takarazuka’s audience. Some believe that the company appeals strongly to women because the male otokoyaku roles represent an escape from the rigid, gender-bound conventions of Japanese society.
7. Their fans are diehards. There are 300 unofficial fan clubs in Japan devoted to individual Takarazuka performers, totaling about 70,000 members. Club members don matching scarves and wait for the actresses outside the theater after shows, where they follow strict, self-imposed etiquette: They lower their eyes out of respect, and shouting, clapping, or touching is forbidden.
8. “Eclectic” doesn’t begin to describe their repertoire. Takarazuka performs adaptations of classic novels, including Wuthering Heights, The Age of Innocence, and Anna Karenina; Broadway musicals from Oklahoma! to Catch Me If You Can; Tristan und Isolde, Aida, and other operas; and productions rooted in Japanese popular culture, such as the manga-inspired The Rose of Versailles.
9. There are five troupes within the company: Flower, Moon, Snow, Star, and Cosmos. Each has a distinct style and specialties. The Snow Troupe, for example, excels in traditional dance and opera, while the Cosmos Troupe is considered more experimental. A sixth group, the “Superior Members,” belong to no one troupe and can appear in any production as needed.
10. Performances end in extravagant encores, no matter the production. Performers in glitter-covered costumes promenade down staircases and form kick lines. Starring actresses emerge in feathered back-pieces reminiscent of Las Vegas or Paris spectaculars or Busby Berkeley numbers. These extravaganzas must be seen to be believed.