Cara Baldwin makes riotous, female-led gig-musicals.
The actor, writer and co-AD of Burnt Lemon Theatre wants to take Tokyo Rose on an international tour.
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In 2018, actor, writer and co-artistic director Cara Baldwin was on a train from Edinburgh to London.
She had just finished a successful run at the Edinburgh Fringe with her company Burnt Lemon Theatre’s first show, a three-handed gig-musical called The Half Moon Shania, and was already thinking about what to make next.
“I knew it wanted to involve music, and I knew it wanted to amplify women’s voices,” Baldwin says. “I started thinking about female radio DJs. I think I even looked up Clara Amfo on Radio One. Then, suddenly, I found the Wikipedia page about Iva Toguri, and I knew there was a story to tell there.”
Iva Toguri was an American, born to Japanese parents, who was trapped in Japan after the attack on Pearl Harbour, and forced to broadcast English-language Japanese propaganda to American troops. She was convicted of treason on her post-war return to the USA and spent six years in prison, before being pardoned by President Ford in 1977.
Her extraordinary life-story became the basis for Burnt Lemon Theatre’s second show, the five-handed all-female, “post-Hamilton” pop musical Tokyo Rose. Written by Baldwin and Korean-American theatremaker Maryhee Yoon, scored by composer William Patrick Harrison, and directed by Burnt Lemon’s co-artistic director Hannah Benson, it first ran at the Edinburgh Fringe in 2019 and is now making its mid-scale debut at Southwark Playhouse.
“The show has been on such a journey since we first started working on it,” says Baldwin. “This new version has more songs, an extra cast member, and goes deeper into some stuff that we just didn’t have time to fit into the hour-long fringe version. We brought a cultural consultant – Haruka Ueda – on board, too. It’s gone from that initial idea of a musical about women on the radio into something much bigger.”
“We want to tell women’s stories through music, and we want to tell them in a loud, raucous, ambitious, bold way…”
Baldwin herself was born in 1997, and grew up in Hitchin, Hertfordshire. She went to stage school at the weekends as a teenager, before training on East 15’s Acting and Contemporary Theatre course. It was there that she met Benson, with whom she formed Burnt Lemon Theatre – Baldwin writes and acts, Benson directs – and staged The Half Moon Shania in 2018. The duo were joined by producer Tanya Agarwal in 2019.
“I never only wanted to act,” says Baldwin. “I always wanted to be involved in the creative process, too. Hannah and I work really well together. Hannah is the impulsive one and I’m the methodical one, but we trust each other completely. Our weak link was the producing side of things. That’s why it was great when Tanya came on board, as neither of us are very good at spreadsheets.”
Burnt Lemon have a big few months ahead. After running in London, Tokyo Rose is visiting Leicester, Oxford, Newbury and Birmingham before the end of October, after which Baldwin and Benson will begin working on their next project. Their ideas are not fully formed yet – Baldwin is interested in making a folk musical, she says, something like Spring Awakening – but they know that whatever they make, it will be true to Burnt Lemon’s beliefs.
“We want to tell women’s stories through music, and we want to tell them in a loud, raucous, ambitious, bold way,” says Baldwin. “We started out with a slogan, “Let’s have a riot”, and that still stands today.”
What do you want to do?
“People have compared Tokyo Rose to Six, and that is such a huge compliment. Hannah is quite close to Lucy [Moss, co-writer of Six], and what she and Toby have done is so inspiring. We have a lot to thank them for, because they have shown that musicals don’t have to tell certain kinds of stories in certain kinds of ways.”
“Honestly, we would love to do what Six has done. We would love to take Tokyo Rose to the next level. We would love to take it into the West End. We would love to perform it internationally. We would love to take it to the USA and Japan, the countries it is set in.”
What support do you need to get there?
“We are connected to the Leicester Curve, to Pleasance, to MAST Mayflower Studios in Southampton, and recently to Birmingham Hippodrome, and that support has been essential for us so far. We are still only three years out of drama school, and there is a lot we don’t know and a lot we need help with.”
“At the moment, the most helpful thing people could do would be to come and see the show, either in Southwark or out on tour. Come and join us in celebrating the life of a woman who went through absolute hell, and was subjected to racism and sexism and scapegoating, yet kept fighting for what she believed in, despite all the odds.”
“And if someone comes to see it and does want to chat about taking the show further, that is absolutely a conversation we would love to have.”
How can people find out more about you?
“Well, they can come and see the show. They can listen to the official cast recording on Spotify, too. They can check out our fancy new website. They can watch our lyric video for our opening number, Hello America, as well. There’s going to be some audience insight videos coming out, and I’m also going to sent out a Burnt Lemon Theatre newsletter soon, when I’ve had a chance to breathe.”
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