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From the Heart: Music Director-Arranger Ian Chan's Creative Impact

by Peter Morton

Music director-arranger Ian Chan is drawn to projects which directly impact his audiences. Whether composing songs and music for groundbreaking original show OUT: An Asian American Musical or serving on Broadway as The Heart of Rock & Roll’s score supervisor, Chan’s combination of intuitive empathy and irresistible melodics significantly enhances every project he joins. Chan’s participation in the US debut of extraordinary street theater event Amal Walks Across America enabled the musician to push these exceptional attributes even further, 

Music Director-Arranger Ian Chan

The Handspring Puppet Company’s Amal Walks Across America is a unique social justice themed-art project aimed to raise awareness about the plight of refugee children. Title character Amal is a 12-foot-tall puppet who represents a displaced nine-year-old Syrian refugee from the war-torn city of Aleppo, searching for her mother. Amal’s journey began on the streets of Europe, and when she was brought to America, the historic city of Boston seemed the perfect launching point and Chan the natural choice for the role of co-music director-arranger—an extraordinarily singular opportunity he eagerly accepted as soon as the American Repertory Theater’s Artistic Director (and event co-curator) Diane Paulus offered him the position. 

“This was most definitely not your traditional musical theater production,” Chan said. “First of all, it’s a cross-country production that has site-specific activities and artistic contributions, and what makes it so special is its focus on cross-cultural artistic interaction: Amal herself represents the millions of people who migrate or are refugees. Because of this, the work featured in Amal Walks intrinsically involves the cross-pollination of artistic and creative traditions. This allows musical theater artists like myself to imagine beyond the traditional bounds of what we usually do, which is so exciting.”

Already featured at more than 250 public appearances over the course of a 5,000 milee European journey in 2021, Amal brings a message of hope for marginalized people everywhere—especially children separated from their families. As the single largest public art project ever conceived and produced, Amal has been lauded as (by the Guardian) as “an international symbol of human rights” and “one of the most ambitious live artworks ever staged” (The Observer, 2021).

Amal Walks Across America is wholly unique production, a jaw-dropping, crowd-drawing, traffic-stopping happening; the oversized title character is a remarkable feat of engineering and design, requiring no less than four puppeteers working in concert to operate her limbs, gait and facial expressions: one for each arm, one for her back, and one actor inside her body, walking on stilts and manipulating "the harp," a complex system of strings that control the her facial expressions. Along with musicians, actors and sundry creatives working alongside Amal, the whole affair becomes an almost overwhelming experience. 

“I was very proud to have the unique distinction of being co-music director and arranger for the inaugural event of this cross-country phenomenon, Amal’s visit to Harvard Yard,” Chan said. “Working on something so site and message-specific has been a dream of mine, and I’m so glad to have been brought in early in the process as a core member of the ideation of our whole project—as an immigrant myself, I have a strong connection to what Amal represents in the international psyche.”

Little Amal in action (Photo courtesy of The Walk Productions)

Amal’s mission and message is a perpetually relevant and necessary one, and creating musical accompaniment for the event was a demanding task, but Chan, an accomplished composer who thrives in collaborative settings, met the task head on. 

Working closely with director Brisa Areli Muñoz and co-MD-arranger Veronica Leahy, the trio mapped out a fascinatingly unorthodox approach: “As the first stop in Amal’s American journey, it was important that we start it with a bang,” Chan said. “So, we started from the ground up, hiring musicians able to engage in lateral, non-traditional ways of creating music and devising a sonic landscape for the event.”

He was operating at the very heart of this singular process: “I was involved from nearly the very beginning,” he said. “I was directly in charge of onboarding all the musicians, rehearsing with them, and workshopping our music creation process. I also took part in several creative vision meetings with the rest of the artistic team, and it allowed Veronica and I to exercise a lot of agency and freedom in the specific direction that we wanted to hone our music.”

Once the composition and arranging were completed, there were still several other significant factors to reckon with: “The biggest challenge was probably having to adjust our music to fit the ever-changing needs of the outdoor venue,” Chan said. “It’s hard to be able to gauge what something is going to sound like when you’re not 100% clear on what the weather conditions will be like, where people are going to stand, or even how many people are going to be there.”

Amal Walks Across America is a particularly rich, thought-provoking confluence of themes, emotional messagery, theatrical craftsmanship and ingenuity, executed on an unprecedented scale and delivering a powerful, almost mesmerizing impact on both her audience and the participating performers and musicians. 

“I do have to say that the most magical part of this experience was having everything come together at the very end and seeing Little Amal finally arrive in Harvard Yard,” Chan said. “It was so momentous—even as we had been rehearsing all this time, she didn’t appear until the actual performance. It was incredible to see our audience’s reaction and how they were captivated, in part, by the sonic world that we were building.”

Chan’s always reliably concocted mixture of technical expertise, pure aesthetic sensibility, original melodics and project-simpatico creativity has become his signature attribute, an exceptionally polished capability that’s equal measures sterling professionalism and deeply communicative, from-the-heart expression. Characteristically, he always shares credit where it’s due—with his gifted team members—and he consistently displays a generosity of spirit which has distinguished him as one of contemporary musical theater’s key emerging talents.

“It was absolutely wonderful being able to collaborate with so many visionary artists on this event,” he said. ‘Being able to create art that provokes thought to such a visceral, exciting degree is truly a privilege. I love making music that speaks directly and meaningfully to audiences, and I can’t wait to engage in more events that inspire empathy and promote cross-cultural interaction.”


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