History Has Its Eyes on Hamilton's Kendyl Sayuri Yokoyama
Feature image: Deidhra Fahey
The past year and a half has been full of several big milestones for triple threat Kendyl Sayuri Yokoyama: in Fall 2017 she started college, in Spring 2018 she performed at the Oscars, and in Fall 2018 she made her debut in the national tour of Hamilton the Musical - aka the biggest hit Broadway show of our generation. Not even 20 years old, this Los Angeles native is already living out her dreams—and she’s just getting started! We chatted with Kendyl about her start in musical theatre (less than six years ago, but you would never know it), what working professionally as a teenager has taught her, and why diversity in the performing arts world is more important now than ever.
Hometown: Camarillo, CA
Job: swing (understudy for the ensemble) on the national tour of Hamilton the Musical
College: Boston Conservatory at Berklee
Major: BFA Musical Theatre
Q & A With Kendyl
You grew up just north of Los Angeles in the Conejo Valley, which is known for its thriving performing arts scene. What was your first exposure to singing, dancing, and acting?
My parents introduced me to many different kinds of hobbies like ice skating, swimming, gymnastics, etc., but the one I loved the most and kept up with was dancing. I’ve been dancing since I was three, eventually started singing when I was around ten, and started acting lessons when I was around fourteen years old.
I think everyone knew you were going places from day one—especially because you got cast as the lead role in your first-ever show (Jasmine in Aladdin at Conejo Players Theatre) in 2013. Jumping head-first into the musical theatre world like that, what did you learn?
I learned very quickly that this was my passion! Prior to Aladdin, dance was my main focus. I was competing and auditioning for dance companies, but with the encouragement of my two mentors, Maggie Danielsen and Vanessa Townsell, I decided to audition for the show. I had no expectations and didn’t really know what I was getting myself into. When we got to the callbacks, I remember doing the cold reading onstage and being a nervous wreck. Then all of a sudden, I felt a kind of comfort fill my body, and I was unbelievably happy. I came off the stage and told my mom that this was what I wanted to do for the rest of my life. From that moment on, musical theatre became my focus, and it hasn’t changed since!
Thanks to your extensive dance background, you rose through the ranks in community and regional theatre with roles at Conejo Players Theatre, High Street Arts Center, Cabrillo Music Theatre (now 5-Star Theatricals), and Musical Theatre West—to name a few. What were some challenges you faced early on, and what theatrical experience changed you the most?
My biggest challenge was my age. I was fortunate enough to have been cast in my first regional theatre production of Mary Poppins (with Cabrillo) as part of the adult ensemble when I was fifteen years old, and it gave me the chance to prove that I was mature enough to handle the roles and professional responsibilities. Thanks to Lewis Wilkenfeld—who brought me into that magical show—it solidified my drive to continue pursuing my passion professionally.
You continued to work professionally, racking up EMC points and further cementing your status as a true triple threat. Then in 2017, you graduated high school and moved across the country to pursue your BFA in Musical Theatre at the esteemed Boston Conservatory at Berklee. What was your freshman year like?
My freshman year was a very tough transition; going from a community of professional actors to a community of students was a major change for me. I was also not expecting to go to college full-time, since I had an agent and was working in Equity theaters in Los Angeles. I was ready to continue working, but I wanted to audition for my top three schools for the experience, even though I had no expectation of being accepted. When I got into Boston Conservatory at Berklee and then received the Presidential Scholarship for Musical Theatre, I knew that it was an opportunity I could not pass up. Not only did I get the chance to learn and practice what I love, but I also got a taste of what East Coast theatre was like and made some lifelong friends along the way!
During your second semester of college, you ended up singing live onstage at the Oscars, as part of the Keala Settle's performance of "This is Me" from The Greatest Showman. How did that amazing opportunity come about?
One day I started noticing that I was getting red dots on my face and felt feverish, and it turns out I had a mild case of the chicken pox. I then went home to recover, and right when the chicken pox was basically gone, I did a self-tape audition for the Oscars. I decided to do it, again expecting nothing to come from it, but a few callbacks later and within a few days, I found out I was going to be on the Oscars. The experience was unforgettable, and one I will always cherish.
You've gotten close to Broadway before, when you spent several months flying back and forth to NYC for callbacks for the Miss Saigon revival. This year, you got your "big break" and got cast in the national tour of Hamilton the Musical (Angelica Company). Take us through that whirlwind adventure, from first audition to opening night!
This is a funny story…I was actually in New York auditioning for another show. Since I was done early with that audition, I decided to walk around and find other open calls to audition for. That’s when I found the Hamilton audition room, and I could tell that it was an invited agent call. There was another group going in to audition, so I decided to take a chance and sign myself up. Fortunately, they didn’t turn me away! After a couple weeks of callbacks, I got cast and had to pack up my things in Boston during my Thanksgiving break and head straight to Buffalo to begin rehearsals. After a few more cities, I made my debut in Pittsburgh. This has definitely been my most life-changing adventure yet.
You've performed in such a wide range of shows with many different theatre companies, so I'm curious: how does the level of professionalism and integrity vary from community theatre to regional theatre to now a Broadway national tour?
With every show I did, I always learned from the actors around me, but as I went from community to regional to Hamilton, the pace was much faster, and the required dance and vocal skills were more demanding and challenging.
Let's talk about diversity in the theatre world—it's getting better thanks to shows like Hamilton, but we still have a long way to go. What has your experience been like being an Asian-American in musical theatre, and what changes do you think need to be made in order to make the performing arts more inclusive?
Shows like Hamilton have definitely made huge strides in giving people of color great opportunities. To help the performing arts become more inclusive, the change needs to happen in people’s mindsets. Those doing the casting need to open their minds and cast without bias, unless ethnicity is crucial for the part/story. As far as being an Asian-American actor, I have been very fortunate throughout my career. I’ve had the opportunity to play roles that are not customarily or commonly seen with a person of color, like when I was cast as Belle in Beauty and the Beast. I would like to thank Ken Rayzor and Kathee Boyer at High Street Arts Center for casting me as Belle; they are leaders in their community and are helping to bring some much-needed diversity to theatre. It was an extremely rewarding experience, and I was grateful that they had the vision to give me the chance. Rachel Bertone is also someone I need to thank for casting me with an open mind. I hope in the future that opportunities like this happen more and that more mindsets change. Once we see this change, then we will be able to move forward. I think it’s also important to say that a big part of this change is about believing that you can do it. If you don’t see the change, then BE the change that you want to see. We need to be proactively responsible. I am fortunate enough to be in this business during a time of change, but this all takes time. It takes patience and courage to change minds.
You're on a national tour, which means your daily routine changes up quite a bit, I imagine! But as of this week, what does a day in the life of Kendyl look like?
Being a swing, my days definitely change depending if I have rehearsal or not or if I’m in the show that evening/afternoon. As of now, I start my day with a workout, then afternoon rehearsal, a dinner break, then rehearsal or a show in the evening.
Where do you see yourself, both personally and professionally, in five years? Do you think you'll ever go back to the Boston Conservatory?
I don’t know what will happen within the next five years. Most likely I will be somewhere I never thought I would be in five years because that seems to be a continuous cycle for me. A year ago, I never thought I’d be where I am today—I had no clue! Anything is possible for the future: going back to school, back to LA, to New York, etc. For now, I’m going to keep my options open and just let it happen.
What is your biggest piece of advice for women about having a rewarding career in theater? Is there a motto that you live by?
Prove them wrong! Don’t let others tell you your age is a disadvantage because they don’t know what you are capable of; YOU do. It’s going to be hard, you’re going to have your fair share of ugly and extremely challenging experiences, but if this is really what you want to do, then give it all you’ve got. That will be enough.
Favorite city on tour so far?
Pittsburgh and Cincinnati
Last show (other than Hamilton) that you saw?
Rock of Ages!
Funniest on-stage mishap?
I slipped on my skirt and broke a plastic champagne glass!
Eggs, steak, and orange juice
Favorite lyric in Hamilton?
“Only 19 but my mind is older
Are you an introvert or an extravert?
Both! I’m an ambivert.
If you were a musical, which one would you be?
A new musical because I want to do something that has never been done before.
There are too many to pick, but any new role that I can originate would be awesome!
If you could only have one dessert the rest of your life, what would it be?
Pumpkin chocolate swirl cheesecake OR chocolate chip cookies
Biggest role model?
KEEP UP WITH KENDYL
Facebook: Kendyl Yokoyama
YouTube: Kendyl Yokoyama
This is just the beginning for this rising star! If you’re in the Detroit area, get your tickets to Hamilton, playing now through April 21st. And check here to see if it’s coming to a city near you—who knows, you might see Kendyl go on for one of her many tracks!