Minnesota Now with Cathy Wurzer

New musical celebrates Minnesota’s Kim Loo Sisters

Kim Loo Sisters
The Kim Loo Sisters, a singing group from Minneapolis, circa 1939.
Publicity photo by James Kriegsmann

The Twin-Cities based Chinese-American Kim Loo Sisters was a quartet that got its start in the 1920s. The sisters took their act to Chinatowns across the country and even to Broadway.

Nearly 100 years after the sisters got their start, there’s a new reason to shine a light on the Kim Loo Sisters. This time it’s an exciting new musical about them called “Blended Harmony: The Kim Loo Sisters.”

Minnesota-born playwright Jessica Huang wrote the play, which will premier at the History Theatre in St. Paul on Saturday. Huang spoke to MPR News guest host Emily Bright about the show and its significance.

Use the audio player above to listen to the full conversation.

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Audio transcript

ANNOUNCER: The Kim Loo Sisters.

KIM LOO SISTERS: (SINGING) Bum, bum, bum, bum, bum, bum.

Call me Susie D, the deep down.

Bum, bum, bum, bum, bum.

[INAUDIBLE] the deep down.

Bum, bum, bum, bum, bum.

Get rocking.

EMILY BRIGHT: Recognize that music? As the announcer said it's, the swinging Twin Cities-based quartet, the Kim Loo Sisters. Born to a Chinese father and a Polish mother, the four sisters came up in the Twin Cities during the Jazz Age of the 1920s. They took their act to Chinatowns across the country and even to Broadway.

Well, nearly a hundred years after they got their start, the Kim Loo Sisters are the stars of the stage again. A new musical called Blended Harmony, The Kim Loo Sisters premieres at the History Theatre in St. Paul this Saturday. Minnesota-born playwright Jessica Huang talks to me now about the show. Jessica, welcome to Minnesota Now.

JESSICA HUANG: Hi. Thank you so much.

EMILY BRIGHT: Thanks for being here. So this musical shows that the Kim Loo Sisters were a big deal on Broadway and across the country in the entertainment business. Many people may not know about them today, even though they're from Minnesota. Why not?

JESSICA HUANG: Well, that's really at the heart of the show, and the answer is complicated. It has to do with the way artists, particularly artists of color, were treated at the time and how ownership worked when it comes to what songs folks were allowed to sing and in what settings. And also, I think what I would say is the sisters themselves, what they ultimately decided to give away and what they kept for themselves at the end of the day.

EMILY BRIGHT: Are many of their recordings still available today?

JESSICA HUANG: Well, they never officially recorded. What we just got to listen to was a soundie that they made, and their father amazingly created a sort of reverse phonograph and was able to record when they sang live on the radio, but they never were allowed to record.

EMILY BRIGHT: Well, how did you go about creating their sound for the show?

JESSICA HUANG: I'm working with the most incredible composer. His name is Jacinth Graywoode, and together, we're making an original musical, so we're writing all their songs. And we have some songs that are diegetic, so songs that we're saying that are a lot like the songs that they sing at the time.

And then the rest of the musical is sort of blowing that sound wide open. So we have songs that are inspired by Chinese music, by Polish music, by modern sounds, just to create this world for them and give them the platform that I think they deserve.

EMILY BRIGHT: Oh, that's so fascinating. So tell me more about these women. What were they like?

JESSICA HUANG: I mean, they were amazing. They were this tight knit family. For those of you listening that care about astrology, they were a Leo, a Scorpio, a Torus, and a Libra, which means that there was a fire sign, an air sign, earth sign, and a water sign.

So they sort of represent all of the, the elements that make up our world, and they sort of have personalities that span the gamut. But they were above all, joyful and funny and close.

EMILY BRIGHT: Do they feel like friends now that you've been working on this show?

JESSICA HUANG: Oh my gosh, yes. I'm so in love with them. I look up to them, and they inspire me. I admire them so much. And yeah, and they do feel like friends.

EMILY BRIGHT: So they were Chinese Polish women making a name for themselves in the entertainment industry, and you're a Chinese Ukrainian person also in the entertainment business. Obviously, you're a playwright. Are the Kim Loo Sisters a source of inspiration for you as an artist?

JESSICA HUANG: Oh, absolutely. And I think part of why I wanted to make this show is because I think it would have meant a lot to me as I was growing up and coming up to know that there were performers that reflected my identity and my experience.

And so they absolutely inspire me. This musical has become one of the-- weirdly, even though it takes place almost 100 years ago-- has become one of the more personal projects that I've ever made.

EMILY BRIGHT: So any time we talk about performers who were performing in the '30s and beyond, we should talk about how the World War II affected their careers.

JESSICA HUANG: Yeah. So the Kim Loo Sisters, they performed on the USO tour. I guess I'll back up and say that at one point, the four sisters became three, and so the three sisters performed on the USO tour, and they performed in the Mediterranean theater of operations and even at one point had an audience with the pope. The other sister went to China and experienced the World War from that angle.

EMILY BRIGHT: OK. How did you discover them?

JESSICA HUANG: So I had a play at the History Theatre before called The Paper Dreams of Harry Chin. And in working on that project, I got to connect with the Chinese Heritage Foundation.

And at some point-- Leslie Li is one of the sister's daughter, Jenee's daughter, and she had been touring a documentary that she was working on finishing. And she brought it to the Chinese Heritage Foundation, and then they connected us and thought that this would make a really good story and a really good musical. And they're absolutely right.

EMILY BRIGHT: From the start, did you always know it had to be a musical?

JESSICA HUANG: I mean, absolutely.

[LAUGHTER]

It has all of the perfect elements for a huge, spectacular theatrical event. These sisters, their costumes, their dance, the type of performance they were doing is just something that's incredible to see. And the music that they sang that super tight harmony. You want to hear it. You want to see it before your face. So it had to be a musical. It had to celebrate their virtuosity.

EMILY BRIGHT: And then casting was really important to find people who could sing in that tight harmony, I bet.

JESSICA HUANG: Yeah, absolutely. Our casting process took a long time, and the cast that we have is just amazing.

EMILY BRIGHT: What do you want the world to know about the Kim Loo Sisters?

JESSICA HUANG: That's a good question. I want the world to know that they existed, first of all, and that they were out there performing alongside Ann Miller and Frank Sinatra and other performers whose names we remember. They existed. They were amazing.

And actually, Asian-Americans have always been amazing and have been out there performing, and that's just an important message that I want to make sure everyone knows. We've been here, we are here, and we're incredible.

EMILY BRIGHT: Well, tell people when and where they can see the show.

JESSICA HUANG: We open this Saturday, May 4th, at the History Theatre, so get your tickets.

EMILY BRIGHT: OK. Well, thank you so much for talking with me. Can I say break a leg to the playwright?

JESSICA HUANG: Yes, of course. Absolutely. Thank you so much.

EMILY BRIGHT: That was Jessica Huang. The musical Blended Harmony, The Kim Loo Sisters runs at the History Theatre in St. Paul. It opens Saturday, May 4th, and runs through May 26th.

Download transcript (PDF)

Transcription services provided by 3Play Media.

This activity is made possible in part by the Minnesota Legacy Amendment's Arts & Cultural Heritage Fund.
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