Renelaine Pfister


Frances Kakugawa. (Photos courtesy of Frances Kakugawa)

“Wordsworth (The Musical)” took 50 years to come to fruition, according to Frances Kakugawa who wrote the children’s books the musical is based on. “A good lesson on patience,” she says. 

This musical is based on the first two books of the Wordsworth series, with the fifth book due for release soon called “Wordsworth the Haiku Teacher.” The series is about a young mouse who is deemed different because he expresses himself through poetry. “Wordsworth, in every book, resolves human problems through poetry,” said Kakugawa.

“‘Wordsworth’ was written 50 years ago,” she says. “I wrote it as Iole the Poet for a children’s story contest held by the Hawaii Culture and the Arts. It won second or third prize with a $100 check from the mayor’s office.” Iole means “rat” in Hawaiian. The name was changed to Wordsworth (after the English poet William Wordsworth) to make it more accessible. “It was like naming a child,” Kakugawa says. “I wanted a poet’s name.” All of the main characters of the Wordsworth books are likewise named after famous poets. Wordsworth’s life reflected Kakugawa’s: she too was always reading and writing.

Kakugawa grew up in Kapoho on the Hawai‘i island, with outhouses where there were no indoor plumbing or electricity. Poetry transformed her life when she realized how words could paint images in her head and open worlds vaster than the one she lived in. “Poetry and books nurtured me in isolated Kapoho,” said Kakugawa. Kapoho is now covered with lava and somewhere underneath is Kakugawa’s writings and poems about love, war and leaving Kapoho to expand her horizons. She remembered some of the material and used them in her work. Kakugawa is now the author of 16 books.

She found a publisher for her Wordsworth book fifty years ago but as they were finalizing the contract over lunch, she remembers that person being rude to a waitress. Kakugawa decided that Wordsworth the Poet would not be pleased with such behavior, so she took the manuscript back and kept it for 30 years. She found a home for it with Watermark Publishing, which had already published other works of hers and represented Wordsworth’s ideals.

“Wordsworth the Poet.”
“Wordsworth the Poet.”

Jackie Pualani Johnson, professor emerita from the Performing Arts Department of University of Hawai‘i at Hilo, is the scriptwriter of “Wordsworth (The Musical).” She was introduced to the Wordsworth books by her friend, Elizabeth Logsdon (known professionally in the movie and stage costume world as Lizby), who sparked the idea of turning the books into a musical. Lizby was working at an adult care center in Hilo and had invited Kakugawa there to hold a workshop for caregivers to write about their experiences. The three creatives met and the musical was born.

Though she dove deep into all four of the Wordsworth series, Johnson felt the first two Wordsworth books had elements that resonated strongest: a young poet who is deemed different and his grandmother who is facing major changes in her mental and physical capabilities but is always there to support her mo‘opuna (grandchildren). “My own Grandpa and Grandma Medeiros were so involved in our upbringing, always standing with us through ups and downs, reaching out to save us from stumbles as we found our way. And music was a huge part of my life with them so a world where Wordsworth and Grandma were dancing and singing and writing poetry made sense,” said Johnson.

The last ten years of her theatrical work were focused on living history and the Hawaiian monarchy using primary sources, which gave her a tremendous sense of the person’s character and inclinations. She decided to preserve Kakugawa’s original text from the first two Wordsworth books and present the musical in the style of “reader’s theater” where characters speak about themselves in the third person. This gave “a presentational feel to the storytelling,” says Johnson. She highlighted the rainforest setting and weaved the Hawaiian language into the musical, which gave it more authenticity and celebrated the culture in which the books are set.

“It was wonderful that the books were so full of poetry because the poems became the lyrics to the songs in the deft hands of composer Wendell Ing,” said Johnson. “His choices elevated the poems/songs in ways I had not expected: lyrical passages to praise the beauty of the rainforest; terrifying, dark chords when the frightening circus seeps into a nightmare; and a nod to doo wop music when honoring grandparents. Brilliant!”

Wordsworth taught children to use poetry in different ways. Kakugawa knows Wordsworth fans who started writing poetry at age five and continue to write poetry as adults. One person uses poetry as therapy to cope with chronic depression. Some use it to simply express the beauty one finds in a passing landscape. 

Kakugawa fell in love with language in the first grade, her first books being the “Dick and Jane” for early readers, where she was surprised to learn not everyone spoke pidgin like her. She knew then that she wanted to see her name on books. 

Kakugawa is a writer and an educator: she taught in classrooms, teacher education classes for UH, is a writing resource teacher, and did workshops in literature and writing at the district and state levels. She has also written books and wrote an advice column for caregivers for The Hawai‘i Herald for years, a subject close to her heart after she cared for her mother who had Alzheimer’s disease. “It was poetry that helped me make sense of what was happening and led me to my mother’s and my own humanity,” she says. Alzheimer’s disease and its effect on the patients and their families are explored in the second Wordsworth book, “Wordsworth Dances the Waltz,” and in three other books Frances wrote for adults.

Kakugawa passionately believes in the impact and importance of poetry for caregivers. She currently lives in Sacramento, California, and continues her work with caregivers and lectures on caregiving, poetry and literature nationwide.

“Wordsworth Dances the Waltz.”
“Wordsworth Dances the Waltz.”

Regarding UH Hilo’s efforts to present Wordsworth onstage, Kakugawa says, “The UH Performing Arts Center has been wonderful. They showed me the script, which kept true to the book. They took me along every step of the way as they worked on the musical. Seeing Wordsworth on stage, singing his poetry is mind-boggling. Scott Goto, who did the illustration in the first book and fifth book, established Wordsworth. You’ll see Wordsworth in the musical, wearing the same shirt as in the book.”

UH Hilo, spearheaded by director Dr. Justina ‘Ölalimäkiaikalauaki Mattos, staged the musical in the Hawaiian language and was available for everyone to enjoy online in the summer of 2022. 

The performances for “Wordsworth (The Musical)” from Nov. 1-3 at the University of Hawai‘i, Hilo Performing Arts Center are exclusive to elementary school students and are completely sold out, but there are public performances on Nov. 4 and 5 at 7 p.m. and Nov. 6 at 2 p.m.

Wordsworth the Poet’s message is not just for kids but is universal: kindness, creativity, family and community.


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