January 15, 2009



Not many Broadway shows are shrouded in ancient legend, but “Soul of Shaolin,” opening tonight, is no “Jersey Boys.”

In fact, this spectacle of leaping and spinning kung fu masters from the Shaolin Monastery in China is heir to a tradition of warrior monks that dates back 1,500 years.

Not only did the ancestors of these ass-kicking Buddhists defend the Chinese emperors – they also provided inspiration for a clan of more recent, and more local (i.e. Staten Island) warriors.

“Shaolin is the well from which all kung fu springs,” says RZA of the Wu-Tang Clan. “We adopted the philosophy completely, and even called Staten Island ‘Shaolin’ because it was our temple and our home.”

At the root of Shaolin is the principle of mastering one’s qi (body energy) to achieve balance and power. After years of study, the Shaolin monks can perform seemingly impossible feats, such as balancing on the point of a sharpened spear.

Yu Fei, 21, is one of 30 cast members in “Soul of Shaolin,” and has been a student at the Shaolin Monastery for more than a decade. He studies at an institute there, which sends troupes out for performances like the ones at the 2008 Beijing Olympics.

This is Shaolin’s Broadway debut.

“It’s very exciting when we hear an audience applause,” says Yu Fei through a translator. “It is more exciting than doing the kung fu alone.”

The story of the Broadway show follows the life of Hui Guang, a child who is separated from his mother during wartime and adopted by a Shaolin monk. He is raised among the warrior monks, and emerges from the temple a great fighter himself.

It’s a similar story to “The 36th Chamber,” the 1978 film that first inspired RZA and the Wu-Tang to find a shifu (Shaolin master) in New York City to study with.

“Well, ‘master’ is a very strong word in the black community, and it took some time to accept that,” RZA remembers. “But eventually I realized that if you want to learn something, you have to submit to a teacher.”

RZA later had his Shaolin master, Shifu Shi Yan-Ming, who still runs a Shaolin school in SoHo, over for regular visits to the Wu Mansion in New Jersey. The teacher’s influence is felt on every one of RZA’s albums, and the new “Afro Samurai Res,” out this month, is no exception.

While the Broadway neighbors of “Soul of Shaolin” might not be influenced to the extent that Wu-Tang has been, a little kung fu certainly would spice up the fight scenes in the new production of “West Side Story.”