On May 17, David Henry Hwang and Jeanine Tesori sat down on the Curran stage with Stephen Gong, Executive Director of San Francisco's Center for Asian American Media, to discuss the origins ofd their newest show, how to write a great song, and making art out of crisis. An edited transcript of their conversation follows.
STEPHEN GONG: Let’s begin with this whole idea of soft power—this persuasive approach to international relations, to cultural influence, as opposed to the hard power of military force or trade wars or tariffs.
DAVID HENRY HWANG: Right, so soft power, the term, is generally attributed to the political scientist Joseph Nye. As you suggest, it really refers to a nation’s intellectual, cultural, artistic influence. So you think of America as a country that through most of the twentieth century was a hard power—an economic power and a military power. But there was soft power, too—a sort of ideal story about American values, whether they’re actually practiced or not. It was a great story, and through our musicals, movies, and television shows, it traveled around the world.
China is a country that doesn’t have a lot of soft power. Changing that has been an explicit goal of their government for at least ten years now. And I come into this because for a long time I was the only even nominally Chinese person who’d ever written a Broadway show, so I would get approached by a lot of Chinese producers saying, “Oh, we have this show that’s big in Xi’an, and if you just tweak a few things, it would be a big hit on Broadway, too.” And none of those proposals ever really came to anything, but I began to question this whole dichotomy between a country that ostensibly wants soft power, wants great hit movies, wants Broadway shows, but also is very top-down, in terms of its control over culture and what we would call censorship. As an American, I‘m thinking, How can you have a censored culture and produce things the world wants to see?
But maybe that’s just an American point of view, because one could also argue that you shouldn’t be able to have an economy like China’s, either—one that is that controlled, and has still done as well as it has in the last twenty to thirty years. And from there the concept just got bigger and bigger. I saw the recent revival of The King and I, a show that I’ve always really enjoyed—I’ve probably seen three iterations of it on Broadway—and the most recent one, directed by Bartlett Sher, was pretty glorious, but as I’m watching it, I’m becoming more aware of things that are kind of suspect. Like the premise [laughs]. The idea that you have this English woman who goes to Siam and teaches the king how to rule his own country… and yet the artistry is so great, it’s so beautifully done, that by the end of it, I’m still in tears. I’m still like, “Oh, he’s dying!” It’s this very complicated, contradictory feeling that I think a lot of us are familiar with, from seeing something that you know is incorrect, inauthentic, maybe racist, maybe sexist, but done so well [laughs]. I wanted to try to see if that experience could be created for a mainstream American audience. That’s when I started to think about it as a play with music.
SG: And something else you’ve pulled in—you’ve done this before—is this character named DHH.
DHH: Yeah—in Yellow Face, a play of mine from about ten years ago, I had an autobiographical character called DHH. I think authors often create autobiographical characters—we just don’t usually name them after ourselves. When I originally came up with the concept for SOFT POWER, I didn’t necessarily think there was going to be a DHH character in it, but then about two and a half years ago, I got stabbed in the neck just walking around my block in Brooklyn. That kind of worked its way into the show. And I mean, how many Asian American playwrights get stabbed in the neck? I might as well just call him DHH. I’m not gonna call him, like, Bobby Lee or something [laughs].
SG: The other big development, as the show was coming together, was the 2016 election.
DHH: Right. Originally the concept I pitched to Jeanine was that we were gonna do a reverse King and I. We’re gonna have a Chinese national who you see have a kind of casual encounter with Hillary Clinton that doesn’t really mean that much, and then this would have been mythologized by Chinese theater artists fifty years in the future into a beloved East-West musical, where the Chinese guy becomes the advisor to Hillary and helps her solve the problem of gun violence in America. We were actually doing an early reading of the script on Election Day. And the next day, I remember thinking that this was really bad for the country, but it could be really good for the show.
SG: Maybe this is a good time to talk about your collaboration—does this one feel different from what you’ve each done before?
JEANINE TESORI: Well, theater is always about collaboration. But musicals in particular are hard, because there are so many variables. Is it the key? Is it the actor, is it the song? Should it be a one-act, a two-act, is it the orchestration? I liken it to having a wooden chair and if the framework isn’t great, and you just upholster it, the more padding you get, the more misshapen it is, because the framework wasn’t sound to begin with. And what’s been really interesting about SOFT POWER is I didn’t even know the tools I needed to learn, at first—I’m a visitor to the culture of it.
I was blessed to do Shrek The Musical, which has allowed me to make enough of a living that I can take great risks, because I want to add to the musical repertoire things I want to see. I don’t want to do Shrek 2, although it might buy me a house [laughs]. I want to add to the conversation. I’m also really interested in how metaphor works in musicals—so David’s stabbing is in the plot, but on another level, in that election this country was stabbed in the neck. And that’s what really interested me, that a personal crisis could also be a political crisis, and a questioning of who we’ve been.
DHH: One of the many reasons I wanted to work with Jeanine is because I felt like I’ve written musicals, but I don’t know enough about musicals. Like, I remember a song I wrote where a Chinese national is singing about how great it would be if the world could see things through their eyes, which is the basic idea of SOFT POWER. Jeanine taught me that, well, that’s a little soggy as an idea for a song, and she got me to be more specific, and to approach lyric writing with the same rigor I reach for as a playwright. So as a result we have a song called “Fuxing Park,” where the Chinese national is schooling my character, DHH, on this beautiful park in Shanghai. I think that’s a great example of the kind of back and forth that happens between the two of us. There’s a certain amount we do by ourselves, obviously—Jeanine has to write music, and I have to write words. But a lot of times that’s sort of like bringing in the dough, and then we have to work on it together in order to make it a pastry—that’s a dumb metaphor [laughs]—I’m trying to be like Jeanine Tesori! [everyone laughs]
And then, even when we write the music, it’s not really about the notes in the staff, but the sounds in the air. I believe that playwriting isn’t really about the words on the page; it’s about how the words come to life in the air. So we have to hear them, which means a week with actors, hearing them read what I wrote early on, then a week off so we can reconceive some things, and I can write new stuff, and Jeanine can write new stuff, and then we bring the actors back, and they read the new material. That’s really the process.
"When we write the music, it’s not really about the notes in the staff, but the sounds in the air... Playwriting isn’t really about the words on the page; it’s about how the words come to life in the air." -David Henry Hwang
JT: When I write music, I tend to deep-sea dive, and I need absolute quiet. People have asked what music I listen to; I listen to absolutely no music, because there’s this Bar Mitzvah happening in my brain, and so even the thought of listening to music just would send me to—I would end up going to hear as many concerts as I could. So, I sit down and I try to figure out the design. Music is a science. It’s intervallic and then there’s this layer of mystery to it that we bring by what we hear and what we feel. Then I’ll send David an email saying, “I’m thinking of this.” He’ll respond, and the iPhone has changed my life completely, because I can record something really quickly and send it right to David, and we’ll just keep going back and forth.
For me, with musicals, every single one is like raising a kid. You know, you’re like, this kid needs braces, and this kid is fine, so we’re gonna ignore him, but that will be therapy ten years from now because we ignored him and all that stuff. But the back and forth is really where the richness and fun is—when we get together and we take what we’ve made and ask each other what we think and kind of bounce off each other.
SG: I’d love to hear you guys comment further on how you approached this moment we’re in right now. It’s fascinating that you don’t put the elephant in our consciousness in the play, so thank you, because he’s already so much in our lives, so we don’t need that. But the other amazing thing about this time is this conversation about power overall. So maybe you can talk about that, and then we’ll let the audience ask some questions.
DHH: I mean, the day after the election, when I thought “This could be really good for our show,” there were a few reasons for that. We were trying to create what was supposed to be a Chinese musical from a Chinese point of view, which means we’re essentially questioning the notion of democracy—because in China, of course, people don’t really vote. And, at least in theory, they believe that their government is a technocracy or a meritocracy. And now we’re in a situation that could be argued to affirm some of the Chinese skepticism about democracy. At the same time, because of the America First, isolationist, inward tilt of this administration, we’re withdrawing from a lot of our international commitments, which creates a vacuum that China’s entering. Both of those things really raise the stakes for the issues we’re talking about in the show.
We’re also kind of theorizing that in this fifty-years-in-the-future musical, when China has become the world’s dominant power, that they’ve kind of appropriated the American musical. It’s a way to talk about appropriation. If you look at, say, Shanghainese pop from the ’30s and ’40s, it sounds pretty Western to us. It doesn’t sound like what we imagine traditional Chinese music to be. Similarly, K-pop today, I think to most of us doesn’t sound particularly Korean. So, this notion that the Chinese appropriate the Western musical is just fun to play with, for us.
AUDIENCE MEMBER: There’s a trend in Bay Area theater to do colorblind casting. Did you consider that for SOFT POWER?
DHH: Nowadays, I’m sort of more interested in the notion of color-conscious casting. If you look at all the big theaters in New York, for instance, and you track the statistics of it for the last ten or so years, actors are basically 80 percent white. The Hamilton year was down to 75 percent, but it’s gonna pop back up with the Dear Evan Hansen year. And to me, that’s not only a bad diversity figure, but also a bad business model. You have a country that’s going to be majority people of color by 2040 or 2050, and if you don’t accept the proposition that people like to see themselves on stage, then you’re just not preparing your field for the audiences of the future. I mean, Star Wars understands that. So as a result, I’m somewhat aesthetically inconsistent—I like it when a so-called white role is played by a person of color, because that decreases the 80 percent, but I don’t like the reverse, because it increases the 80 percent. As it relates to SOFT POWER, because there is this tradition of yellowface and whitewashing, the notion that a Chinese musical fifty years from now would have a Chinese cast playing Americans in whiteface seemed to be a fun notion to push forward.
SOFT POWER runs June 20 - July 8. A contemporary comedy explodes into a musical fantasia in the first collaboration between two of America’s great theatre artists: Tony Award® winners David Henry Hwang (M. Butterfly, Flower Drum Song) and Jeanine Tesori (Fun Home). SOFT POWER rewinds our recent political history and plays it back through a Chinese lens: a future, beloved East-meets-West musical. Learn more.