In 2014, Michael Ritchie, the Artistic Director of Center Theatre Group in Los Angeles, came to me with every playwright’s dream offer. Would I write a new play to close out the fiftieth anniversary season of his theater? Michael's only suggestion was that my show might somehow look to the future. Of course, I agreed to do it.
Shortly thereafter, I saw the most recent Broadway revival of Rodgers & Hammerstein’s great musical The King and I — a show I have always loved, in a beautiful, intelligent, and emotionally compelling production. Yet this time, I also found certain aspects of the story troubling. An Englishwoman goes to Siam in the 1800s as a governess, and teaches its king how to rule his country and bring it into the family of nations. Wasn’t this implicitly endorsing whites as enlightened, and Europeans as a civilizing force?
As a musical, though, The King and I is virtually perfect. The music is glorious. Intellectual reservations aside, my heart was pulled into the story, and at the end I was once again in tears.
I believe the complexity of my reaction is familiar to many audience members, particularly when we’re watching classic works that reflect the values of an earlier time. Their content may be questionable, but these pieces often exhibit great artistic merit. How do we deal with such contradictions?
This brought me back to my commission. Could I create a show that turns the “white hero” trope on its head, replicating the experience of cultural appropriation for a mainstream American audience? I began to envision a play that would turn into a musical. First, we’d see a comedy set in present-day America, where a Chinese national would have a glancing encounter with a U.S. leader. Then the show would jump decades into the future, to a time when China has become the dominant world power. The initial encounter we witnessed has been mythologized, and become the basis for a beloved Chinese musical, telling their version of an East-West story — including a “yellow hero” who civilizes the Americans.
I pitched this notion to my longtime and most important artistic collaborator, director Leigh Silverman. She’s grown accustomed to my crazy, impossible ideas, which she then works herself to the bone to actually realize onstage. Michael Ritchie, meanwhile, immediately agreed to what I then described as a “play with music.” But if we were to have any chance of achieving the complicated effect I hoped for—a musical both inauthentic and heartfelt—we needed our composer to be a master of musicals, a scholar of the form. We needed Jeanine Tesori. Leigh and I approached her with the optimistic (and, er, misleading) proposal that we’d need only “two or three songs.” Finally, Oskar Eustis, Artistic Director of the Public Theater in New York, came on board as our dramaturg and co-commissioner. And so we had our core team.
Then, life intervened. Twice.
Walking near my home one night around 9 p.m., I was stabbed in the neck by an unknown assailant who severed my vertebral artery, then ran away without trying to steal a thing. With help from my wife and daughter, I walked to an ER about two blocks away, where I fainted and went into convulsions before the doctors revived me.
And then, on a national level, there was the Presidential election. In the early drafts of SOFT POWER, a Chinese film executive became an advisor to a particular American leader: President Hillary Clinton. On Election Day, we actually had a reading of that version. Then we all went home to await the results.
In the early drafts of SOFT POWER, a Chinese film executive became an advisor to a particular American leader: President Hillary Clinton. On Election Day, we actually had a reading of that version. Then we all went home to await the results.
The next morning, I remember thinking, “This is really bad for the country. But it could be good for our show.”
In the 1980s, political scientist Joseph Nye coined the term soft power, a country’s ability to persuade others through the attractiveness of its culture, art, and ideas. This serves as a counterpoint to the “hard power” of military or economic strength. Since the twentieth century, the United States has enjoyed both hard and soft power.
China has recently gained great economic power; it also boasts the world’s largest military. But it exerts very little soft power. Neither China’s ideals nor its cultural products have gained much traction in the rest of the world. For over a decade, China has sought to increase its soft power, yet so far, its efforts have fallen flat. In a 2017 essay for Foreign Policy, political scientist George Gao asked, “Why is China so… Uncool?” Much smaller Asian nations such as Japan, South Korea, and even Taiwan have achieved better results, as evidenced by the K-pop group BTS recently claiming the number-one spot on American pop charts.
Our last national election, however, created a soft-power vacuum that may finally help China realize its goals. An authoritarian state whose citizens vote only under very controlled circumstances, China has long disparaged Western-style democracy for supposedly promoting instability and chaos. America’s ongoing withdrawal from its international commitments, along with our president’s instability, incoherence, and bullying, are helping to substantiate that critique. As Professor Xu Guoqi of the University of Hong Kong recently said in The Atlantic: “American power is based on two legs, the hard power and soft power… In terms of soft power, Trump really undermined it substantially.”
The election therefore raised the stakes of our narrative. In addition to reversing the white-hero trope and investigating cultural appropriation, our current national condition also provided us with the opportunity to interrogate American democratic ideals.
And my stabbing? Penning the first draft of the show, I had gotten through the play section and was about to start the musical, when I found myself writing about my attack. I thought this was just a personal exercise, which would never actually end up in the final script. Now, that incident proves central to the structure of our show.
In order to achieve the full power of classic American musicals, Jeanine requested a twenty-two-piece orchestra, a rarity nowadays, even on Broadway. Michael Ritchie not only agreed, but moved us into a larger theater. The brilliant choreographer Sam Pinkleton agreed to take on the terrifying challenge of creating movement for a future Chinese musical. Carole Shorenstein Hays, who recently produced Jeanine’s and Lisa Kron’s Fun Home at the Curran, became interested in our project back when it was just a notion, and committed to bringing SOFT POWER to San Francisco.
So a play commissioned for a smaller stage morphed into “a play with a musical.” A smaller story morphed to encompass larger national themes, as well an attempt on my life that none of us could have anticipated.
I have always believed that a dynamic relationship exists between creators and their works. In the literal sense, the artist creates the art. But it is also true that art recreates the artist. Artists don’t need to go seeking dramatic experiences—because we live in the world, they will inevitably come to us. Then it becomes our job to try to turn them into the best art we can.
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.