The stories beyond the songs
Local novelist Vanessa Hua revisits her family’s favorite musicals (and her father’s singing), and looks back at how David Henry Hwang emboldened her to tell her own stories.
My immigrant Chinese father loved musicals: the soaring songs, the graceful dancers, the worlds within them lit gold. With their hero’s journeys and reversals of fortune, their extravagant declarations of bravery and love, musicals captured the promise and perils of coming to America, even if their stories were set elsewhere—in the imperial court of Siam, say, or a Russian shetl, or an island in the South Pacific.
In the early 1960s, when my parents arrived in the Midwest to attend graduate school, they quickly became acquainted with other all-American pleasures, too: big cars, hamburgers, root beer floats. During my childhood in the Bay Area, back in the days before DVRs and VCRs, when one network or another would air The Sound of Music—uninterrupted, with no commercials, as a special event—our whole family would gather to watch Maria and the von Trapps outwit the Nazis and escape across the Austrian Alps. I’d sit on the carpet, thrilled to be awake past my bedtime, peering through this window onto a wider world, swept up by music that made me feel like a soap bubble floating on the wind.
My father was stoic by nature; he spoke little about his war-torn youth in China and the years in Taiwan that followed. He looked to the future, to his time as an engineer working on the construction of the Sears Tower, to the life he would build for his family, to weekend afternoons at the helm of his red sailboat, the Six Happiness, named in honor of our family: my father, his wife, his three children, and my grandmother, who helped raise us.
The Rose, the film loosely based on the life of Janis Joplin, caught his fancy, too—he’d belt out the eponymous ballad while he had a snack in the kitchen, his voice thundering up through the floors and down the halls, the lyrics sorrowful and spare, then swelling with defiance and hope. If we tried to shush him, he sang louder.
My own enduring affection for musicals grew out of that early exposure. As a teenager, I spent hours immersed in the cast recordings of The Phantom of the Opera, Evita, and Sunset Boulevard, poring over the lyrics and studying the stills in the album liners. My friends and I twice made treks from the suburbs by BART to attend matinee shows of Les Misérables at the Curran. In my lacy Gunne Sax dress and puffy white hair bow, I remember feeling exceedingly grown-up and sophisticated.
To me, it seemed mocking—the equivalent of a schoolyard bully pulling his eyes back with his fingers, or my own classmates ridiculing the pronunciation of my last name at assemblies, turning it into the high-pitched shriek of a martial-arts fighter.
I had just finished my freshman year of high school when furor exploded over the London casting of Jonathan Pryce as a Eurasian pimp in the new musical Miss Saigon, loosely based on Puccini’s Madame Butterfly. David Henry Hwang—whose M. Butterfly, his own take on the same source material, had won a Tony Award for Best Play the year before—spoke out against the practice of yellowface: white actors portraying East Asians using makeup or eyelid prosthetics. To me, it seemed mocking—the equivalent of a schoolyard bully pulling his eyes back with his fingers, or my own classmates ridiculing the pronunciation of my last name at assemblies, turning it into the high-pitched shriek of a martial-arts fighter. But the West End and Broadway felt very far away from where I lived, and I was still learning how to turn dissent and discontent into action.
Much later, I would research the details of how Actors Equity first denied Pryce permission to reprise his role in New York, and then relented. The show opened with him still in the part, though without the false eyelids. Progress would come slowly. Yet it was Hwang and other pioneering activists, through their demands for diversity in art, who would make it possible for me to find my own voice as an Asian American writer. When I wrote my debut novel about motherhood, immigration, and identity, I was joining the movement they helped drive forward—the long campaign to explode stereotype and reclaim our stories.
Despite repeated efforts to change casting policies, yellowface persists today, with the same false and offensive arguments trotted out each time. There aren’t enough qualified Asian or Asian Americans for the role, we’re told; Asians don’t have the star power to attract an audience. Between 2006 and 2016, more than 75 percent of all roles on Broadway and in major New York theaters were filled by white actors, according to the Asian American Performers Action Coalition. Hwang has observed that this seems like a bad business model, given the growing diversity in this country. His 2007 “unreliable memoir” of a play was called Yellow Face. The protagonist—who shares his initials, DHH—accidentally casts a white man as the Asian American lead.
In Soft Power, DHH returns, this time for a brilliantly subversive production that flips The King and I on its head. Hwang has said that he loves the classic Rodgers and Hammerstein musical, even as he’s questioned its racial politics. In his retelling, rather than a sensible English nanny changing the mind of a goodhearted but backward Siamese king, it’s a Chinese film producer, Xue Xing, who develops a friendship with Hillary Clinton, and attempts to broker peace between China and America. White savior, begone!
In late 2015, a few months after Hwang had begun work on the show in earnest, an attacker stabbed him in the neck and severed his vertebral artery. Only by applying pressure to the wound did he survive long enough to stagger to his nearby home, and then to the hospital. Though the case remains unsolved, local officials speculated that Hwang may have been targeted because he was Asian American, part of a troubling rise in crimes against the community. Hwang weaves what happened into SOFT POWER, with DHH suspecting that his own assault may have happened because he “wasn’t American enough… the worst of both worlds.”
Like Hwang, I’m California-born and bred. No matter how deep our roots, though, Asian Americans are frequently perceived as perpetual foreigners. We’re forced to prove our loyalty, and that we belong. We’re asked, “But where are you really from?” And since the 2016 election, immigrants and other minorities have come under further attack—denied our stories and, increasingly, our humanity.
Scenes like this one will likely give some in the audience a first taste of what it feels like to have your culture and history distorted and appropriated. For the rest of us—regularly skewed in or else excluded from mainstream depictions—the feeling is much more familiar.
In SOFT POWER, as DHH passes out after the stabbing, he hears the strains of an East-West musical, Ruân Shílì (the Chinese translation of “soft power”), that soon takes over the show. Set roughly in our present but ostensibly written decades from now, it presents a disorienting, funhouse version of America through Chinese eyes. The musical is American-style, or in the mode of what Chinese librettists might someday draw from our pop culture—itself an already warped reflection of reality. There are sentimental ballads in Jeanine Tesori’s score that hearken back to the golden age of Broadway, as well as hints of gospel and rap. The Asian American ensemble is in whiteface, wearing blond wigs and conversing in the exaggerated accents of a Southern yokel or a Mafioso. Xue Xing, meanwhile, speaks in an unaccented tongue. He’s the star, not the comic relief, not destined to get killed off after speaking a few lines. It’s the gun-toting, meth-addicted white Americans who become the exotic, the Other.
Later on, a panel of experts offers commentary on the musical, which has become a beloved cultural juggernaut. The Chinese have laid claim to shuo chàngjù, or spoken and sung drama. A professor of American folklore protests, but is told that the regional, New York–style entertainments he claims came first merely inspired—with their “innocence” and “raw emotion”—the creation of a new, refined art form. Scenes like this one will likely give some in the audience a first taste of what it feels like to have your culture and history distorted and appropriated. For the rest of us—regularly skewed in or else excluded from mainstream depictions—the feeling is much more familiar.
In college, I stopped listening to my cassette-tape collection of musicals, but I still enjoyed going to new ones—no super fan, though a fan nonetheless. My father passed away a few years ago; I like to think he would have been captivated by the sweep and spectacle of. SOFT POWER. Though he was a naturalized American citizen, and had lived in this country for more than half his life, he also would have been pleased by China’s growing eminence. He treasured both his homelands, ancestral and adopted.
In my own work over the years, whether in journalism or in fiction, set here or abroad, I’ve tried to shine a light onto untold stories, ones that might inspire a change in thinking and a change in action. So far, the only musicals that I’ve watched with my twin sons—who are about to turn seven—are of the cartoon variety. I can’t wait to share my old favorites with them, as well as shows like SOFT POWER, and the ones yet to come—musicals that keep up the fight to reflect the true richness of the world we live in.
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.