By some strange coincidence, white people visiting exotic lands in movies often wind up counselors to local leaders, ultimately introducing civilizing principles that help pave the way to a better future. It occurs in The King and I, The Last Emperor, Seven Years in Tibet and others; often enough to raise suspicions. It’s an example of “soft power,” strong U.S. cultural and intellectual influences delivered via popular entertainment.
When playwright David Henry Hwang saw Broadway’s recent revival of The King and I, in which the recalcitrant King of Siam is made amenable through his relationship with an English tutor, the ending moved him nearly to tears, even though many of the show’s narrative elements struck him as factually inaccurate.
Kicking off its world premiere at the Ahmanson Theatre on Wednesday, May 16, Soft Power, the new musical written by Hwang with a score by Tony winner Jeanine Tesori (Fun Home), stems from Hwang’s experience with The King and I, as well as confabs with Chinese producers seeking “soft power” in the form of a hit Broadway show.
“There’s an inherent contradiction between a regime that seeks soft power and also having a great deal of top-down censorship to control that content. It seems to me those two goals are incompatible. But that’s a very American point of view,” explains Hwang, an L.A. native and 1988 Tony winner for M. Butterfly. “I tend to think censorship inhibits great art. That said, there’s certainly great literature that came out of Eastern Europe when it was dominated by the Soviets. There are classic American movies that were produced under the Hays Code.”
Soft Power, commissioned by Center Theater Group artistic director Michael Ritchie in 2014, began as a play with musical elements set around the 2016 election. A Chinese film executive, Xue Xing (Conrad Ricamora), and a writer, DHH (Francis Jue, Hwang's surrogate), attend a production of The King and I and a fundraiser for Hillary Clinton. Xue strikes up a relationship with the candidate. On the way home from the event, DHH is stabbed in the street and passes out in a scene inspired by a real-life attack that nearly severed one of Hwang’s arteries.
At this point the play jumps 50 years into the future. The events we just witnessed have become the basis for a beloved Chinese musical about how, when democracy failed following the election of Donald Trump, China stepped up on the global stage to fill a leadership void.
“It’s a political fantasia,” composer Tesori explains about what turned out to be an unusual process from the first time she met Hwang. “He said, ‘I have this idea, but I don’t know what it is. I know that it would have songs in it.’ I thought, ‘God, I don’t know what the hell you’re talking about, but I’ll follow you.’ I can’t imagine what music’s going to be like in the future, so I just decided to write the best romantic musical I could.”
Hwang originally set out to conjure an inversion of The King and I. In earlier drafts, Xue would become an adviser to the newly elected President Hillary Clinton. But when she lost the election, the script had to change. While Trump is mentioned as an offstage character, Hwang was compelled to create his own version of Clinton, played by Alyse Alan Louis, who sings a torch song about democracy.
One major production number takes place at a McDonald’s, as imagined through a Chinese lens gazing back from the future, with luxurious seating and roller-skating waiters choreographed by Sam Pinkleton, a Tony nominee for Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812. If it sounds loopy, it is, which speaks to one of the biggest challenges confronting Hwang and Tesori: tone.
“On the one hand, we’re creating a musical that is seen through this Chinese lens and therefore is dismissive of democracy, and uses the 2016 election, as China does now, to demonstrate the inefficiency and chaotic nature of democracy. So this is a musical that reinforces that idea. And we, as creators, believe in democracy. So there’s a tonal question of how do you create a show, which is on the one hand somewhat satiric, but we also want to create something where the audience feels,” Hwang explains, revisiting their quandary.
A larger issue confronts Michael Ritchie and Center Theater Group. It’s quite a gamble to mount a new musical with a mostly Asian-American cast in a venue as significant as the Ahmanson Theatre. Starting June 20, the production moves to San Francisco’s Curran Theater for creative tweaks, and after that they hope to head to Broadway where, with shows like Hamilton, The Color Purple and Allegiance, people of color now fill 35 percent of acting jobs, according to a poll by the Asian American Performers Action Coalition.
A consistent theme in Hwang’s work is identity. It’s present in early plays like FOB, which stands for “Fresh Off the Boat” and deals with assimilation; M. Butterfly, in which a French diplomat woos an exotic Chinese courtesan only to learn she’s a man, a fact he ultimately chooses to ignore; and Yellow Face, which wrestles with colorblind casting.
“There’s sort of been a realization in entertainment and cultural industries that we are going to see a nation whose demographics are a majority people of color around 2040. If you assume people like to see themselves onstage and on screens, then we need to make that adjustment just for these fields to remain viable not only artistically but also commercially,” Hwang reasons. “While there’s a desire to improve inclusion on Broadway and in the theater, we still have a way to go to figure out how to achieve that.”