Center Theatre Group recently invited donors, board members and press to a luncheon and talkback with David Henry Hwang in the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion ballroom overlooking downtown Los Angeles. After lunch, Center Theatre Group Artistic Director, Michael Ritchie, moderated a conversation with Hwang on his collaboration with Jeanine Tesori (Fun Home), a new play with a musical called Soft Power.
Hwang is the celebrated playwright of M. Butterfly who actually hails from right here in the San Gabriel Valley. He explained that he is thrilled to be premiering this new work here in town given his own experience in the Chinese California culture of his youth as well as his memories of attending theatre at the Mark Taper and the Ahmanson.
The play is described as a “contemporary comedy that explodes into a musical fantasia” about China’s quest for Soft Power, “their intellectual and cultural influence in the world”, explains Hwang. “It was interesting to me to see this system who seeks to have cultural influence and yet is very top heavy with authoritarian power and how those two things are at odds.”
The story begins with a Chinese film executive who visits America and finds himself falling in love with a good-hearted U.S. leader, Hillary Clinton, just after the 2016 election. In Fantasia fashion we then fast forward half a century to a Chinese production of a beloved East-meets-West musical that uses this love story and 2016 America as its source material.
The project began as a play but Hwang quickly realized he wanted to do a musical. In fact, Hwang describes wanting to turn the notion at the core of The King and I on its head to tell this story that is seen through the Chinese lens with a distinctly Chinese perspective but told with all the soaring beauty of a musical. Ritchie calls it “a twist on The King and I but also an exploration of what would it mean for China to gain soft power and how that soft power manifests itself in the arts.”
Once it was clear that it was to be a musical “the person that was my dream to work with was Jeanine Tesori,” says Hwang, “she had just won the Tony and I felt, this project is hard and complicated but if we pull this off and create something that projects a set of values that’s generally different from our own reality and gets a lot of things wrong about the United States in 2016, but also completely works as a musical, that you would come out with that same feeling you have at the end of The King and I; “oh that’s kind of not true but it’s so beautiful!” and my first thought was of Jeanine because she’s a fantastic composer but she is also a scholar of musical theatre and understands the art form so well.”
Hwang had brought Tesori in to the theatre department at Columbia University and knew that, “if I could get Jeanine on this difficult, ambitious project then I would feel like Churchill the day he learns the Americans are going to enter World War II; we can make this happen!”
Soft Power promises to be an exciting, first time collaboration between two of America’s great theatre artists that has romance, history, politics, laughs and cultural confusions all wrapped in a big, splashy Broadway musical.
The world premiere of David Henry Hwang and Jeanine Tesori’s SOFT POWER opens at Center Theatre Group/Ahmanson Theatre on May 16 and continues through June 10, 2018 Directed by Leigh Silverman, choreographed by Sam Pinkleton and stars in alphabetical order Billy Bustamante, Kara Guy, Jon Hoche, Kendyl Ito, Francis Jue, Austin Ku, Raymond J. Lee, Alyse Alan Louis, Jaygee Macapugay, Daniel May, Paul HeeSang Miller, Kristen Faith Oei, Maria-Christina Oliveras, Geena Quintos, Conrad Ricamora, Trevor Salter and Emily Stillings.
Tickets for “Soft Power” are available by calling (213) 972-4400, online at www.CenterTheatreGroup.org or at the Center Theatre Group Box Office located at the Ahmanson Theatre. Tickets range from $30 – $130 (ticket prices are subject to change). The Ahmanson Theatre is located at The Music Center, 135 N. Grand Avenue in Downtown L.A. 90012.