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Four Years, Two Breakfasts, and One Big Commission

Michael Ritchie and David Henry Hwang Discuss the Creation of 'Soft Power'


L-R: Center Theatre Group Artistic Director Michael Ritchie and playwright David Henry Hwang.

Photo by Ryan Miller/Capture Imaging.

How does a new (play with a) musical get made? To quote Soft Power, It Just Takes Time. In this case, that’s four years, 13 readings and workshops, and the partnership of a crackerjack creative team of American theatre all-stars. But before all that, there was breakfast, as Center Theatre Group Artistic Director Michael Ritchie and playwright David Henry Hwang recalled recently (over lunch this time).

Michael Ritchie: Nonprofit regional theatres like Center Theatre Group have become the national theatre of America. Collectively, we’re responsible for not only maintaining the art form but pushing it forward by commissioning and developing and producing new plays. We’re uniquely capable of creating new works on a grand scale, without the commercialized limitations of Broadway, because we can give a creative team enough space to realize something that is truly special. And that’s what I think we’ve done with Soft Power.
David Henry Hwang: About four years ago, Michael met me for breakfast, and made me this amazing offer: he wanted to commission a piece from me, and not only that, there was a slot open, so the piece was guaranteed to be produced. Really, who can say no to that? What I was interested in at the time, and what has continued to remain the seed for the show that’s become Soft Power, were two things. Number one, China’s quest for soft power—for intellectual and cultural influence. China is a nation that increasingly has a lot of hard power; most people kind of feel that China’s likely to be the other major superpower if not the superpower of the 21st century. And China has this desire to gain soft power, a desire I began to experience. I would get a lot of meetings with Chinese producers or Chinese theatres, since they wanted to create a Broadway show…and I happen to be the only even nominally Chinese person who’s ever written a Broadway show. Nothing ever came of these meetings, but it was interesting to me that you had a system that wants international artistic and cultural influence but is very top-heavy when it comes to authoritarian power and content restrictions. Number two was, I had seen the recent revival of The King and I. I’ve always loved The King and I, it’s been a show that has moved me since I was a kid. But as I’ve gotten older, there’s this complicated feeling where I know it is kind of inauthentic and making a political point subtly—reinforcing the dominance of the West. But it’s done so beautifully that by the end of it I’m still in tears.
Now one of the things that I find most intriguing about Soft Power is that it’s not a mirror to The King and I, but it certainly follows some of the impulse. It wasn’t until I sat with you at breakfast and you reframed it for me through your eyes that I realized that The King and I is actually demeaning to an entire country and a culture. The basic plot is that a white woman comes to this country and saves itself from its own stupidity by teaching the king how to dance and be nice to his children.
This idea that it takes a white nanny to come into Siam or Thailand and teach the king how to bring his nation into the community of civilized countries—that’s not that great. It’s a trope that exists consistently in Western stories about the East. I wrote the first draft of the movie that eventually became Seven Years in Tibet. Any time you get a white person in an Asian country who writes a memoir, somehow they end up becoming the advisor to the ruler. And the question is, when we talk about issues like appropriation, how do you express that, how do you replicate that feeling for a general American audience? If we look at appropriation in a future where China is dominant over the US, then I think we begin to perceive that in a different fashion, because we understand the power context. And that’s what the show’s trying to do—a complicated thing for a musical to achieve.
The first time we talked about the commission, this was going to be a new play—the final show of our 50th Season at the Mark Taper Forum. At our second meeting though, when we sat down to breakfast again about a year and a half later, you had an expanded idea of what you wanted to do with this play.
I wanted to do a play that becomes a musical. The first 20 minutes of it would be a contemporary comedy, and then that comedy becomes mythologized, and 50 years down the road it becomes the source material for a beloved East-West musical in China. So we are then watching a Chinese musical based on the incident we saw. And that seemed to me to bring together a twist on The King and I and also this exploration of what would it mean for China to gain soft power, and how soft power would manifest itself in the musical form. So I said, Michael, I kind of want to do a musical.
And I was completely intrigued by it. And then you mentioned someone you were thinking of working on it.
It was my dream that we could work with the composer Jeanine Tesori. My thought was, if we pull this off, you should have that same feeling that you do at the end of The King and I, which is, this is kind of not true but it’s so beautiful. So the person I thought of was Jeanine, because she’s a fantastic composer of course, but she’s also a scholar of musical theatre, she understands the form so well.
How did you and Jeanine decide on the style and how the music should come across?
Jeanine says that musicals—and I’ve now incorporated this into the play—are an incredibly powerful delivery system. When the music is great, you kind of let the idea it expresses seep into your heart. Which means that in a show like this, the music has to be as rich and seductive and as reminiscent of classic Broadway as possible. So Jeanine set out to write her most beautiful score, and I think she has. People sometimes asked, is she trying to write in an Asian or Chinese vein? I would say not so much. We’re going for the idea that China 50 years from now really appropriates the American musical form.
Thank you, David. There is nothing better in the world than working on a new musical.
Thank you and Center Theatre Group. You committed to this huge project when we only really had a title. Thanks so much for your faith.

Listen to the full recording of Ritchie and Hwang in conversation on our podcast.

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