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Three's a Crowd, Four's a Collaboration

The Tenacious Talents Behind 'Soft Power'


L-R: Composer Jeanine Tesori, playwright David Henry Hwang, director Leigh Silverman, Center Theatre Group Artistic Director Michael Ritchie, and choreographer Sam Pinkleton.

Photo by Joan Marcus.

To say that the creative team behind the World premiere of Soft Power—onstage at the Ahmanson Theatre May 3 – June 10, 2018—admires and respects one another is an understatement. It might be more suitable to say that Soft Power playwright and lyricist David Henry Hwang, composer Jeanine Tesori, director Leigh Silverman, and choreographer Sam Pinkleton all share the same creative tenacity.

If you’re going to stand in the trenches, these are the people you’re going to want to be with, Silverman—who made waves in 2006 as one of the youngest women to make her Broadway directorial debut—said of her colleagues. They’re interested in a rigorous process—and that’s what I’m interested in. I think we all feel like we’re here for a reason.

Silverman is no stranger to Hwang, Tesori, or Pinkleton. She has collaborated with Hwang five times on projects such as Yellow Face (2007) and Chinglish (2011). She also directed the revival of Tesori’s Violet (2013)—for which she was nominated for a Tony Award® for Best Direction. Last year, Silverman directed the Off-Broadway musical Really Rosie as part of New York City Center’s Encores! Off-Center series—of which Pinkleton is an Artistic Associate and Tesori is the Co-Artistic Director.

But what brought these four all together in the city of Los Angeles was Hwang’s ideas about soft power and China's growing influence on America.

The ambition of David’s idea and the way David is looking at the world and using familiar forms to interrogate the moment we’re in right now is totally dazzling and irresistible, Pinkleton said. It was an opportunity for me to do some things I’ve never done and have been really terrified to do with collaborators whom I trust the most.

Hailing from an untamed corner of the American South, better known as Hopewell, Virginia, Pinkleton studied directing at New York University but was often asked to create movements for other people’s projects due to his passion and willingness to jump off of high things. Since then, he has choreographed the 2016 Broadway production of Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812—which earned him a Tony Award nomination—as well as the 2017 productions of Amélie (which had a pre-Broadway run at the Ahmanson) and Significant Other. Aside from Broadway, Pinkleton also prides himself in creating movement for concerts, music videos, unexpected public events, and rodeos. While Soft Power certainly falls within his diverse repertoire of work, the play’s ambitious thematic and narrative scope challenged Pinkleton to reimagine his understanding of American dance.

The choreography in Soft Power, a musical that we believe is happening 100 years in the future, looks back on 2016 in America, Pinkleton said. The most exciting thing about it is this idea of reverse appropriation. What does it mean to look at America and ask, ‘What’s American? What are American things? What are American dances?’

Tesori—the most lauded female composer in history—also felt challenged by the scope of the show. I’ve learned that with working with great playwrights like David, Tesori explained, you are never going to come out of that process without growth, without stretching yourself. You have to stretch when you work with other great artists who know something about dramatic writing much more than I know.

As the only female composer with five Tony Award nominations (and one win with Lisa Kron in 2015 for Fun Home), Tesori has constantly stretched her abilities to create new musical experiences. In Thoroughly Modern Millie (2002), she composed a jazzy musical set in the 1920s. In Caroline, or Change (2004), she partnered with Tony Kushner to create a soundscape that intertwines blues, spirituals, classical music, and folk music. And in Shrek The Musical (2008), she surrounds a giant green ogre with toe-tapping pop music.

Why did she bring her talents to this particular project? When I got to a certain point, I thought, I am no longer going to write anything that doesn’t reveal something about myself, the state of the world, or add to the repertoire of musical theatre, Tesori said. Yet she did have some initial hesitations in stepping into the cultural themes of the show. I didn’t know my way in as a non-Asian writer, she said. It was like, ‘Where is my place visiting this culture?’ Then I found it, and I understood it. I think it takes sort of a big dose of humility to let someone else lead the narrative.

Leading that narrative is Hwang himself, a Tony Award winner and three-time Pulitzer Prize finalist whose previous works have also dealt with East-West relations. M. Butterfly—about an affair between a French diplomat and a Chinese opera singer—earned him the 1988 Tony Award for Best Play and established him as one of America’s most exciting playwrights. Hwang went on to revise the book of Flower Drum Song, which made its way to Broadway in 2002; premiere the semi-autobiographical story about racial miscasting, Yellow Face, in 2007 at the Mark Taper Forum; and write a comedy about an American businessman lost in translation, Chinglish, in 2011.

In a conversation with Michael Ritchie, Hwang confessed it was his dream to work with Tesori on Soft Power: She’s a fantastic composer of course, but she’s also a scholar of musical theatre. She understands the form so well. He leaned on Tesori’s knowledge and strengths for music that really appropriates the American musical form, and noted that Jeanine set out to write her most beautiful score, and I think she has.

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