Yesterday, I attended the world premiere production of a new musical, Soft Power, at the Music Center in Los Angeles. Actually, it isn't officially a "musical," but rather -- as it describes itself -- a play with a musical. It comes with pretty impressive artistic star power. The play and lyrics are by David Henry Hwang, who wrote M. Butterfly, and the revised version of Rodgers & Hammerstein's Flower Drum Song. And the music and additional lyrics are by Jeanine Tessori, who wrote Fun Home, which won five Tony Awards including Best Musical.
The term "soft power" relates to a more low-key style of international relations, not military but largely focused on econimics or (as is the case here) culture. The show also takes a loving, but very critical look at musicals -- like The King and I -- which present political stories through a warped, paternalistic prism.
The structure of the show is odd, as is the story, though that's some of its fun, as well as some of its hurdles. Normally, I wouldn't got into great detail for the plot, but since the structure of the evening is so critical to the the point of evening that I think some explanation is necessary. Not a full synopsis, but at least its major story highlights.
Soft Power starts off as a play -- the musical doesn't kick in for about 35 minutes. It begins with a writer named...well, David Henry Hwang, trying to sell a TV series idea to the head of a Chinese production company which has opened an office in Hollywood. (There's a very funny line where Hwang tries to build himself up as "the leading Asian-American playwright in the United States." The producer responds, "My understanding is that there aren't many.") They next head to a presidential campaign rally for Hillary Clinton, where the married Chinese producer takes his idealistic American girlfriend, who he acknowledges that as much as they love each other he can't be with her because of honor since he must stay with his wife. And then on election night, writer Hwang is stabbed, taken to the hospital, and as he's losing blood, begins to fade -- and the musical kicks in.
And what we see from that point on until the end (when Hwang regains consciousness in his hospital bed) is a complete twisting of the story, told as an over-the-top satire of politics and musicals. The Chinese producer flies to Hollywood in an America where "Not Hillary" has just been elected president, and hatred, guns and violence have taken over, and America has ceased to be a world leader in politics and culture. (The opening scene of the second act is a funny diversion that steps out of the show for a moment and jumps 50 years in the future, as a panel of Chinese critics and one American professor of popular culture discuss the cultural phenomenon that the Chinese producer's memoir Soft Power has by then become -- turned into an even greater international phenomenon when it was adapted into a new art form developed by the Chinese, whereby plays have songs in them, and the actors sing. When the American professor tries to correct the others that America created the musical, they explain to him that the early American form was very primitive, even to the point of having a show entirely about cats, performed by actors playing cats, singing songs that cats would sing.)
This musical from the Chinese producer's memoir is a tale of this fallen America, him meeting Hillary Clinton, teaching her about how to make the world a better place, and the two falling in love -- before he heads off to Washington to teach the administration about how the world should come together using Chinese ideas. All this while he struggles with what he, a married man, must do about his love for Hillary Clinton, trying to balance the Chinese concept of honor with the American concept of heart. And then David Henry Hwang recovers in his hospital room of the real world...
Hey, I told you the structure and story were odd.
I thought the show was very interesting in both a good and bad way. It’s an extremely intriguing premise that’s creatively done, but I found it over-the-top in addressing most of its story. In fairness, that "over-the-top" sensibility is part of its very intentional point, though that’s a fine-line for a show to walk on, and it’s so disjointed at times that I found it falling into clownish, more than sharp satire. Some scenes are terrific, particularly that opening of the second act and the finale. And a few in between.
The acting particularly is all excellent, impressively so, and entirely made up of Asian-American actors (except for the one lead actress). Conrad Ricamora as the Chinese producer and Francis Jue in the smaller, though still-lead role as Hwang are both standout -- as is Alyse Alan Louis in a double role as the girlfriend and Hillary Clinton.
But much as I admire the bold undertaking of what the real David Henry Hwang and Jeanine Tesori were trying to do, and often succeeding, for me I found it too goofy which, no matter how intentional, make its points more easily dismissed, and with mostly unmemorable songs. (Though several were very good.) That said, the audience seemed to like it very much. Me, I’m glad I went, but wasn’t overwhelmed by it.
Here's a rehearsal video of one of the more enjoyable songs and staged quite-effectively effective in the show, a number called Democracy. That's Francis Jue (as Hwang) leading the way, with Conrad Ricamora to his left in a dark, open-neck sweater with light green t-shirt, and Alyse Alan Louis behind to his right. (If you can't pick her out, you aren't trying...)
And here's a bit of a medley from that same rehearsal. The character singing the "Good Guy with a Gun" song is the vice president, who is not Mike Pence but a former gang leader we saw earlier in the show, played by Raymond J. Lee. Alas, there really isn't solo material for Alyse Alan Louis, other than a few lines soaring in the above-video.
Robert J. Elisberg is a political commentator, screenwriter, novelist, tech writer and also some other things that I just tend to keep forgetting.
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