Tony Award winner and Pulitzer Prize finalist David Henry Hwang always knew that his latest work, Soft Power, was going to be a play with a musical. Not to be confused with a play or a musical, or a play with music (in which songs simply accompany plot—different from a musical in which songs drive plot). Directed by Leigh Silverman, Soft Power, currently playing San Francisco’s Curran through July 8, is a genre-breaking new form of theatre.
The work begins as a play set immediately after the 2016 election and morphs into an American-style musical put on by a Chinese company 50 years in the future about that (currently fictionalized) moment in 2016 when America ceded power to China.
Not to compare everything to the Revolutionary Era Hamilton, but: It’s as if the audience is watching a play about the moment when Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr duel and that gunfight scene transforms into Hamilton, the musical we know, performed years later—musicalizing the moment through a future lens.
“The Chinese musical [piece of this] celebrates China stepping in to lead the world when America collapses after the 2016 election—it is a show about the transfer of soft power,” Hwang elaborates. “Are we in a moment where America is now ceding its leadership to the rest of the world? Particularly China? That’s the central question the musical is investigating.
“The only issue was how much music was going to be in the show and, as the development went along, it became clear that we had to do a real musical—a full-out musical—for most of the show,” says Hwang. The sixth collaboration between Hwang and Silverman, the duo recruited Tony winner Jeanine Tesori as Hwang’s composer-lyricist partner.
“This jungle gym of the play, the architecture of the play and the musical, that’s what we’re creating—not our individual performances,” says star Conrad Ricamora (The King & I, television’s How to Get Away with Murder), one of 15 Asian-American actors in the cast of 17.
When it comes to the musical embedded in the play, Tesori has the challenge of writing a piece based on what the Chinese believe musical theatre to be.
“We’re making an American-style musical—emphasis on style,” says Tony-nominated choreography Sam Pinkleton (The Great Comet). “The challenge and the joy of this assignment to me, as it has been presented by David and Jeanine, is to imagine: What would a great American musical look like if your only references for American musical theatre were a bunch of YouTube videos? My job is to stitch together this kind of demented buffet of references from the last hundred years of American pop culture, from Fred Astaire to the Backstreet Boys and everything in between.”
“I’ve compared it in some ways to the Anna Nicole Smith opera,” says Silverman. “It really is a love letter to musical theatre and it’s skewering musical theatre and it’s celebrating musical theatre with this searing political commentary in the center of it and I think that kind of opposition feels really exciting.”
Because the form is completely new—in addition to the story and its characters—the foursome became enmeshed with each other, even moreso than the typically collaborative process of writing a new musical.
“The opening number, Jeanine and I made standing side-by-side with the cast on its feet,” says Pinkleton. “There was no song, there was no dance. Jeanine was just like, ‘Sing this note: bah bah bah bah’ and I was like, ‘Great, walk that way, now walk in beat, now move your hands,’ and she’s like, ‘Say these lyrics,’ which I’ve never done before. It’s pretty wild.”
After its world premiere at Los Angeles’ Ahmanson Theatre and now its current stint at the Curran, Soft Power looks to find its footing in an uncharted artistic realm. Though next steps have not yet been announced, as she steers the ship, Silverman has faith in the story her company is telling. “To expose both the amazing part of what it is to be an American right now and the complicated part of being an American right now to beautiful Jeanine Tesori music… That’s a room I want to be in.”