"A King and I, but from China’s point of view!” David Hnery Hwang says of the show-within-a-show that makes up the bulk of Soft Power. The musical, which Hwang co-wrote with Jeanine Tesorie, premiered Off-Broadway at the Public Theatre October 15, 2019, eventually earning 11 Drama Desk Awards nominations.
The cast album from Ghostlight Records, featuring the original Off-Broadway cast, is now available. Flipping the script on Western-centric representations of foreign cultures, Soft Power centers on a Chinese-American playwright who descends into an elaborate dream in which a Chinese theatrical producer travels to America and forges a powerful bond with then-Democratic Presidential nominee Hillary Clinton.
Here, Hwang shares the story behind the songs, including the sight gags that listeners may not know about.
The show begins with a play set in 2016 where DHH, an Asian-American playwright, gets hired by a Xue Xing, a theatre producer from China, to write a musical which will premiere in Shanghai. They argue over Chinese versus American values and political systems. DHH takes Xing to a Hillary Clinton fundraiser, where they see a production of The King and I, and Xing meets Hillary, who deeply impresses him. The day after the election, a devastated DHH wonders if he’s even going to be able to live in this country any longer. Suddenly, he’s stabbed in the neck by an unseen assailant. As he starts to pass out, David hears … violins: “Now, I can finally see it. The show Xing’s been wanting me to write. A King and I, but from China’s point of view!”
Danny Troob’s orchestrations give this musical the lush sweep of an show from the first golden age of American musicals and Chris Fenwick masterfully conducts our 23-piece orchestra.
Seen through a Chinese lens, Xue Xing becomes the protagonist, about to head off for a dangerous foreign land. The verse which Xing sings to his daughter Jing about her grandpa is a monologue from the play section. My genius collaborator Jeanine Tesori set it pretty much word-for-word to music!
"Welcome to America"
We were rehearsing for the show’s premiere, at the Ahmanson Theatre in Los Angeles, when Jeanine and our miracle-working director Leigh Silverman decided we needed a musical moment for Xing’s arrival in the States. This number flips the trope where a Westerner lands in some developing nation to find himself assaulted by a mob of grabbing hands and greedy faces. When you think about it, is that actually so different from landing at JFK? Jeanine asked the company, “Can anyone spit?” Geena Quintos volunteered, and we built this rap with “Baby G.”
This was the first song Jeanine and I wrote. Perhaps as a result, it’s changed the most and became a crash course on lyric writing for me. I originally had an idea for a song called “Through Our Eyes,” which announced our thematic intention to change the lens of East-West encounters. Jeanine helped me understand that an intellectual conceit is difficult to musicalize. On the other hand, a park is concrete, something a character can sing about. Through subsequent iterations, this evolved into a song where DHH connects with his immigrant father’s journey.
"I’m With Her"
American musicals set in foreign lands often include a grab-bag of random images and facts which the authors have cobbled together to create a “fantasy version” of that culture. A fantasy version of 2016 America would set a campaign rally in our most famous restaurant: McDonald’s! In addition to Alyse Alan Louis’ showstopping performance, this track shines a spot on John Clancy’s dance arrangements, which pull from an eclectic range of influences. Sam Pinkleton rose to the challenge, choreographing steps for Hillary that mashed together the history of American popular dance, achieving a coherence both hallucinatory and breathtaking.
"It Just Takes Time"
We sought a musical moment where our screwball couple starts to fall in love, and Jeanine suggested the convention of a Teaching Song, such as “Do-Re-Mi” from The Sound of Music or “The Rain in Spain” from My Fair Lady. She loved the fact of Mandarin being a tonal language, which makes it particularly difficult for Westerners to learn, as well as the dynamic of a Chinese man teaching a white woman to pronounce his name properly. Amazingly, Alyse Alan Louis sang and danced this duet just minutes after “I’m With Her!”
My original idea for this show was a more direct King and I reversal: a Chinese national comes to America and helps President Hillary Clinton to solve the problem of gun violence. We did a reading of this early version on Election Day 2016, with everyone wearing their “I Voted!” stickers. In this number, we seek to capture the subsequent shock of that evening, and the sensation of our country transforming overnight into a strange, frightening place. We begin with a Schoolhouse Rock-like dive into the American electoral process, which turns incoherent when the Chief Justice attempts to explain the byzantine workings of the electoral college, a topic I debated for a whole year in high school! The invaluable Jon Hoche sings the role of the Chief Justice; his college acting professor had told him he would never be hired for a musical, so there!
A bit of Asian-American trivia: DHH’s revelation, “I’m not two halves, I’m whole,” is inspired by psychologists Stanley and Derald Sue, who in 1971 coined the term “Marginal Man” to describe a bifurcated Asian-American identity, as opposed to those who integrate aspects of their background into a unified whole. Francis Jue, who plays DHH, has been one of my longest-standing collaborators, whose first Broadway show was the original M. Butterfly, and who portrayed my father in my 2007 play Yellow Face. Francis jokes that he’ll be playing my mother next.
"Entr’acte/Song of the Campaign"
We decided to use the “in-one” tradition here: a solo number following intermission, often performed downstage of the curtain. As Hillary sings this song, she self-soothes with pizza, then ice cream, then a scoop of ice cream on the pizza. An earlier version incorporated lines about these foods, which we eventually replaced with her reflections on the campaign itself, making her eating a sight gag.
Jeanine and I worked together closely on lyrics, which is why we share credit for them. I learned early in our process that she possesses a talent for crafting words as well as writing fantastic music. In this song, I think I came up with the phrase “Happy enough,” but I believe it was Jeanine who wrote the lyric which brilliantly articulates our show’s conception of love: “To lose your face / And open your heart.”
"Good Guy With a Gun"
Raymond Lee is one of the American musical theatre’s great treasures. We hear him on this track at the height of his powers, affirming what makes America great as a new administration takes over the White House in 2016. We thought of this song in the tradition of “Shipoopi” from The Music Man or “The Farmer and the Cowman” from Oklahoma!, an explosion of energy through which the characters celebrate their shared bonds—in this case, including AK-47s.
"New Silk Road"
The title and refrain of this number references China’s “Belt and Road Initiative,” a foreign aid program launched in 2013 through which China lends money to other nations to strengthen their infrastructure, while expanding its own influence. This program has been accused by critics as being a new type of colonialism. We thought “New Silk Road” was a much catchier name for this initiative; the fact that China didn’t come up with that branding in the first place helps to explain why they don’t have soft power.
The term “soft power” was coined by Harvard political scientist Joseph Nye in the 1990s. It refers to a nation’s cultural and intellectual influence, as opposed to the “hard power” of financial and military might. The soft power of this number wouldn’t work without the assured voice of Conrad Ricamora.
This is our “God Bless America” song, conceived as the 11 o’clock number for Hillary. We originally started thinking of it as a torch song, in which Hillary goes back to her abusive lover, Democracy. We hope it acknowledges the frustrations and pain of the election process, while also affirming the ideals on which this country was built, but so often fails to achieve. “Democracy can break your heart” became our show’s tagline.
Since our show opened this past fall, the story has taken on even greater urgency. DHH’s stabbing in the play was based on an actual attack I survived several years ago, when an unknown assailant stabbed me in the neck and severed an artery. Since the onset of the current pandemic, hate crimes against Asian Americans have skyrocketed because we are still seen as perpetual foreigners who are somehow responsible for the virus. Here, DHH and our almost all-Asian American cast take up Hillary’s call, to affirm our identity as Americans and our commitment to a better future for this country.