“Musicals can be very tricky,” Jeanine Tesori explains. “Because when you deliver something and you put a beautiful string section underneath it, it sways you. It sways you because of the physics of music, and the overtone series and the ways that music is embedded inside the science of being alive.”
Tesori, the composer of the music within David Henry Hwang’s complex and fascinating new play, Soft Power, certainly understands how musicals can manipulate, persuade, and influence. She won a Tony for Best Original Score for Fun Home, along with Lisa Kron, for their adaptation of Alison Bechdel’s memoir that focuses on her sexuality, her closeted bisexual father, and other hot-button topics. After the musical was celebrated, Samantha Power, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, brought a group of ambassadors — including representatives from nations like Russia and Gabon where homosexuality is illegal — to a production. As one representative told Tesori afterward: “I would never think about these things the same way after seeing this play; I will go back to my country and try to change things.”
“Storytelling and legislation are of course, tied together,” Tesori says. “The metaphor that we use in theater and the metaphor you see in a courtroom — watching lawyers play out your case — they’re all tied together … Musicals really can be very powerful in that way, to make you think.”
That’s the sort of “soft power” at the heart of Hwang’s “play with a musical,” which is currently at the Public Theater (through November 17th). Soft power refers to the way a government is able to persuade without force (“hard power”) or overt coercion. And it’s one reason some fear the museum shows and other arts programming promoting Russian greatness, the glut of TV series about British royals, or the global dominance of South Korean boy band BTS and the rest of those K-pop exports. It’s all a subtle form of cultural diplomacy.
In the case of Hwang’s play, he imagines a time in the not-so-distant future when China has become the most powerful nation in the world and “essentially was creating a musical where they were punching down” at America for believing in democracy. “I wanted to imagine how they would portray a 2016 campaign rally in a musical,” he says. “They’d make fun of the kind of absurdity and over-the-top-ness of the American electoral system.”
The play begins with a prominent Chinese producer named Xue Xing (played by Conrad Ricamora) attempting to hire a successful American playwright, named David Henry Hwang (played by Francis Jue), to write a musical based on a popular Chinese movie, titled Stick With Your Mistake, which promotes marital fidelity over personal happiness. Later, Hwang is stabbed in the neck (real-life Hwang was also stabbed in the neck and nearly died in 2015), and the play morphs into a musical fever dream in which Hillary Clinton (played with verve by Alyse Alan Louis) stumps for votes by giving a big song-and-dance number and stripping off her sequined pantsuit to reveal a Wonder Woman outfit. All this takes place at a glitzy version of a McDonald’s with dancing waiters. Later, after losing the 2016 election, she and the musical’s Chinese hero, Xue Xing, have a whirlwind romance and sing ballads and other ingenious numbers that are reminiscent of The King and I, My Fair Lady, and other Golden Age musicals. The entire production is a swirl of complicated ideas that investigate the nature of democracy, cultural identity, appropriation, and racism. Yet, somehow it offers a glimmer of hope.
Best-known for his play M. Butterfly as well as the book for the musical Aida and the revision of Flower Drum Song, Hwang’s work has primarily focused on Chinese American and Asian American realities. But Soft Power hits even closer to home and became a way for Hwang to work through his own physical and emotional traumas. He says he started writing the monologue after his stabbing but never believed it would remain in the show. “I thought, ‘This is just something I guess I need to do to process the experience.’ But then it worked as a central mechanism, and [others] really encouraged me to explore what had happened to me.”
He’d already begun workshopping and rehearsing the play when Clinton lost the election in 2016, and he felt “destroyed” by the results. “The day after the election, I remember thinking, ‘This can be bad for the country, but it could be good for the musical,’” he explains. So he used the character of Hillary to investigate what we ask our politicians to do to win millions of votes.
Ultimately, the play (and the musical embedded within it) is a sly investigation into why we are so in love with the idea of democracy, even though it often disappoints us. In her big razzle-dazzle number, Hillary sings: “But I will dance faster / In my rose-colored glasses / For I must / Put my trust / In the wisdom of the masses.” That’s followed by the exhortation, “Are you ready to vote? (Cheers) Is this the greatest system in the world? (Cheers)”. The irony is palpable since we know the outcome at the ballot box. But despite all the disappointment and dread in the show, the final number has the Hwang character joined by “a whole chorus of faces — most of which look like mine,” as they sing an anthemic reprise of that song dedicated to democracy, repeating the lines “I believe.” And the last words of the show — “Good fortune will follow. If we somehow survive” — function as a balm.
“Maybe I’m just a pathologically optimistic,” Hwang says about those final moments. “But I have a particular passion for this show because it has been a way for us to process and understand and express our feelings about what’s going on in the country today.”