LOS ANGELES — Two and a half years ago, the playwright David Henry Hwang approached the composer Jeanine Tesori with an idea for a show. Mr. Hwang had seen a recent revival of “The King and I” at Lincoln Center, which got him thinking about how much he loved that classic Rodgers and Hammerstein musical (the songs, the story, the moment the king dies, which never failed to make him cry), and yet, how much he didn’t (the play’s history of showing a mostly white cast in yellowface, its implicit racism).
How about a story that took all that and upended it? What if, instead of an English governess meeting the king of Siam and bringing the blessings of civilization to his backward-thinking country, we had a Chinese guy meeting Hillary Clinton on the eve of the 2016 election? And then what if, 50 years on, à la “The King and I,” that chance encounter became the stuff of myth, the basis of a blockbuster musical in China? The music would be gorgeous and entrancing — that’s where you come in, Jeanine — in the tradition of the golden age of Broadway musicals. It would be a play with music, or maybe a play that becomes a musical.
“There was nothing on paper,” Ms. Tesori recalled. “I don’t even remember an outline.”
Even so, she assented, persuaded by Mr. Hwang’s “genuine and ferocious” passion for the project.
The product of their alliance, “Soft Power,” has its world premiere at the Ahmanson Theater here when it opens on May 16, signifying the first collaboration between the Tony Award-winning creators (Mr. Hwang for “M. Butterfly,” Ms. Tesori for “Fun Home”). Joining the pair is Leigh Silverman, who has directed several of Mr. Hwang’s plays, including “Yellow Face” and “Chinglish,” and who received a Tony nomination for her work on Ms. Tesori’s “Violet” in 2014.
The play is a homecoming of sorts for the Brooklyn-based Mr. Hwang, who was born and raised in the Los Angeles suburb of San Gabriel, and whose Tony-nominated reimagining of “Flower Drum Song” had its premiere at the nearby Mark Taper Forum in 2001. About a half mile east of the Ahmanson is the David Henry Hwang Theater, home of the East West Players, the nation’s longest-running Asian-American repertory company, which partnered with the Center Theater Group on the premiere of “Soft Power.”
In the play, Xue (Conrad Ricamora), a Chinese producer doing business in the United States, hires DHH — a thinly disguised Mr. Hwang, played by the actor Francis Jue — to create an American TV series set in Shanghai. The two go to a 2016 campaign fund-raiser for Mrs. Clinton, where Xue meets the presidential hopeful, played by Alyse Alan Louis. Later, the scene shifts from downtown Los Angeles to a Shanghai airport, from “real life” to the fantasy of a hit Chinese musical, one in which Xue falls in love with Mrs. Clinton and helps bring America back from the brink of war.
On a recent afternoon, in an interview at the Ahmanson, Mr. Hwang spoke of his deep love for Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals, the play’s themes of cultural appropriation and artistic homage, and why we never hear the word “Trump” in a play about the 2016 election. (“Looking back at this moment 50 years in the future, maybe the Chinese won’t even remember the name of the guy who was president.”)
Work on the play began in 2014, when Michael Ritchie, the artistic director of the Center Theater Group, gave Mr. Hwang free rein to create a show for the 50th anniversary season of the group’s Mark Taper Forum in 2018.
Mr. Hwang knew he wanted to do something about “The King and I,” a play that had captivated and rankled him for years. But he was equally intrigued by China’s increasing desire for “soft power.” “If hard power is your economic and military strength, soft power is your cultural and intellectual influence,” he said.
Mr. Hwang had seen that desire firsthand. As the only Asian-American playwright in history to win a Tony, he had become the target of Chinese producers hoping he could help them stage a play set in China that would become a Broadway hit.
“I happen to be the only nominally Chinese person who’s ever written a Broadway show, so I end up going to a lot of these meetings” with Chinese producers, he said.
In 2015, Mr. Hwang enlisted the help of Ms. Silverman and Ms. Tesori. They met up at Columbia University, where all three of them were teaching, to bounce ideas back and forth. “The triangular mind meld on this one was very deep,” Ms. Silverman said.
Later that year, Mr. Hwang pitched his still-evolving play to Mr. Ritchie, along with a heads-up that it might turn out a bit bigger than what he had initially thought, what with all the music and Broadway-style numbers and narrative leaps into the future. Would that be O.K.? “I’ve worked with him before, so yeah, I totally trusted him,” Mr. Ritchie said.
Two weeks after that meeting, on Nov. 29, 2015, Mr. Hwang was stabbed in the neck as he walked home from the grocery store in his Fort Greene neighborhood, severing his vertebral artery. The crime, part of a rise in attacks on Asian-Americans in New York City at that time, made international news.
“In typical David fashion, I learned about it on Facebook,” Mr. Jue said. “He posted this very funny post about: ‘Hey, I’m in the hospital, I got stabbed.’ And then I started seeing the news reports, and there was a tremendous amount of blood on the sidewalk.”
Mr. Hwang found a way to work the stabbing into the show. Within the Ahmanson’s auditorium, Mr. Jue, as DHH, rehearsed that pivotal scene. As he slowly loses consciousness after the attack, DHH imagines “a beloved Chinese musical,” and just like that, dancers appear, and a Chinese jumbo jet descends from the sky.
“I give David a lot of credit for translating that incident into this brilliant idea,” Mr. Jue said, “where maybe there’s happy endings, and maybe there’s romance, and maybe there’s a 23-piece orchestra following you around, helping you express your feelings.”
A lot of those transcendent moments come courtesy of Ms. Tesori’s compositions, which range from “It Just Takes Time,” an ode to budding love in which Mrs. Clinton learns to speak Mandarin, sort of, and “Good Guy With a Gun,” a hootenanny-style paean to concealed carry gun laws and the joys of shooting “sex molesters” dead.
In September 2016, the company had their first reading of the play. By then, the character of Mrs. Clinton, as the newly elected leader of the country and the object of Xue’s affection, was established in the script. And then, Trump won. “At 3 in the morning, when my daughter was sobbing, I just felt really out of control in a deep way,” Ms. Tesori said. “But I realized we needed to stay in the conversation, that times like this call for a strong response.”
Mr. Hwang saw it in a slightly different light: “I guess I felt like, oh, the election is terrible for the country, but maybe it’ll be good for the show. Because it sort of shows the Chinese point of view is right. Democracy isn’t a good system. It doesn’t always elect competent people. It creates chaos.”
For the play, Mr. Hwang assembled a cast of 17, nearly all of them Asian-American. Many of them had fallen in love with the stage in productions of “The King and I,” as well as other problematic Asian-themed standards, including “Pacific Overtures” and “Miss Saigon.”
“One of the women in the company told me it’s so extraordinary to be in a show where I don’t have to bow to anybody,” Ms. Silverman said.
Ms. Louis, who was reading Mrs. Clinton’s memoir “What Happened” between rehearsals, is hoping that the former first lady will see the play. “I would love that,” she said.
Mr. Ricamora, who recalled the “icky feeling” of playing one of the two Asian characters in a summer stock production of the 1934 musical “Anything Goes,” likes being on this side of things for once. “I remember doing ‘Miss Saigon’ and ‘The King and I,’ and having that feeling that we’re telling a story through a white person’s lens,” he said. “And now we get to feel empowered through telling our own story through our own lens.”
Even so, Mr. Hwang is quick to defend “The King and I,” the unwitting sire of his latest play. “Rodgers and Hammerstein were incredibly progressive and were being brave and innovative for their time,” he said. “And then society moves on, and certain things start to feel vestigial. But there’s not much in ‘The King and I’ that I would criticize as a musical. It’s beautifully crafted, and there are many moments that I’m moved by in the show.”
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