REVIEW: The heartbreak of democracy in “Soft Power”
In its best and most perfected form, there is no more effective theatrical delivery system than that of the American musical comedy—its sacred marriage of words, music, and movement, when combined just right, possessing the alchemical power to both induce broken hearts and blissful euphoria, and the simultaneous ability to grapple with social, political, and moral issues while, well, remaining entertaining.
“Soft Power”, a new “musical-within-a-play” making its New York premiere at the Public Theater in a co-production with Center Theatre Group of Los Angeles, is at once a celebration of this beloved art form and a playful excoriation of its practice as it examines the “disaster” of American democracy following the 2016 presidential election.
The innovative dramaturgy at work is breathtaking to behold as playwright and librettist David Henry Hwang (“M. Butterfly”) and composer Jeanine Tesori (“Fun Home”)—who also provides additional lyrics—experiment with dramatic conventions while meditating on the tragic state of American culture and politics.
Theirs is a bold attempt to wrestle with the question of how you navigate fighting for something you love verses doing what is best for it, especially when the object of your affection is democracy itself—a heartbreaker if ever there was one.
Carrie Fisher once famously quipped: “take your broken heart, make it into art.” And Mr. Hwang and Ms. Tesori have done just that, guided by the unexpected forces of personal and public events that have inexorably shaped their collaboration.
What began as an attempt to create a reverse version of “The King and I” in which a Chinese business executive would come to advise an American leader, the assumed President Hillary Clinton, about gun violence—cleverly inverting the white savior trope that lies at the heart of that 1951 Rodgers and Hammerstein classic—morphed into something sharper and more potent.
In 2015, Mr. Hwang was randomly and almost fatally stabbed in the neck while walking down a Brooklyn street in an apparent hate crime. And in a 2016 shocker, Secretary Clinton lost the presidency, plunging the nation into our current state of political chaos. Both events now figure heavily in the plot of “Soft Power”.
The shimmering production by director Leigh Silverman and choreographer Sam Pinkleton now at the Public’s Newman Theatre (witness to the birth of “A Chorus Line” and “Hamilton”) brims with an unpretentious intelligence and an unexpectedly penetrating sense of patriotism as it satirizes American culture and politics—including, most cuttingly, two of its most unique institutions: the musical comedy and the Electoral College—and forms a poignant but cautionary ode to the fragility of democracy through the lens of some of its most marginalized participants.
“Soft Power” begins as a contemporary comedic play in which a Chinese-American playwright named “DHH” (Francis Jue), a stand-in for Mr. Hwang, is summoned to the office of Chinese film executive Xūe Xíng (Conrad Ricamora), and tasked with adapting “Stick With Your Mistake”, a popular Chinese romcom about an unhappy marriage, into a stage musical as part of a concerted effort for China to flex its “soft power”—that is the force of its cultural currency—in the West.
Zoe (Alyse Alan Louis), an American actress and romantic interest of the erstwhile married Xūe, joins the two men at a 2016 fundraiser for then-candidate Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign that just so happens to involve a performance of “The King and I”. Afterward, a star struck Xūe meets Secretary Clinton off-stage, and recounts to DHH and Zoe the brief but genial conversation that ensued before his obligatory snapping of a selfie with the future president.
The play comes to an abrupt halt when, days after the November 2016 election upset, DHH is stabbed in the neck while walking down a street in Brooklyn (sound familiar?). As he loses blood and consciousness, a lush crescendo of violins begin a melodious title theme, and DHH takes the audience into his mind as he imagines a Chinese musical being performed 50 years in the future that is based on a mythology inspired by the events we have just witnessed.
In this musical, which represents almost the balance of the entire show, a Chinese film executive (Mr. Ricamora) comes to the exotic, second-world nation of America to convince a Chinese-American playwright (Mr. Jue) to adapt a film into a musical before meeting and becoming enchanted by Hillary Clinton (Ms. Louis) and teaching her lessons from his communist perspective.
An all Asian-American cast (with the exception of Ms. Louis as Hillary) play blonde-haired, white Americans performing musical comedy numbers that both honor and satirize the form. Mr. Pinkleton’s spot-on send ups of classic musical theatre choreography are hilarious, while Ms. Tesori’s gorgeous score—played by a 22-piece orchestra—avoids pastiche and direct comment, instead creating a sound that is unmistakably musical theatre (Rodgers, Loewe, Wilson, et al.), but uniquely Tesori.
Much like Rodgers and Hammerstein did with Siam, the writers of this future Chinese musical get a lot (comically) wrong about America. The Golden Gate Bridge is visible from “New York Airport”. McDonalds is the finest restaurant. Everyone carries a gun. Jon Hoche plays characters named Holden Caufield and Tony Manero, in addition to the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court who oversees the mysterious “ballot box”.
Mr. Hwang and Ms. Tesori keenly observe that politics is all a “big big show”, and their coup de théâtre allows for a generous dose of commentary on the deficiencies and absurdities of the American political process—from the degrading dog-and-pony performances required by politicians to our ridiculous method of selecting a president—while juxtaposing them with Xūe’s Chinese and communist perspectives.
DHH, fulfilling the role of the supporting character who must be sacrificed, is stabbed in the neck following the tumult of the election at the close of act one, which ends as Xūe cradles him in his arms and teaches a lesson about the Chinese concept of face.
In act two, Xūe consoles a grieving, post-election Hillary and they fall in love—dancing on the Golden Gate Bridge, no less. He then pays a visit to the White House in a successful attempt to avert a war with China by getting the cowboy-like band of American leaders to ditch their “good guy with a gun” ideology (Raymond Lee plays an unnamed, seersucker-clad Vice President) with the promise of a “new Silk Road”.
While he does prevent world annihilation, Xūe is ultimately unsuccessful in convincing Hillary to abandon her fidelity to democracy. It is here that the project of creating a totally reversed East-West musical fumbles a bit. The white character, Hillary, delivers a soaring paean to the idea that despite its flaws, American democracy can still be saved by its own people—a message that resonates with DHH as he awakes from his musical dream to find Xūe and Zoe in his hospital room.
The stab in his neck is both a literal plot point but also a striking metaphor for the electoral loss of Hillary Clinton—the violence, disorientation, and randomness of it all.
In the end, it is the character of Hillary who, like her real-life counterpart, espouses an abiding belief in the American people—that we might be wise, just, trustworthy, kind, smart, good, and grown-up enough to wield the awesome responsibility of self-governance and choose a better path forward from the insanity of the present.
If the person perhaps most unjustly and tragically victimized by our electoral system can still defend it, then maybe it is still worth fighting for.
Ms. Louis delivers a compelling and heroic characterization of Hillary Clinton that ably avoids caricature and speaks to a deeper truth about her historical significance—no easy task given how recent all of this is—but her vocals are underwhelming, particularly in that 11 o’clock gospel-inspired number, “I Still Believe In Democracy”, which forms the emotional crux of the musical.
Another sour note of the production is the set design by Clint Ramos, which fails to distinctly distinguish between the world of the play and the world of the musical, and, once inside that musical, feels too texturally cheap and conceptually small to credibly read as the greatest show China has ever produced, which it is explicitly meant to be.
This might just be a consequence of the Newman, itself small and lacking a fly gallery for easier scene transitions, but the larger question of how this musical-within-a-play should look and feel has not been answered as best as it probably can.
An earlier iteration that played in Los Angeles and San Francisco in 2018 featured a more operatically-scaled set design by David Zinn that didn’t quite get it right either. Indeed, neither attempt to date has been able to visually match the sophistication of the underlying material, nor convey a clear delineation between the three settings of the piece (play, musical, reality). Similarly, Ms. Silverman still has more work to do in finessing the overall tone and punch of the comedy.
Thankfully, this musical has become structurally sounder since I first saw it in Los Angeles in 2018. Mr. Hwang is a master formalist who understands that how you tell a story is integral to what story you are telling, and that the former always informs the latter, even when not as apparent to the audience. Transitions into and out of the musical are now sharper and more blunt. And a coda from DHH—that enters a realm beyond the play and the musical—about how surviving the worst thing can lead to good fortune makes a more powerful and effective ending, and is an apt metaphor for the moment.
In his review for the New York Times, critic Jesse Green observed that this show “deserves, and unfortunately needs, to be seen at least twice”. So, too, does the work of Stephen Sondheim, or many of the great theatre writers, for that matter. In fact, one mark of a great work of art is precisely that it continues to reveal itself to you even after multiple encounters.
On my third encounter with “Soft Power”, I was struck by the economy of its storytelling and the tautness of its writing. Nearly every word in the prelude play takes on another or even multiple meanings in the musical it inspires. Early in the show, the character of Zoe talks about how musicals—like “The King and I”—are a great delivery system, subtly and effectively playing on audience emotion (cue those violins!).
Even as “Soft Power” sets out to correct an historic and present-day oversight by re-orienting a musical around Asian characters, performed by a cast of Asian-American performers—and in the process gently ribs the form itself—in the end, that delivery system still kicks in with a hair-raising, tear-inducing reprise of Hillary’s barn-burning anthem to democracy.
This time, though, that anthem is performed by the entire cast in plain clothes—an ensemble of Asian-American performers claiming their rightful space in the world of musical theatre and singing about their belief in America—not as the characters they play, but as themselves.
This ending is among the most patriotic moments you are liable to witness on stage, and not because it is some display of cheap nationalism, but rather because it arrives after a thoughtful interrogation of the American system, its faults, and its potential, and is voiced by a group of people who have every reason to want to abandon America—particularly now—and yet, still resolve to fight for it.
In 2020, will America, like the title of that Chinese romcom, stick with its mistake? Or will Americans be wise enough, just enough, worthy of trust enough, kind enough, smart enough, big-hearted, good and grown-up enough to choose a better future?
Will we survive the turmoil of the present—the worst thing—to find good fortune? Only time will tell.
Bottom Line: “Soft Power”, David Henry Hwang and Jeanine Tesori’s dramaturgically breathtaking new musical-within-a-play, experiments with form while rendering a sort of reverse version of “The King and I”. The resulting satire of American culture and politics brims with an unpretentious intelligence and an unexpectedly penetrating sense of patriotism. If democracy will break your heart, “Soft Power” can mend it.
NOTE: the author has worked for Secretary Clinton since 2008.
The Public Theater
425 Lafayette Street
New York, NY 10003
Running Time: 2 hours and 15 minutes (one intermission)
Opening Night: October 15, 2019
Final Performance: November 17, 2019