In 2016, two things happened to David Henry Hwang that he never expected. The first was Hillary Clinton lost the election, the second – he was stabbed in the neck outside his Brooklyn home and nearly died. His attacker has never been caught. It’s these events that form the basis of his fabulous new musical, Soft Power, an exploration of US-China relations. In Hwang’s hands foreign affairs are anything but dry and academic and soft power comes in the form of cultural exports and love. By turns lavish, camp and deliciously corny, the show left me buoyed up on a cloud of infectious optimism conveyed by some stunning dance numbers, memorable songs, and even roller-skating waiters.
It takes a certain confidence to write a lead role for Hillary Clinton as a singing and dancing romantic in a red lurex pantsuit and another lead role for yourself. But perhaps a near death experience encourages you to throw caution to the wind. The premise for Soft Power is that Hwang, here played by an endearing Francis Jue, is being commissioned to write a new blockbuster musical for a novice Chinese producer. In the musical-within-the-play, the producer Xing by chance falls for Hillary – yes it really is wacky, but marvelously so. Xing wants Hwang to base the musical on a Chinese film in which the adulterous lovers return to their spouses because, as the Chinese saying goes, “you stick with your mistakes”. Hwang argues for a different ending where true love will win out. Xing interprets this as proof that “[i]n America you have too much freedom.” The lovers are the versatile and shimmering Alyse Alan Louis and the charismatic and powerful Conrad Ricamora. Swirling around them are a superb ensemble whose multiple lightning-fast costume and wig changes – Anita Yavich’s designs – make their beaming smiles and fizzing energy even more impressive.
It all unfolds on Clint Ramos’ efficient set with a lacquered red floor and gold lamé curtains. The orchestra plays in silhouette on tiers at the back of the stage reminiscent of a Busby Berkeley spectacular. And that’s not the only homage to Broadway’s greatest hits – Hillary and Xing do a fine Fred and Ginger dance duet and a waltz straight out of The King and I. The fun references surprisingly don’t overshadow the debate over whether the US, with its messy democracy, or China, with its totalitarian regime, is the better way to run a country. Some may feel there should be some glancing reference to the pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong, but they hadn’t happened in 2016 when most of the action takes place. Hwang’s character also wrestles with his own identity and a lifetime of being asked where he comes from when he’s at home in America. Hwang plays Hillary’s and his attempts to speak Chinese for laughs, much as he did in his earlier play Chinglish that also looked at US-China relations. But the widespread misconception in China that everyone in the US is always packing a gun is also lampooned with a wonderful rap song that welcomes Xing to America.
We know who did get elected President, but Hwang chooses not to name him. Instead he takes aim at the policies born of ignorance and isolationism which seem to eschew soft power in favor of bully tactics. In perhaps the most trenchant scene in the play, Act 2 opens 50 years in the future. Hwang’s play is now the longest running show in China and a panel discusses its cultural significance. China is now the most powerful nation and America is regarded as a backward country that used to imprison migrant children in cages, among other outrages. More standout moments include a scene in an ersatz McDonald’s, a scene where Hillary gorges on pizza and ice cream in post-election blues, and her gospel anthem to democracy on the Golden Gate Bridge, but that’s leaving out a host of other highlights. The composer Jeanine Tesori has brought an astonishing musical variety to the score that ranges from show tune choruses to Gilbert and Sullivan-style verbal acrobatics with jazz and rap thrown in for good measure.
While there’s barely a wasted line in the entire show, the musical is framed with a lumbering preamble whose main purpose is to show us the life-changing moment when Hwang was attacked. Leigh Silverman’s direction is less assured here and we only feel the show has started once the orchestra strikes up – a good 15 minutes in.
Although there’s no classic musical happy ending, Hwang’s parting shot is to remind us that America is a country of immigrants with a vibrant if imperfect democracy. It’s a profoundly moving moment, not least because, as Hwang points out for those who failed to notice, all but one of the cast members look like they have the same ethnic background as him. The show deserves a longer run than its current limited engagement so that more people may enjoy this exuberant plea for tolerance and peace.