The title of “Soft Power,” the new play-cum-musical by playwright David Henry Hwang and composer Jeanine Tesori, refers to cultural influence — in this case the cultural influence of America on China, and of China on the U.S. According to Tesori, the term might also describe the force that musical theater itself can exert in changing minds and shifting perceptions.
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“I think that shows, and especially musicals, have great soft power,” said Tesori on the latest episode of Stagecraft, Variety‘s theater podcast. “[Musicals] can transform a belief system…Rodgers and Hammerstein did it all the time.”
“Soft Power,” now playing at Off Broadway’s Public Theater after well-received runs in L.A. and San Francisco, centers on a playwright hired by a Chinese production company to write an American-style musical for Chinese audiences — until the show transforms into a musical-theater fever dream that takes its cues from “The King and I,” but with its cultural perspective flipped.
“I am forever changed by this show and this cast,” Tesori said of working on “Soft Power.” Except for one actress, the cast is entirely made up of Asian American performers, a rare thing in musical theater. Working on the piece, she added, made her realize how few stage creators are telling stories about the Asian American experience. “I just hadn’t spent the time to think about that, not only as a quantitative question, but as a qualitative question about what happens when that is not there,” she noted.
Also on the latest episode of Stagecraft, Tesori revealed what opera taught her about orchestration, how her work on “Caroline, or Change” changed her as an artist, and what kinds of stories she’s always interested in telling in musical theater. “A lot of the characters I really feel my heart going out to are characters that no one has noticed before,” she said.
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