A Talk with David Henry Hwang / by R. Sheth

March 28, 2007
By Jonathan Abarbanel

Windy City Times recently talked with Tony Award-winning playwright David Henry Hwang, whose notable works include The Dance and the Railroad, the multiple-prize winning M. Butterfly and the Tony Award-nominated Golden Child, currently on stage at the Silk Road Theatre Project in its Chicago premiere (through April 22). Hwang also has written the books (scripts) for several Broadway musicals, among them Elton John's Aida, Tarzan and a new version of Rodgers' and Hammerstein's Flower Drum Song.

Hwang's best-know work, M. Butterfly, deals with issues of racial stereotype and elements of genderfuck in the fact-based tale of a French diplomat in love with a cross-dressing Chinese man, whom the diplomat believes to be a woman. The Broadway production and national tour of the play introduced two gay audience favorites, out actors B. D. Wong and Alex Mapa.

Hwang was born in the United States to Chinese immigrant parents and spoke English in a Westernized household. His introduction to traditional Chinese culture came through his maternal grandmother, whose story is told in Golden Child. "I learned about Chinese culture writing these shows," Hwang said. "I think if my parents had been more traditional, I wouldn't have written this stuff. It's because my parents were very untraditional, very assimilationist, that I ended up becoming interested (in Chinese history and culture)." Hwang currently is working on a new play, Yellowface, to be produced this year in Los Angeles and New York, and a new musical about Bruce Lee.

Windy City Times: Music is so much a part of your work. You've collaborated with Philip Glass, and music is integral to your plays, such as the Puccini riffs in M. Butterfly. Did you grow up in a musical family?

David Henry Hwang: I did. My mother is a pianist and I was a violinist, and I have a middle sister who continues to be a cellist. We were a piano trio. And then my little sister played the viola, although not for that long. And my father sang. So I grew up with a lot of music. Not much opera, really, but it was all Western classical music.

WCT: Do you indicate music and dance specifically in the early drafts of a play, or do you leave it to your director and the production process to develop them?

DHH: A lot of times an early draft of the work will indicate a dance. In Yellowface, the early draft was built around a recording of music by the Dong-ling minority people [a mainland Chinese ethnic group]. The first draft indicates specific cuts from an album of Dong music. Most of the time, though, I don't indicate specific pieces of music.

WCT: Have you studied traditional and/or contemporary Chinese music?

DHH: I have. I wouldn't say it was a rigorously organized study, but I'm always trying to be aware of, and expose myself to, different forms of music from China. Even more so in recent years, because I feel there's so much interesting work coming out of China right now in terms of pop music and serious music.

WCT: Why do you like doing Broadway musicals?

DHH: I like the exercise. It's the hardest thing to do, the alchemy of putting together a Broadway musical is so furious. Most musicals either succeed or fail on the strength or weakness of the book. If the book works, you don't notice it that much. If the show fails, it's because the book didn't work. I guess that's a little masochistic, but I find it an amazing challenge. You have this huge toolbox at your disposal, you get to work with amazing artists, and you pay the bills. There's something to be said for that.

You know, I only write a play when I feel I have something I want to say. I find it very satisfying to be able to work on things to fulfill other peoples' visions. When I work on opera, my job is to write something that's going to inspire the composer to do his or her best work. When I do a Disney musical, I'm trying to fulfill Disney's vision. That's OK. I think there's a certain honor in being a craftsman.

WCT: When you write an opera, you create the poetry for the composer, but when you write a musical, you only do the book. Why don't you write lyrics, too?

DHH: Writing a book for a musical is like writing a movie. You're basically contributing the structure. There's another musical I may try and write lyrics for [but] writing lyrics is a very different skill. I'm not totally sure I can do it. Writing opera, the words don't have to rhyme, you just write blank verse. Broadway musicals usually aren't like that; they're too commercial for that.

WCT: Do you write short stories or poetry?

DHH: I only write scripts. I don't know how to write anything else.

WCT: Your new version of Flower Drum Song, about the San Francisco Chinese community in the 1950's, was not a success in New York. What was the problem?

DHH: It always will be a bit of a puzzle to me. I think there were a couple of things. The fact that the New York Times didn't like it doesn't help anyone, but a musical can overcome that. I guess there was a feeling that this wasn't a right thing to do; that is, that you should rewrite Oscar Hammerstein. I think what I did was perceived as an exercise in political correctness, which is never good. Maybe we were trying to do too much with it. It was written as a light musical comedy, as opposed to the great Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals (such as South Pacific) that were musical dramas with comedy. I also tried to make it a musical drama with comedy and some people feel the score wasn't built for that.

WCT: Have you ever written plays without Chinese characters and context?

DHH: I did that once. I went through this period where I asked myself if I was just creating Orientalia for the intelligentsia. I felt I'd gotten very quickly to the top of this very small room. I did a play in 1986 called Rich Relations, but it was an autobiographical play about my family, only I made them all white, so it really didn't have a whole lot of authenticity and it was a failure and not a very good play.

WCT: Your new musical is about Bruce Lee; is that right?

DHH: A martial arts musical. It's sort of a melding of the Bruce Lee story and The Monkey King story [a traditional, highly acrobatic Chinese opera]. I've been thinking about this for 10 years. I've been interested in trying to find a way to theatricalize martial arts, because I don't like the idea of putting people on strings. You have to create a metaphor for it. Fortunately we found this great Taiwanese choreographer who's been doing this, creating a modern dance language based on martial arts movement and Chinese opera movement.