Back when “Chinatown” was making L.A. look heinous in a glamorous sort of way, and “Billy, Don’t Be a Hero” oozed from every radio, a San Gabriel High School junior named David Henry Hwang was tearing it up on the debate team.
Hwang’s debating skills got him recruited as a senior by Harvard School (now Harvard-Westlake), the Coldwater Canyon preparatory institution known for SAT scores that do a parent proud. He graduated in 1975.
And he has honed his debating skills ever since.
For more than 25 years, the Chinese American playwright and screenwriter best known for “M. Butterfly” has been arguing with himself, in his head and on paper. He has debated matters of culture, race, class and sex, investigating one character’s point of view, then another.
Many of those characters do what Hwang has done his entire life: attempt to “define my place in America,” as he once wrote.
Now America’s premier Asian American dramatist is redefining himself as Mr. Musical.
Two wildly disparate shows provide the evidence. One is “Aida,” Disney’s theatrical redux of the Verdi opera about a slave girl and her conqueror. It features music by Elton John and lyrics by Tim Rice. Starting from a book by Linda Woolverton (“Beauty and the Beast”), under the direction of Robert Jess Roth, the show later acquired a new director, Robert Falls (“Death of a Salesman”), who brought on Hwang as co-writer.
The results hit Broadway in 1999; the national tour opens Nov. 11 at the Ahmanson Theatre.
That’s across the Music Center plaza from Hwang’s newest project. He is the librettist behind the revival--make that radical revision--of “Flower Drum Song,” the 1958 Rodgers & Hammerstein bauble. Directed by Robert Longbottom and starring Lea “Miss Saigon” Salonga, it opens Oct. 14 at the Mark Taper Forum.
Hwang’s “Flower Drum Song” rewrite will likely send musical comedy purists into a C-major fit. In Hwang’s story, San Francisco’s Chinatown circa 1960 is glimpsed through the prism of a Chinese opera theater struggling with its off-night success as a Westernized nightclub, run by the tradition-bound owner’s James Dean-styled son. The show’s song list remains largely the same--"A Hundred Million Miracles,” “I Enjoy Being a Girl,” even “Chop Suey.” The new libretto removes the original’s quaint arranged marriage complications, however, in favor of a brash backstage musical romance.
Hwang undertaking “Flower Drum Song,” based on the 1957 C.Y. Lee novel, marks a cultural debate in itself. From one angle, it’s a case of a major Chinese American writer taking a familiar title away from the white devils of Broadway. From another, Hwang’s wisecracks mess with questions of assimilation, stereotype and racism in ways that leave the arguably patronizing original in the dust.
Indeed, Hwang describes his relationship to the material as complicated, as it is with many Asian Americans who grew up starved for pop-culture images of themselves.
The 1961 film version of “Flower Drum Song,” Hwang says while assessing his sandwich at Otto’s restaurant beneath the Taper, “always loomed large in my life. As a boomer Asian American, you didn’t often see people that looked like you on TV. And the idea that the younger generation, at least, was portrayed as American [in the movie] was unusual. So growing up, the musical represented one of the few positive portrayals of people that looked like me.”
“And then, at another point in my life, it became something to be demonized.”
At Stanford University in the late ‘70s, pursuing a bachelor of arts in English, Hwang began exploring his cultural heritage in earnest. The heritage was downplayed in his home. He’d grown up one of three children born to a banker, Henry Hwang, native of Shanghai, and a pianist, Dorothy, Chinese but raised in the Philippines.
The family’s tacit motto: Assimilate. Their life was comfortably upper middle class, as well as born-again Protestant fundamentalist. (Hwang’s mother’s family was converted by missionaries, a subject he addressed in the recent play “Golden Child.”)
Son David left for Stanford with plenty of things to question.
“It was all kind of isolationist-nationalist,” Hwang says of Stanford’s Chinese American power movement. “Here we were starting to claim our own voice as Chinese Americans. And ‘Flower Drum Song’ was a remnant of the way we were portrayed by white artists.... So the history of the show is bound up with my own personal history.
“And now, with this revival, it’s like there’s been this big car in the driveway my whole life, and someone finally gave me the keys.”
“M. Butterfly” launched its creator into the theatrical stratosphere. Hwang wrote it, in a few weeks’ time, after reading a newspaper story about a French diplomat in love with a Chinese opera star. A rich, audaciously comic collision of Eastern and Western influences, the play garnered the 1988 Tony Award. The author, now 44, remains the sole Asian American Tony-winning playwright.
“M. Butterfly” led to many screenplay development projects: “Golden Gate,” “M. Butterfly,” the television miniseries “The Lost Empire” and the Neil LaBute film “Possession,” starring Gwyneth Paltrow, due next year. He’s currently working on “Hello Suckers,” the tale of rowdy nightclub chanteuse Texas Guinan to star Courtney Love, and an art forgery tale for Michael Douglas.
Besides money, “M. Butterfly” made Hwang a literary hero, especially to Asian Americans. For others, it made him an easy target--the subject of debate, as much as one of the debaters.
Chief among his critics was--and is--Echo Park playwright and novelist Frank Chin.
“A complete sellout,” Chin says of Hwang’s “M. Butterfly.” And “F.O.B.,” Hwang’s first play and first success? “I was amazed it was produced at all,” Chin says.
Chin draws a firm distinction between what he sees as “real” Chinese American writing and “fake.” Hwang, along with Amy Tan (“The Joy Luck Club”) and Maxine Hong Kingston (“The Woman Warrior”) are the fakes.
“He’s still not very happy with me,” Hwang says of Chin, whom he regards as an early inspiration. (Chin was the first major Asian American to be produced off-Broadway.) “I sort of look at him as a literary father, but a father from whom I’m estranged.” The two met, briefly, in the lobby of the old East West Players theater on Santa Monica Boulevard and corresponded for a time.
“I grew up in a fundamentalist Christian church, and this whole ‘real’ versus ‘fake’ Chinese thing reminds me of that. It’s for those who believe that there is One Right Way. To me the distinction between the real and the fake is, in itself, fake.
“And anyway, no one writer can represent an entire community. I’ve gone back and forth over the years, in terms of how ‘responsible’ one needs to be to one’s community. As a writer, I need to go wherever the writing takes me, whether it’s on non-Asian projects, things I know will be controversial within my own community.”
Tim Dang, East West artistic director, knows full well about Chin’s rap on Hwang. East West recently revived Chin’s “Year of the Dragon”; Chin, who calls East West “a meat market for the film industry,” declined to attend. Reason: Thanks to a donation from Hwang’s parents, East West’s home in Little Tokyo goes by the name of the David Henry Hwang Theatre.
“I think of David as starting the second wave of Asian American writers,” Dang says. “He is clearly the most visible Asian-Pacific American artist, and he’s a tireless advocate of other Asian-Pacific artists ... he tries to keep us all together, just by networking.”
Hwang’s East West roots run deep. When David was a child, his father volunteered as East West bookkeeper and financial advisor. His mother served as rehearsal pianist. David tagged along and, he realizes now, was “therefore exposed to the idea of theater--and Asians doing theater--at a very early age.” He returned as an intern one summer while on break from Stanford.
Henry and Dorothy Hwang remain steady donors and loyal season subscribers. Their son did not want his name on the new building, according to Henry. The theater, he says, “wanted to name it after me, and I said no, it would not be appropriate. I am not an artist. Anyway, I’m getting to be more modest at this point in my life.
“I’m learning from my son.”
“David’s qualities of confidence and modesty are genuine,” says Robert Falls, Hwang’s co-writer on “Aida.” “He has a quiet authority.” When Falls was stuck on the “Aida” rewrite, it was Hwang who found a way, he says, to make audiences buy the central relationship between Radames and Aida, the conqueror and the conquered.
“There’s a grace David has as a human being that he brings to his writing as well,” Falls says. “Creating a new musical is such a collaborative, stormy, opinionated process, and it’s done in a highly public forum. He’s just the essence of calm under pressure.”
“Flower Drum Song” director Robert Longbottom admires Hwang’s ability to revisit his own material, ruthlessly. “He’s so quick to relook at things,” he says. “Before we’d even read through the first scene with the company, David had the pencil out, cutting. I’ve never seen anything like it. He’s always a step ahead of me, asking the questions: ‘What do you think of this? Could we do without it?’ ”
At an early “Flower Drum Song” rehearsal, actor Tzi Ma recalls, “David came over to me and said: ‘Would you have ever guessed 20 years ago that we’d be doing “Flower Drum Song” together?’
“‘Not in a million years,’ I said.”
Ma, who plays Wang Chi-Yang--the father character who, in Hwang’s version, is blended with the Chinatown hepcat Sammy Fong--has known Hwang for more than 20 years and has performed in several Hwang premieres. Ma and John Lone originated the roles of Ma and Lone in one of Hwang’s most admired efforts, “The Dance and the Railroad.”
Ma was no fan of the original “Flower Drum Song,” which he remembers--by way of the movie--as “halfway offensive” in its racial stereotyping. Then Ma read Hwang’s revision.
“I thought, wow. This is not the original ‘Flower Drum Song.’ Not everybody’s gonna like it, but that may be because people will recognize something of themselves in it.”
Before “Aida” and “Flower Drum Song,” Hwang had worked on several off-center musical theater properties. One of the most visible was “1,000 Airplanes on the Roof” (music by Philip Glass), which toured widely. Even his own non-musical plays, ranging from “The Dance and the Railroad” to “M. Butterfly,” are suffused in what Hwang calls “total theater,” incorporating opera--Chinese and Italian--and stylized movement. Hwang’s plays are idiosyncratic history pageants with a sense of humor, as well as musicality.
Perhaps Hwang has been heading toward straight-up musicals his whole working life. “There’s an excitement I feel about the form,” he says, “that’s like I felt when I first started writing plays.”
Some may be surprised by this Mr. Musical thing, but actor Ma is not. “Look, he loves music,” Ma says of Hwang, who studied classical violin early on before switching to jazz. “I was really surprised it took him this long to get into musicals. I mean, David was the first guy who told me about MTV.”
For much of the L.A. “Flower Drum Song” rehearsal period, the immediate Hwang clan rented an apartment in Santa Monica. One recent Friday night, Hwang could be spotted strolling out of a Starbucks on Third Street Promenade, his infant daughter dangling happily from a BabyBjorn chest sling.
Eight-month-old Eva is the daughter of Hwang and his second wife, actress Kathryn A. Layng. The Manhattan-based Hwangs also have a 5-year-old son, Noah. (For four years ending in 1989, Hwang was married to Chinese Canadian graphic artist Ophelia Chong.)
“The first year was really hard,” Hwang says of life with children. “We love Noah, but he wasn’t an easy baby. So for a long time I was, like, one’s enough. But after awhile you sort of forget the pain.”
No. 2 has been “really easy. She’s content; she’s not very fussy, you can carry her around in the Bjorn all day, and she’s pretty happy, and that makes life easier.”
And writing? “I just keep regular hours now. Before kids, when I was younger, I would write in the middle of the night, whatever. I tended to write around sleep--before I went to bed or just as I got up. I’d write in bed a lot. When we had our first kid, that was no longer practical, so I started doing regular hours in my office--I’d write every day from 10 to about 2 or 3.
“And instead of lying in bed, I’d lie on the floor.”
In various positions, the writing continues. Hwang has a new play about the painter Paul Gauguin, scheduled for a world premiere at Trinity Repertory Company in Providence, R.I. Another likely Trinity Rep project: a musical-theater piece, “Largo,” from the album of the same name featuring Cyndi Lauper, Taj Mahal and members of the Philadelphia band the Hooters. Hwang’s loyal to Trinity Rep artistic director Oskar Eustis (formerly Taper associate artistic director), who, for Hwang’s money, is second to none with new play development.
In the meantime, development on a new/old work continues apace. In tone, Hwang says of “Flower Drum Song,” he’s going for something “a little more ... conflicted than the original musical, which was sort of a lark. Someone described it as ‘ “State Fair” in yellow-face,’ and not derogatorily, necessarily. It was what it was.”
“I actually assumed we’d be getting more flak about this new version, but people seem to accept the idea in fairly measured fashion. I think people are able to have some perspective on it--accept it as an artifact of its time, appreciate what was useful and important about it, and what was creaky and stereotypical about it.
“This thing,” he says, wrapping up the internal literary debate being waged in his head, “has loomed large over my perception of myself, either positively or negatively. And now, I’m having a conversation with it.”
“ Flower Drum Song,” Mark Taper Forum, 135 N. Grand Ave., downtown L.A. Previews begin Oct. 2. Opens Oct. 14, continuing through Dec. 2. $40-$50. Also, “Aida,” Ahmanson Theatre, 135 N. Grand Ave., downtown L.A. Previews begin Nov. 7. Opens Nov. 11, continuing through Jan. 5. $15-$75. For both shows: (213) 628-2772 or https://www.TaperAhmanson.com.