Podcast Episode 44 Transcript – David Henry Hwang

Ken: Hello, Producer’s Perspective Podcast listeners. Welcome back. Boy, I’ve got to tell you, when I started this thing I didn’t realize I would be as lucky as I have been, sitting down with such incredible artists, and today is another one of those days. I’m not going to complain about it though. Today my guest is none other than the Tony Award-winning playwright, David Henry Hwang. Welcome, David!

David: Thank you. Thanks for having me on your podcast.

Ken: David burst onto the playwriting scene in the late ’80s with his Tony Award and Drama Desk Award-winning play M. Butterfly, which was also a Pulitzer contender. He has since then gone on to write many more plays, including Golden Child, Chinglish, which I was a producer on . . .

David: Thank you.

Ken: One of the funniest things I’ve seen in the last decade or so . . . and a bunch of other books for musicals, including a couple of shows for Disney, Aida and Tarzan, as well as the reworked R&H classic, Flower Drum Song. He has written for Hollywood, for opera, we were just talking about television, which we’ll get into in a few minutes, but let’s go back to the beginning, David. How did you get started as a writer? Where did the inspiration come from?

David: I don’t actually come from a theatrical family. I’m not one of these people who grew up going to theater. If anything I came from a musical family, because my mother was a pianist. My father and mother were both Chinese immigrants and my father ended up being a banker. When I got to college I saw some plays my freshman year. I went to Stanford and we got bussed up to see shows at American Conservatory Theater and I saw the Bill Ball production of The Winter’s Tale as well as a production of Thornton Wilder’s The Matchmaker. And I began to think, “Hmm, maybe I can do this,” so I started writing plays in my spare time and I found a professor who was willing to take a look at them. He told me they were really bad, which they were, because I wanted to write theater but I didn’t actually know anything about the stage. But the same professor was a good guy and we kind of designed a playwriting major at a school that still doesn’t have one today, and I saw as many plays and read as many plays as I could. And in my senior year I wrote a play to be done in my dorm which, through a variety of fortuitous circumstances, got produced by Joe Papp at the Public Theater about 14 months later, and then I started to have a career.

Ken: So this was at Stanford where you defined your own major, pretty much?

David: Yes.

Ken: You probably haven’t heard these, but both Theresa Rebeck and John Rando, who have done podcasts for me, have said the exact same thing. In college they had to design their own major in order to do what they wanted to do. So that first play you wrote, what was it?

David: It was called FOB, for “fresh-off-the-boat,” and it was about the conflict between fresh-off-the-boat immigrants and ABCs, or American Born Chinese. I started writing it and I was fortunate that, between my junior year and senior year in college, I was home in LA and I saw an ad in the LA Times calendar that said, “Study playwriting with Sam Shepard.” So I clipped this thing and I sent it in, and it was the first year of what was subsequently a pretty significant event in southern California theater called the Padua Hills Playwrights Festival. But this was only the first year that they tried to do this, so there were only two of us who applied to be students and we both got in. At Padua I got to study with Sam and María Irene Fornés, Walter Hadler, Murray Mednick, a lot of great writers who taught us to write more from our subconscious. And when I started doing that I didn’t know I was going to end up writing about a lot of the subjects that I’ve ended up writing about . . . east/west issues and immigration and assimilation . . . but these issues started appearing on the page, so clearly some part of me was incredibly interested in this but my conscious mind hadn’t figured that out yet and that led to this first play, FOB.

Ken: And that was the play that went to the Public?

David: Yes.

Ken: So talk to me about that. You get the call, “Your show is going to go to the Public.” What was that like?

David: First it got accepted . . . I sent it to the National Playwrights Conference, the Eugene O’Neill Conference which happens every year in Waterford, Connecticut, so my first big break was that it got chosen to be part of the conference. I think they got 1,300 submissions that year and they chose a dozen plays, so that got me some attention. Then, the Public had done a play about the time I was writing FOB by Len Jenkins called New Jerusalem in which a Caucasian actor was cast in an Asian role, and this led to yellow-face protests from the actors of that day, ten years before the whole Miss Saigon controversy, and Joe Papp, the founder and producer at the Public . . . Joe being who he was, invited the protestors into his office and ended up hiring one of them onto his staff with the brief to find plays for Asian actors, and it was just about that time that FOB came across his desk. So I’ve always considered myself the beneficiary of affirmative action because that’s really what affirmative action is. Someone sees a need and creates a program to try to address it, and I was the guy who was lucky enough to walk through that door and take advantage of that opportunity.

Ken: And how was the play received?

David: It was actually received really well. I won an Obie for Best American Play that year and it was one of Frank Rich’s earliest reviews for the New York Times and he reviewed it very, very well.

Ken: Well that’s something to say, knowing his track record. So you submit this play, it gets up, you get a good review from the New York Times. What’s the trajectory next? Did everyone just hound you, “The second coming is here!”

David: No, then I went to drama school. Everything had happened so quickly and I didn’t feel like I had enough background in theater history. I really wanted to read more and know more about what had come before. So I went to Yale and during my first year at Yale . . . it’s a three year program . . . you get all of your academics out of the way. So I got my theater history, but I wasn’t there very much because I had a second play that I wrote which was at the New Federal Theatre, which also got a good review in the New York Times and so then Joe was going to move that to the Public, and I had a third play that Joe was going to produce so I was just never in New Haven so I dropped out.

Ken: So how soon after did M. Butterfly happen?

David: FOB was produced in 1980 and M. Butterfly was in 1988, so I did four plays at the Public and one play at Second Stage in the interim before having my first Broadway play, M. Butterfly.

Ken: Talk to me about where the inspiration for M. Butterfly came from.

David: I was at a cocktail party and it’s the sort of story one would hear at a cocktail party . . . somebody said, “Have you heard about the French diplomat who had a20 year affair with a Chinese actress who turned out to be a) a spy and b) a man in drag,” or a transgender woman as we would say nowadays, “and the diplomat claimed that he never knew the true gender of his lover?” Obviously I thought, “Well that’s really interesting.” I wanted to write something about it but I originally thought of it as a musical. At the time I was working with the producer Stuart Ostrow, who is probably best known for having produced 1776 and Pippin in its original production, and Stuart and I were working on a musical which never actually happened. But I thought about doing M. Butterfly as a musical and I wrote him a proposal. I thought, “What did this diplomat think that he had found?” And the answer came to me. “Oh, he probably thought he had found his version of Madame Butterfly.” And at that point the idea of dovetailing the events of the spy story and the plot of Madame Butterfly seemed like an interesting way to get at the material. So I wrote Stuart this proposal and he supplied some early funding to help me do research, because this was obviously pre-internet and most of the information was in France. I had never written a musical. I didn’t know any composers, and I thought, “I’m just going to write it as a play,” so I wrote it as a play and sent it to Stuart, sort of as a courtesy because he had only done musicals up to that point, and Stuart decided he was going to produce the play on Broadway and that’s how we got started.

Ken: So it goes on and is a big hit, and then flash forward a little bit, since we’re on the musical subject . . . you write musicals later on in your career. So how did that come about? Were you always interested in that form?

David: I’ve always been interested in putting music into plays and I think, going back to my earliest plays, even FOB and The Dance and the Railroad, they had dance, they had Chinese opera movement, they had music to accompany that. But I had never written a musical proper. After M. Butterfly I started getting offers to write opera libretti. Philip Glass asked me first and we did two together, and I was one of the few living people who had written opera libretti, so I started getting offers for other libretti. But I didn’t really think about working on a musical proper until the late ’90s, and it wasn’t to write a musical. It was to revise Flower Drum Song. That was my goal. And Flower Drum Song is a Rodgers and Hammerstein musical, the only musical that’s ever been written in Broadway history, up until the current season and Allegiance . . . prior to that, Flower Drum Song was the only musical about Asian Americans, as opposed to Asians in Asia, that had been on Broadway. And it had sort of fallen off the face of the earth by the time you get to the late ’90s. Some people felt it was stereotypical, some people just felt that it wasn’t the best Hammerstein book, the book by Hammerstein and Fields. Hammerstein had been diagnosed with the cancer that would eventually kill him during that period so he wasn’t around much. A lot of people just felt that it wasn’t their best book. We had entered the era of revisicals by the time you get to the late ’90s, so I asked the Rodgers & Hammerstein estate for permission to do a revisical and they were incredibly gracious and supportive, and I started working on that. That took a long time because I thought, “Oh, well this will be pretty easy because my collaborators are no longer around. Rodgers & Hammerstein are no longer around so I can just do what I want,” and what I learned is that it’s actually quite the opposite, that, because the creators are not around, they couldn’t actually change anything. The musical director David Chase talked about the DNA of songs. Songs are created to do something and when you have geniuses like R&H they are created very well to do that thing. And if you try to make the song do something it wasn’t created to do, it’s very difficult and the song will rebel against that. So it took me a long time and I worked with Bobby Longbottom, who directed and choreographed the production, to learn about musical theater and before that could get up I got approached by Disney to come on as part of the writing team for Aida.

Ken: So talk to me a little bit about the difference between writing a play and a musical. Now, Aida, of course there is some source material there that you can base it on, but is it a different approach for you with a play versus a musical?

David: I think that writing a book for a musical is actually quite humbling in the sense that when you write a play, you build a scaffolding, dramatically, and you’re building to the big monologue or you’re building to the big conflict and then you get to write that. When you’re writing a musical, you build a scaffolding but then you don’t get to have the orgasm, really. You hand the orgasm over to the lyricist and the composer. So I think it’s much more structural, it’s much more about craft, and I think it’s also tricky because, now that I’ve worked in a number of different forms, I feel like, in every form, there’s somebody who’s the primary creative artist and other people support that. So if it’s a play, it’s the playwright. If it’s a movie it’s usually the director. In an opera it’s the composer. In a musical, you kind of need to do a mind meld between the book writer, the lyricist, the composer, the producer, the director. There’s a lot of people who are really responsible for having the vision for the piece and, as a result . . . I think that’s why so many musicals are based on other source material, because it at least gives you something concrete for four or five artists to say together, “This is what we want to do. We want to adapt Gypsy Rose Lee’s memoirs,” as opposed to, “We want to do a musical about reincarnation,” or something. And that’s not to say that there aren’t. Certainly there are successful musicals that are original, but I think it’s a lot harder.

Ken: We were just talking before about writing for the television show you’re working on right now and I was going to ask you a question but we got cut off so I’ll ask it here. Do you find that you write more for an actor in television or in film versus the stage? Do you find you’re getting more feedback or voicing a specific actor?

David: I’ve just finished my first season working on an episodic television show. I’ve been a writer/producer for season two of The Affair on Showtime. So I’m still learning a lot about that form, but it is certainly true . . . when you get a TV show, and particularly when a show is fortunate enough to run for a few seasons, you go into the process, into season two, with the actors in place but the story isn’t necessarily in place. You have a set of characters that have been developed already. You might add new characters, and those characters obliviously need to continue changing. But I think the actor ends up having a great deal more influence and input simply by virtue of the fact that they continue from season to season and when you begin a new season there are no scripts yet.

Ken: How long did it take you, for example, to write a first draft of M. Butterfly? Are you a fast writer?

David: I’m a relatively fast writer. I think I’ve gotten a little slower as I’ve gotten older, but the first draft of M. Butterfly probably took between six to eight weeks. I thought about it a long time before I started writing and, like any script, it got rewritten a fair amount.

Ken: Tell me about your rewriting process. So, for example, in six to eight weeks you get M. Butterfly. What percentage of it do you think changed from the end of the first draft to opening night on Broadway?

David: Different plays require different amounts of rewriting. It’s like you’re trying to bake a cake and sometimes they come out of the oven pretty much like a cake and sometimes they don’t. M. Butterfly, I would have to say, I didn’t rewrite that much. I would say maybe 15% of it got rewritten. And it was also in an era before the amount of play development that we tend to do nowadays. For instance, I never even heard the play read out loud until the first day of rehearsals for the Broadway production. It was just a different way of doing things. Fortunately, that particular play ended up being pretty close to where it needed to be. And it was also working with John Dexter, who directed M. Butterfly, who had also directed Equus and been a resident director at the Metropolitan Opera and was one of the founders of the National Theatre. John also came from an older school of British playwriting and directing where the directors were not necessarily expected to have opinions about the script. So John liked the script enough, I think liked it very much, and that’s why he took on the project. We did our out of town tryout in Washington DC, at the National, and I did end up rewriting a fair amount when we were in DC, and John was not unhappy when I would bring in rewrites, but I think he felt like it was something else he had to stage.

Ken: I wish we had video for this podcast because everyone would have seen the shocked look on my face when David just said that the first time he heard it out loud was at the first rehearsal because that is just . . . no one would ever consider doing that now. Do you think we’re overdeveloping shows?

David: I think we can overdevelop shows. Like I said, I think every show is its own kind of beast and different shows need different things and I think when get into a one-size-fits-all development model, then that’s a problem because some shows are a cake when they come out and others do need as much development as we have now. I think there are probably examples in the old days where shows didn’t get enough development. But I think the point is to try to be very sensitive to what each particular project needs.

Ken: We’ve seen some great successes of that. I’m thinking of, talking about musicals, Book of Mormon. Everyone was so shocked when it didn’t do its out of town or in town and it just came straight in, and of course that cake seemed to be ready. So it is worth looking at that “not one-size-fits-all.” I love that. Do you read reviews?

David: I like to have reviews summarized to me because I like to know how the show is going to do, but I tend not to read them because I don’t really want to know that much. I just want to know the basic tenor of the review.

Ken: When a show is in previews, how do you get feedback? Is it the director? Are you listening to the audience? Or are you just going by your own gut?

David: I’m certainly listening to the audience as an organic entity. I feel like the audience is never wrong, basically, in the sense that if you think something is funny and they’re not laughing it’s not the audience’s fault . . . it could be the actors, it could be the production . . . so I learn a lot from the audience. I think one of the most harrowing part of the process, really, and also, by the same token, one of the most important and revelatory, is that first preview. You learn so much by listening to the audience and it’s usually about stuff that isn’t working and you have to fix and that’s why it’s scary.

Ken: Is there an example of your work where you were totally shocked that the audience response was the opposite to what you expected, good or bad?

David: I have to say that Chinglish was a show that I did not realize was as much of a comedy as it ended up being. For those of the listeners who don’t know, it’s about an American businessman who goes to China to try to make a deal. And the play is about a third in Mandarin and we projected supertitles to translate the Mandarin into English. I thought it was pretty amusing that there were a lot of mistranslations in the show but I didn’t realize until I heard it, probably at the first reading, that it was a farce in the sense that classical farce is when the audience knows more than the characters on the stage. So the audience knows that the mistress is hiding in the closet but the characters don’t know, and so the audience is omniscient and gets to watch the characters scramble. Chinglish ended up working that way too, because the audience knew everything that everybody was saying but the characters did not necessarily know what each other were saying and it ended up being a farcical structure, which was a surprise for me, pleasantly so.

Ken: For me as well. Do you think it’s easier for a playwright to get started today than it was when you got started, or harder?

David: I think it’s harder. I feel like the main advantage of coming up when I did was that the field was still growing, particularly when you talk about not-for-profit theater. So not-for-profit theater was growing. For all intents and purposes it didn’t come into existence, there was some in the ’50s, but really it all started after the creation of the National Endowment of the Arts, and so starting from the late ’60s you have not-for-profit theaters being founded all around the country. So it was a field that was still growing until about the mid-90s and, similarly, on Broadway . . . and this is, I think, pretty well documented in Michael Riedel’s new book . . . Broadway was in big trouble in the ’70s. Broadway started to grow in the ’80s and so, if you were coming up during that period, you were dealing with a field that was growing and there were more opportunities. Now I think it’s hard because there are a lot of people that want to do it and Broadway, certainly, and musicals in particular, are really hot and probably closer to the heart of American popular culture than they’ve been at any time since the 1950s, so that’s all great, but a lot of people want to do it and the number of opportunities is not necessarily getting larger. And then you still have baby boomer playwrights like myself sticking around and taking up slots, so I think it’s hard for a young playwright.

Ken: Any advice for those out there looking to get started?

David: I’ve come to feel that you never know what is going to be commercial. Maybe producers do, but I don’t and I don’t think artists necessarily have to know or really should know. If you look at M. Butterfly, nobody thought that was going to be a hit and, in fact, one of the co-producers tried to shut it down after we got bad reviews in Washington DC and Stuart Ostrow, the producer, had to mortgage his house to get us to New York and we went to the Eugene O’Neill and we had a tiny few thousand dollars of advance and no money to even have an opening night party. And I think the cast had a betting pool about when the show was going to close, so nobody expected that show to be a hit. In a way that’s a good thing because I think it forces new writers, and writers of all ages, really, to fall back on writing what you really believe, and that is just as likely to be successful as something that you calculate for commercial gain. But if you write something that explores the questions that you need to ask yourself as an artist and you make the discoveries that you need to make as an artist then you’ve already won, no matter what happens to the play, and then success is the icing on the cake. But success shouldn’t be the cake, success has to be the icing.

Ken: Shocked face number two for me, when I hear there was no opening night party for M. Butterfly on Broadway.

David: No, there was no money.

Ken: You’ve had many parties on M. Butterfly since then, I would hope.

David: Fortunately that’s one of those Broadway stories that all worked out.

Ken: And maybe coming back? Do we hear rumors?

David: We are sort of in discussions. It’s about that period of time. It was originally done in 1988 so I think it’s due for a revival.

Ken: So you were born here, even though your parents were Chinese immigrants. Obviously that’s had a big influence on your work, subconsciously, I guess, to start.

David: And consciously as soon as I started writing.

Ken: How do you think we’re doing with diversity on Broadway and in theater in general in this country?

David: Well people talk about, for instance, that last season was one of the least diverse in recent years and the current season is one of the most diverse in recent years, so it’s difficult to say whether there are patterns that are happening or not. I feel that Broadway, at least at this point, and theater in general, at least has the desire to become more diverse. It’s not even really a social justice issue. It’s a question at this point of changing demographics and markets. Everybody knows that by 2040 people of color are going to be the majority in this country and every industry in America is trying to prepare for that and reach out to all of this new purchasing power. I think Broadway also wants to do that. I don’t feel that we’ve quite figured out how to do it yet. Hamilton is a step and it’s certainly a great direction and I love that show but, in general, I don’t know that we have figured out how to make diverse audiences feel welcome in the theater. Sometimes people talk about ticket price and I think ticket price is certainly a huge issue in the theater in general. And it overlaps but it’s not the same as the diversity issue because our tickets are no more expensive than tickets to see Beyoncé and Jay Z, but their audiences look much more like America than ours, so I believe that when audiences feel welcome they will buy tickets. As an Asian American, Asians certainly have, in general, a fair amount of purchasing power and yet are not particularly well represented in Broadway audiences. So I think we still have a lot of work to do, and to me it relates to diversifying content and diversifying who we cast, because everybody wants to see themselves on stage.

Ken: You make an excellent point there that I’ve talked about a bunch, which is diversifying the content. You’re a perfect example of this. You are an Asian American and you write a number of plays dealing with those issues and therefore need actors that are Asian or Asian American. So it seems to me that the way to get more diversity on stages is to get more diverse playwrights and content creators.

David: I think so, and also to cast things with a wide range of actors. You don’t have to assume that a character whose race isn’t specified needs to be cast with a Caucasian actor.

Ken: Okay, my last question, which we call my genie question, inspired by the gene from Aladdin. I want you to imagine for a moment that the genie comes to you and says, “David, you’ve done such a wonderful job since you started writing plays and creating that major at Stanford to today, and I want to thank you for that by granting you one wish.” What’s the one thing that drives you so crazy about Broadway, that makes you angry . . . you’re an even-tempered nice guy. What makes you mad, keeps you up at night, that you would want this genie to change with the snap of his fingers or a wave of his want?

David: I think it is this issue of diversity. That has been something that has motivated me since I was a kid, in the sense that I remember when I was 12 or 13, if I knew there was going to be an Asian character in a movie or a TV show, I would go out of my way not to watch it because given the way that Asians were portrayed in those days, I just knew, intuitively sensed, that it would make me feel bad. Therefore it’s somewhat not surprising that I’ve ended up, consciously or unconsciously, writing about some of the things that I have. I think diversity on Broadway is a huge issue for the future of Broadway and for the future of the theater. We need to be able to reach out to varied audiences, and that includes economic diversity. How do we create a situation where the ticket prices are not beyond the reach of middle class people, tourists, New Yorkers? So that’s what I would ask the genie to fix.

Ken: If there was one specific thing you think we, Broadway, could do to make this better, more welcoming to the audiences, what would it be? You mentioned earlier that ticket prices could be cheaper for everyone so, putting ticket prices aside, what’s the one thing that we could do on Broadway to make it more welcoming for a more diverse audience?

David: I think, whether through the choice of material or through casting, if the diversity of actors on stage represented the diversity of America, I think that would be a huge step in the right direction.

Ken: Terrific answer. Thank you so much for spending time with us. I know you have a very busy schedule so thank you for carving a little time out for us. We’ve got to get you back to that TV show. Thank you so much for being with us. Thank you, all of you, for listening. Next week . . . get this . . . we talked about Rodgers & Hammerstein . . . next week, Ted Chapin, the president of Rodgers & Hammerstein.

David: That’s great. He’s so smart and he was so helpful with my project.

Ken: Yes, and I’m going to ask him all about Flower Drum Song, so make sure you tune in for that. Thanks so much. We’ll see you then. Bye bye!

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Ken created one of the first Broadway podcasts, recording over 250 episodes over 7 years. It features interviews with A-listers in the theater about how they “made it”, including 2 Pulitzer Prize Winners, 7 Academy Award Winners and 76 Tony Award winners. Notable guests include Pasek & Paul, Kenny Leon, Lynn Ahrens and more.