The Public introduced some of the most groundbreaking musicals in theater history and is thus widely regarded as one of New York’s premiere cultural institutions.
Now playing at The Public through November 10, Soft Power is written by David Henry Hwang (M. Butterfly, Yellow Face), features music and additional lyrics by Jeanine Tesori (Fun Home,Violet, Caroline Or Change), choreography by Tony nominee Sam Pinkleton (Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812), and is directed by Tony nominee Leigh Silverman (Violet, Yellow Face, Wild Goose Dreams).
Soft Power, making its New York debut after last year’s world premiere in Los Angeles at Center Theatre Group‘s Ahmanson Theatre, is an unforgettable and boldly original new musical-within-a-play. Topical and full of thought-provoking socio-political commentary, this prolific production demands to be seen.
I spoke with star Raymond J. Lee about this historic production, the light that Soft Power shines on how the United States is seen overseas, how the show challenges its audience’s ideas of what democracy is, workshopping the Britney Spears musical Once Upon A One More Time, and more!
ALEX NAGORSKI: How has the show evolved since its run at Center Theatre Group in Los Angeles?
RAYMOND J. LEE: The show has gone through an amazing growth spurt. The great thing about having our premiere at Center Theatre Group in 2018 is that we were finally able to put all these ideas and concepts we had been talking about for years onto the stage, with the help and support of all the wonderful people at CTG. The creative team then had over a year to continue working on the show and I feel like we have honed in on our show’s themes and pinpointed the messages we want the show to convey to audiences. I’m excited for this new version of the show to hit The Public stage!
The Public Theater has birthed some of the most iconic and boundary-pushing shows in musical theater history, like Hair, A Chorus Line, and Hamilton. In your opinion, how is Soft Power a natural extension of that legacy?
Soft Power is definitely a natural extension of this legacy. It is such a boundary-pushing show! I feel like Soft Power has finally given a voice to the Asian American actor, and that combined with the political themes this show tackles, it bravely challenges the typical rules of a musical and/or play. It also challenges the audience to trust us and come along with us on a very unique storytelling journey.
I feel like Hair, A Chorus Line, and Hamilton were probably difficult projects to pitch at first because people didn’t understand what they would be visually, but the right people trusted and invested in them, and they were some of the most innovative musicals and really changed the musical theater game. Soft Power will do that too. I am so grateful to The Public for bringing such an innovative show like Soft Power to New York audiences.
Jeanine Tesori has composed some of the most renowned contemporary musicals, such as Fun Home, Violet, and Caroline, or Change. As a performer, how does it feel to get to introduce her new music to the world through this production?
My first rehearsal for a reading of Soft Power back in the day, was sitting at a piano with Jeanine going through “Good Guy With a Gun.” I remember sweating profusely because to me, she is one of the greatsof the musical theater world. I am in awe of her brain and how she intellectually combines music with meaning and intention. There’s a reason you sing a particular note, have an essential dynamic, or need a specific piece of underscoring. It’s all to enhance the character and the messages that song is trying to convey. I feel honored to introduce her new music to the world with this production. Audiences are going to love it. There’s also such an amazing variety of styles!
Why is Soft Power such an important show for people to see, particularly in the times we’re currently living in?
Soft Power is an important show for people to see especially in these political times because it is the one play/musical that goes there. We tackle subjects such as racism, the Electoral College, gun control, immigrants, and foreign relations, without any apologies. However, the show does not take on a preachy tone ever. It merely holds a mirror up to what is happening right now in America.
Leigh Silverman made it very clear she didn’t want to create a cartoony satire or preach to the audience, and that is something I hold dear to me with each performance, honesty in the truth of what is happening in our country. Also as an Asian American, seeing a cast of fierce Asian Americans on stage singing and dancing and acting so beautifully has been empowering. We also get to comment on what we have all gone through in this industry and that has been absolutely therapeutic.
How is the Vice President a new and/or different type of character for you to play?
The Veep is definitely a new type of character for me to play. He would probably be the Disney villain in the show, if I’m trying to categorize him. I usually play happy-go-lucky, silly, smiley parts so it’s been an awesome challenge to embody somebody more sinister. I love it! Instead of entertaining the audience, I’m asked to challenge them. That is something new for me with Soft Power.
As we head into the next Presidential election year, what does Soft Power tell us about how America and its politics are seen by the rest of the world?
“This democracy — it is a crazy system!” is one of the lines in our show that our Chinese hero exclaims near the beginning. I think it sums up his point of view quite well, while our female protagonist believes in democracy with all her heart, singing this amazing song about democracy in the second act. We also have a number about the Electoral College, explaining how it all works. Once you do hear how it all works, especially in a musical format, it does sound extremely confusing.
Soft Power does its best to portray the facts about the American governmental system without being biased. That was important for the creative team.
How does Soft Power challenge its audience’s notions of what democracy is?
Soft Power challenges its audience’s notions by reminding them what democracy is and should be. I think we as a country have been normalized to so many behaviors by our current administration that it’s almost numbing. Soft Power, in my opinion, is a piece that is meant to stir that political intellectual spark in the audience. I hope anyone who sees the show goes home to think, registers to vote, supports a candidate, joins an organization, reads or writes articles, or maybe even finds the inspiration to run for office one day so they can create change.
What’s the most profound piece of advice that director Leigh Silverman has given you while working on this show?
Leigh Silverman is one of the most brilliant directors I’ve ever worked with. The best piece of advice she has given me while working on this show is to just be honest, trust the material, and actually ask the questions that any of my characters are asking. Forget about all the external factors and focus on the intention, making sure you convey the script’s true message without all the bells and whistles. I will carry that nugget of wisdom for all my future projects.
After being in Broadway in shows like Groundhog Day, Aladdin, Honeymoon in Vegas,Anything Goes, and Mamma Mia, how has your creative process in bringing an original piece of work like Soft Power to life been different than it was when you were part of established blockbuster productions?
This process has been an absolutely unique one. I’ve never been a part of the show that was built from the ground up like this. Usually there’s a source material or some sort of reference. The only original material or reference point we had was David Henry Hwang’s stabbing and our current government.
It has been an absolutely enlightening and learning experience to be a part of this process. I have learned to trust my instincts on a whole new level when it comes to creating an original character, and the creative team has been so open to my ideas and suggestions. It’s been an honor to be able to give my input on how my characters walk or talk or what they carry or how they would react to something.
In turn, I feel like I’ve been able to answer the creative team’s questions when they needed answers about my specific characters. For example, Randy Ray has grown through several incarnations including a cowboy and a thug, but we finally feel like we found him. There’s been an amazing symbiosis between the creatives and the cast to figure out our show out together. I am so proud to be a part of Soft Power and it will always have a special place in my heart.
What are some of the most rewarding aspects of working on a show with a primarily Asian-American cast?
I LOVE WORKING ON A SHOW WITH A PRIMARILY ASIAN AMERICAN CAST, ESPECIALLY AN ORIGINAL ONE!! It has been powerful. It has been absolute camaraderie. It has been uplifting. I have seen so many of these beautiful faces at auditions and it feels so good to finally work with them! We have this bond because we all understand the struggles when it comes to being an ethnic actor in this business. At the end of the show when we get to come together, there’s an energy that I’ve never felt before on a stage, when we unite and just get to sing our faces off together. We feel like we are representing what our people can do and I hope the industry takes note. I work with a cast of true triple threats. Plus Asian and Asian American casts love to eat and bring food and party afterwards so we have a friggin’ blast together!
You made your NYC debut in The Public’s Shakespeare in the Park production of Two Gentlemen of Verona. What does it mean to you to be returning to The Public and how do you think you’ve grown as a performer since the last time you worked on one of their shows?
It means the world to finally come back to The Public. I made my NY professional debut with Two Gents! Special thanks to Kathleen Marshall, The Public, and that entire creative team for giving me that opportunity. I remember being so green in the business. I didn’t know how things worked. I didn’t know how to trust my instincts or even how to be collaborative. I was always waiting to be told what to do. Now with Soft Power, I’ve learned to make the choices when asked and to be a collaborative team player. It feels like a full circle journey.
Also, sidenote, Alyse Alan Louis and I actually started off together doing Mamma Mia! here in New York and then a production of Nerds out of town. It has been an honor to see her become this amazing leading lady and I can’t wait for everyone to see her in this role.
Are there any plans for future productions of Soft Power that you can tease? Is a Broadway transfer on the table?
Right now we’re focusing on Opening Night! Of course we would all love an extended future for Soft Power so we’re all crossing our fingers (and maybe even a Cast Album?). But for right now, I hope audiences come see us at The Public and love it as much as we do. We’ve put our hearts and souls into the show.
You also recently participated in a workshop of the upcoming musical Once Upon A One More Time, set to the greatest hits of Britney Spears. What can you share about that experience and how do you think that show will be different than other recent jukebox musicals?
I am an eternal Britney Spears fan. I grew up going to her concerts. Heck, I even submitted a tape for her MTV special and was invited on camera to ask her a question! The experience was fantastic and I love that the show is focusing on female power. I’m the proud father of a five-year-old daughter so any shows that focus on female empowerment gets a huge thumbs up from me.
I think it’ll be different because it’s not a biopic. It’s a totally original story with some very familiar characters. Plus it’s Britney’s music! COME ON!
In addition to your theatrical credits, you’ve also acted on television shows like Succession,Billions, and SMASH! As a performer, what do you find to be the biggest pros and cons of the silver screen versus a stage?
Acting on-camera is such a different experience than being on stage. I love both so much. With theater it’s always awesome to have that instant relationship with the audience, and I love telling a story from beginning to end in one sitting. With TV/film, you shoot scenes out of order and the days may be longer, but it’s also just as exciting.
As long as I am representing for my Asian American brothers and sisters, that’s what keeps me going in both mediums. And as a quick film plug, be sure to check out Marriage Story, a new film by Noah Baumbach, that I had the pleasure to be in.
Thanks so much, Raymond! Is there anything else you want to add/plug that we didn’t discuss?
Follow your heart and your dreams! My parents wanted me to become a doctor so badly, but the moment I decided to take a chance at this crazy performing dream, I felt like I was finally doing what I’m supposed to do in this life. And never let anyone pigeon-hole you in this business. Be you!
And also as a proud gay dad, I wanted to give a shout-out to all the families who have become a family through the beautiful process of adoption.
And come see Soft Power playing in the Newman at The Public! We are extended until November 10 and we would love to have you in the audience!
PHOTOS | JOAN MARCUS