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Review: Broadbend, Arkansas and Soft Power Are a Mixed Bag of One-Acts

Two twists on the typical range of possibilities for the musical theater writing process are playing out in two recent musicals.

Soft Power
Photo: Joan Marcus

“Which comes first, the music or the lyrics?” is a question that musical theater collaborators have been asked since time immemorial, from Rodgers and Hammerstein to Pasek and Paul. The answers have varied, of course, from partnership to partnership: Rodgers penned his melodies first with his earlier collaborator Lorenz Hart but waited for Hammerstein’s words before setting out to compose. Pasek and Paul, of Dear Evan Hansen fame, have said they trade off musical and textual phrases.

Two twists on the typical range of possibilities for the musical theater writing process are playing out in two recent musicals: the pair of one-acts that comprise Broadbend, Arkansas at the Duke (a Public Theater co-production) and the Public’s own Soft Power. But only one of the two—well, one of the three, given the former’s atypical structure—is fully successful.

Inspired by Paulette Haupt’s annual (hit-or-miss) Inner Voices program, for which librettists write monologues which are then handed off with well wishes to composers, Ted Shen asked two playwrights, Ellen Fitzhugh and Harrison David Rivers, to create a diptych of connected monologues for Broadbend, Arkansas. Shen then decided which parts of each libretto lent themselves to song and occasionally added his own more music-friendly but sometimes clunkier words while composing his score. What’s emerged is an uneven but ultimately satisfying show, staged on a bare platform by Jack Cummings III, that illustrates the impact of good (and bad) libretti on a single composer charged with setting them.

Rivers’s Ruby, the show’s second act, is a gripping meditation on identity and parenthood, gloriously performed by Danyel Fulton as the eponymous mother, whose son has just been viciously beaten by the police. She’s fled from his hospital bed to seek sanctuary by the grave of the white woman who raised her, and Carol’s hopelessness and fear for the future intermingle with her bittersweet, tainted childhood memories.

Rivers’s poetic text explodes intermittently into Shen’s surging music. As rendered monumentally by Fulton, each time the monologue flowers into melody, that heightening seems necessary. For Ruby, the movement from speech to song becomes a kind of coping mechanism, the only possible way to express the inarticulable sorrow of her son’s suffering as it merges with the visions she’s imagined of her father’s death. Shen’s vocal lines are varied and organic, as if they emerge spontaneously from the character.

Not so with Just One Q, the first act, in which Ruby’s father, Benny (Justin Cunningham), an orderly at a nursing home, mediates a fight between two white women who happen to be the first and second wives of the same man. Here, while Shen’s compositional craft is apparent, he’s uninspired by Fitzhugh’s distracted libretto. Instead of sounding like a specific character, the music adopts the distinctive, imitable quality of Stephen Sondheim’s later scores.

Bizarrely, instead of speaking in his own voice, Benny mostly acts out the argument between the women, the substance of which is pretty dull until it turns out that one of them neutered her husband with a hot iron. Perhaps that unwillingness to engage fully with Benny stems from Fitzhugh’s discomfort with writing the words of an African-American man, which is odd considering that she makes him so comfortable speaking for, and as, these two women.

Just One Q ends up at odds with its narrator, whose late-in-the-game suggestion that “Since I helped those women change/With truth that they fin’ly shared/Now I can seek out/Who I’m supposed to be,” as he drives to Memphis to join the Freedom Riders, rings rather hollow. But that’s no fault of Cunningham, who animates Benny appealingly and crisply transforms himself vocally and physically to play the two sparring women.

It’s hard to believe the two halves share a composer, so voluminously do Shen’s gifts unspool in the second act. The other constant collaborator is legendary orchestrator Michael Starobin, whose six-piece arrangements shimmer throughout as conducted by Deborah Abramson.

Further downtown at the Public, another bizarre collaborative enterprise is on full display. David Henry Hwang began writing Soft Power as a non-musical play before two shocking events—his random stabbing on an NYC street in 2015 and Donald Trump’s election—set him on a different course. In Soft Power, a stand-in for Hwang, DHH (Francis Jue), slipping out of consciousness following his stabbing, imagines a Chinese musical about Hillary Clinton’s election loss from the perspective of a Chinese immigrant who’s come to America to make a musical. The real Hwang ultimately enlisted Jeanine Tesori (a Tony winner for Fun Home) to write the largely pastiche tunes for the musical inside the play.

While Hwang has a lot to say about a slew of important topics that rarely get examined on stage, there’s also the sense that the show has gone off full steam ahead in several directions and never reached fruition in any of them. The show-within-a-show is set up as a fever dream—yes, one that hazily combines DHH’s anxieties about each portion of his Chinese-American identity, his discomfort about The King and I (and how it still makes him cry despite its Western prejudices), and his awareness of the Chinese mission of soft power (the government’s attempts to assert the Republic’s dominance through cultural exports). But while all of those strands show up, none of them cohere, not even enough for a fever dream. The satire of American politics is particularly uninspired, as in a number featuring a post-election Hillary (Alyse Alan Louis) consoling herself with pizza dipped in ice cream.

Soft Power’s endless musical production numbers (including one where Hillary dances in different styles to woo varied constituencies and one Trumpian paean to “a good guy with a gun”) work against Hwang’s strengths: needle-pricks of irony that last no longer than a line but which expose uncomfortable truths. Hwang’s biting humor makes the early scenes—the ones about some version of himself—engrossingly promising, and Jue, in a 180º from his all-business recurring role on Madam Secretary, is a delightful avatar for the playwright. But Hwang’s lyrics aren’t sharp enough to have the same effect as his prose, and Tesori’s score, best in a few intimate moments, is seldom specific enough to suggest Chinese composers mimicking Golden Age musicals (and also Hamilton) as it’s meant to. There’s one lovely song, though, in which Xue Xing (Conrad Ricamora) tries to teach Hillary how to differentiate Chinese tones; it’s a gentle fusion of “Do Re Mi” and “Shall We Dance?” Though the 23-piece orchestra is a nice touch, the music seldom merits that extravagance.

Soft Power, however, matters most in its casting. The final number is a moving, metatheatrical celebration of the opportunity to assemble a cast that is almost entirely Asian American. And the ensemble is excellent, gamely executing Leigh Silverman’s lively staging and Sam Pinkleton’s madcap choreography. Early on, the significance of how the show tells its stories is hammered home when DHH muses, thinking about that frustrating Rodgers and Hammerstein title, “Why does the white character always have to be the I?” A Chinese would-be-producer responds, “Because this is America.” From a cemetery in Broadbend, Arkansas to an emergency room in Fort Greene, Americans are seizing their chance to tell their stories with their own voices. But only some of them will require musical accompaniment.

Broadbend, Arkansas is playing at the Duke, and Soft Power is playing at the Public Theater.

“Tell the truth but tell it slant”
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