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It's OK to be Wrong and/or It's OK to be Hwang
Presentations of idiosyncratic history pageants with a sense of humor and musicality
A Creative Soul, Successful Playwright, Screenwriter and Librettist with All the Work He can Handle


In this part of our interview with David, we'll discover how music has always been a big part of his creative life. Musical influences has been evident from his first production (FOB), to actually being a musician himself, to being integrated within his creative process, via working with prominent music artists and his involvement with musical projects such as Aida, Flower Drum Song and now Tarzan., starting with David explores his connections to music and musicals that has been an important part of his success throughout the years. As we start this part of the interview . . . . . .

US ASIANS: Could you share what about straight-up musicals form excites you like when you first started writing plays?

DAVID HENRY HWANG: It is a totally theatrical form, that utilizes all elements of the theatre. Moreover, it's also a popular form, so audiences, rather than critics, determine its ultimate success. Over the years, I've started to trust the judgment of audiences more than self-appointed cultural "experts," whose agendas are often bizarre.

US ASIANS: Could you share how important a role that music plays within your various works, recognizing your love of the format within your creative process?

DAVID HENRY HWANG: In a way, I feel that even my "straight" plays were often written like musicals, complete with "numbers," especially in "Dance and the Railroad" and "M. Butterfly." Furthermore, as I was once a jazz musician, I've always felt that the sense of structure that I gained from improvization has informed my composition of dramatic works.

US ASIANS: Could you describe the joy of creating a musical that includes working within a stormy collaborative process filled with opinions, the constant changes of getting it right, working/seeking the right artists, the need for patience, etc.?

DAVID HENRY HWANG: Writing is necessarily a solitary process. The joy of writing scripts is that it includes a social component, when the piece actually goes into production. I've always enjoyed the process of collaboration, the synergies that result on those fortunate occassions when the respective talents of various artists combine to create something better than any one could have made by his/her self. Musicals are the ultimate collaborative form.

US ASIANS: Could you share your experience on writing with Prince and how this working relationship was set-up?

DAVID HENRY HWANG: Prince was interested in creating a stage musical. He is probably my all-time favorite rock musician, so I was excited to collaborate with him. Prince and I met about it, then he asked me for some poetry for a spoken word interlude he was thinking of inserting into a song. That text eventually became the song, "Solo," which he recorded on his album, "Come."

US ASIANS: What are the different type of joys of working with Prince, Howard Shore, Phil Collins and others - when compared to working with other talented composers such as Phillip Glass?

DAVID HENRY HWANG: Each composer, like any artist, comes with his or her own joys and challenges. I can't really generalize about any one type of composer vis--vis another.

US ASIANS: Are you considering working more with today's pop artists, since talented wordsmiths such as yourself are in great demand with rap/metal artists (i.e. Linkin Park, P.O.D., etc.) pop/rock artists (i.e. John Mayer, Sting, Phil Collins, Ani DiFranco, White Stripes, Yeah Yeah Yeahs, etc.), rappers (i.e. RZA, Eminen, Common, 50 Cents) and r&b/funk (i.e. Prince, Brian McKnight, John Legend, etc.)?

DAVID HENRY HWANG: I would love to work with other rock and pop artists, though its primarily the baby-boomer generation of rock stars who are currently interested in writing Broadway musicals.

US ASIANS: What prompted your interest in working with such a wide spectrum of music artists such as

  • Elton John ("Aida" with Tim Rice)
  • Phillip Glass ("1,000 Airplanes on the Roof: A Science Fiction Music Drama" American Repertory Theatre's "The Sound of a Voice" and Metropolitan Opera's "The Voyage")
  • Bright Sheng/Ainadamar/Osvaldo Golijov ("The Silver River" at Lincoln Center Festival, Tanglewood and L.A.'s Disney Hall), Alexina Louie (Canadian Opera Company's "The Scarlet Princess")
  • Prince (co-writing the song "Solo")
  • Phil Collins (Disney's "Tarzan") and
  • Howard Shore ("M. Butterfly"

DAVID HENRY HWANG: I enjoy all sorts of music, so it's a thrill to work with such a wide variety of composers and artists. Moreover, I believe that the distinctions between "serious" opera and "popular" musical theatre are extremely arbitrary. I predict that some day, a new contemporary opera will make a commercial transfer to Broadway. I would love to be there when that happens. I used to be a musician, and, ironically, as a playwright, I've ended up getting to work with many of my musical idols, which would no doubt never have happened had I remained a violinist!

US ASIANS: Having noted your background and expertise in classical music (via your skills on the violin), when will the general public witness your talents as a jazz musician and when will you be the Asian American version of what Woody Allen (through his clarinet playing) is to his community?

DAVID HENRY HWANG: I used to concertize with Philip Kan Gotanda (guitar and vocals) in the community -- but we haven't done so in several decades. Given that I haven't practiced my instrument in about that long, the odds that I'll ever perform again in public are extremely slim!

US ASIANS: What unique creative opportunities (working with somebody whose experiences concentrates outside of the opera genre and/or working with somebody that doesn't abide to "presumed" restrictions of opera, etc.) exist when you're working with Howard Shore in his first effort (i.e. "The Fly") that creates an opera that incorporates an orchestra, chorus and soloists?

DAVID HENRY HWANG: Actually, out of the six operas I've written/am writing, five have been with composers working in the medium for the first time. However, all of them, including Howard, are great opera afficionados, who have loved and studied the form for most of their lives. I suppose all opera composers, particularly first-timers, appreciate having a playwright to create a story.

Philip Kan Gotanda's Views on APA Playwrights' Responsibilities
US ASIANS: What responsibilities do you feel you have, as the result of being considered one of the leading American playwrights who happens to be Asian Pacific American?

PHILIP KAN GOTANDA: A writer's responsibility is always to his or her art. To commit to it with a kind of disciplined vengeance. I consider being Asian American a state of knowledgeable being and as a consequence it cannot not be a consideration in any of my work.

US ASIANS: In your opinion, why haven't Asian American literature ( been a greater influence within the theater, film and television industries? Is it because there are not enough compelling stories and/or quality of writing that has not provided more stories/plays such as yours?

PHILIP KAN GOTANDA: I believe the quality is there. However, what you're talking about has to do with other forces. It really comes down to power, that is, whose got it. In the case of Asian Americans they still don't have the political and economic clout to necessitate being listened to. When they get the power, you'll suddenly find how influential and compelling their works will become.

To learn more about Philip Kan Gotanda, read his interview by clicking HERE.

US ASIANS: What prompted your interest in music to switch from classical (having studied to be a classical violinist) to jazz and MTV?

DAVID HENRY HWANG: I guess that, since I listed to a lot of rock and jazz, I wanted to be able to play that sort of music.

US ASIANS: What are your thoughts that "Flower Drug Song" still remains after 44+ years lamentably the only musical on Broadway to focus on the lives of Asian Americans?

DAVID HENRY HWANG: On the one hand, I think it's sad that this is the only one. On the other, I'm surprised and moved by Rodgers & Hammerstein's foresight in tackling such a story.

US ASIANS: Have you considered the many ironies of having many younger people (especially the ones that don't speak English) not being aware of a Broadway/major film production that included an actual love story between an Asian man and an Asian woman - something this not often seen, a strong Asian male romantic lead (the other rare examples included James Shigeta in "Bridge to the Sun" and "Crimson Kimono"), almost an all Asian American cast and an opportunity to see Asian Americans singing and dancing to a Rogers & Hammerstein score - yet the production galvanized many to protest the stories as too patronizing, too stereotypical and too cute?

US ASIANS: A line from the show "To really appreciate who you are, you really have to appreciate where you come from" seems to permeate every element of the production from providing definitive differences between things that are Asian, Asian American and American - as oppose to the original production where the edges were smoothen out to cater to the non-Asian audiences at that time. Were these your intentions at the beginning of the process or did it developed during the development process?

DAVID HENRY HWANG: It was my intention. I think R&H (Rogers and Hammerstein) were advancing the mainstream progressive notion of their day: that minorities could be successfully assimilated into the American melting pot. I wanted to do a version which advanced the mainstream progressive notion of our day: that in order to know yourself, you must know and appreciate your history.

DAVID HENRY HWANG: I think the original FDS ("Flower Drum Song") was demonized during a period in American social history when it was necessary to do so. When APA's (Asian Pacific Americans) began writing our own stories, we needed to draw a distinction between our work and popular examples of these stories which were written by non-Asians. Nowadays, when Asian authors and films are more numerous and popular, we're able to view the original FDS ("Flower Drum Song") in a more balanced and nuanced light.

US ASIANS: In the final analysis and in the long run - what is your perspective of the original production (i.e. artifact of its time, demonized presentation), comparison with other pieces within its timeline (i.e. Rock Hudson/Doris Day movies, Elvis Presley films, musicals such as Damm Yankees/Pajama Game/Bye Bye Birdie/Sweet Charity, etc.), what place of importance does it hold within the Asian/American communities, its place in cinematic history (first Chinese American novel to be published by an established publishing house, the first Chinese American novel to be on the best-seller list, landmark for Asian Americans in each of its incarnations - the novel, the Broadway musical was the first to feature and star Asian Americans, and the movie was the first Hollywood movie to do so) and what stereotype shown in the original was the most rehabilitating to the Asian American communities that you hoped to address with your production?

DAVID HENRY HWANG: I think the original FDS ("Flower Drum Song") is not R&H's (Rogers & Hammerstein) best work, but it holds a critical and important place in American and APA (Asian Pacific American) literary, theatrical, and cinematic history. I also feel strongly that C.Y. Lee's novel is a seminal work of APA (Asian Pacific American) literature, rather than being stigmatized since the 1960's because of its association with the demonized musical. To me, the most questionable element of the original musical was the reinforcement of the Dragon Lady/Lotus Blossom dichotomy in the characters of Linda Low and Mei-li.

US ASIANS: In your research, did you explore the background of the Chinese American nightclubs (i.e. Forbidden City in San Francisco, China Doll Clubs in New York and others on the "Chop Suey" circuit) - along with Black nightclubs (i.e. "Chitlins Circuit")? Was there a hidden meaning behind naming a Chinese American nightspot "Club Chop Suey" - considering that "chop suey" is not an "authentic" Chinese dish - ironic considering your high priority on being authentic?

DAVID HENRY HWANG: Yes, I did research the "Chop Suey" circuit. Our selection of the name "Club Chop Suey" was meant both to pay tribute to the name of that circuit, and as an ironic comment on the nature of the entertainment Wang's club presented.

US ASIANS: Did Jodi Long bring invaluable "insider" viewpoints, considering that her parents were part of the "Forbidden City Nightclub" in San Francisco?

DAVID HENRY HWANG: Yes, very much so.

  US ASIANS: What was the mindset of changing a great torch song "Love Look Away" into a swing song, considering that this song was originally created for an operatic-type Broadway singer?

DAVID HENRY HWANG: I would say that the "head tone" operatic voice feels old-fashioned on Broadway today. A song meant to convey anguish and loss connects better with a contemporary audience if it's sung as a torch song, complete with "belting."

US ASIANS: What "barometers" and/or "litmus tests" do you apply to your various works that confirms that you've achieved the appropriate balance between a "Chinese way of doing things and an American way of doing things - especially in your reworking of "Flower Drum Song?"

DAVID HENRY HWANG: It's primarily gut instinct. I try to achieve a balance that feels right to me, then hope it connects to an audience.

Arabella Hong-Young
The original role of Helen Chiao and song "Love, Look Away" was created for this Juillard graduate for the original Broadway production of Rogers & Hammerstein's of "Flower Drum Song" on Broadway.
For more info, click HERE
US ASIANS: Did you use C.Y. Lee's original 1957 novel as the starting inspiration for your edition of Flower Drum Song, as oppose to the Joseph Fields' version?  

DAVID HENRY HWANG: I drew from both sources.

US ASIANS: Considering that your production revisits the themes of Lee's original novel staying true to its generational and cultural relationships without including one word of dialogue from the original show, did you consider adding/replacing additional music to the program (i.e. "Chop Suey" based on a dish created by non-Asians) - considering that Rogers and Hammerstein's stronger music is generally recognized to be included in King & I, South Pacific, Oklahoma and Carousal productions?

Anna May Wong
She was set to return to Hollywood, with the large and prominent role of "Auntie Liang" in Ross Hunter's film production of Rodgers and Hammerstein's "Flower Drum Song," when, on February 3, 1961 — she died of a heart attack following liver disease at the age of 56. The producers had come around to realizing that a Chinese or Asian person could play a Chinese or Asian character without endangering the morals of the American public.
For more info, click HERE and HERE
DAVID HENRY HWANG: We did, in fact, interpolate some additional material, specifically "My Best Love," which was written for FDS ("Flower Drum Song") but cut out of town in Boston. Our understanding with the estate was that we would not poach from the major R&H musicals; we did interpolate a song from "Pipe Dream" into the LA-version of FDS ("Flower Drum Song"), but didn't end up keeping it for Broadway.

US ASIANS: Do you feel that most people appreciated or understood your version of the themes of C.Y. Lee's original novel - cultural assimilation, the relationship between generations and the struggle to become authentically American without abandoning traditions?

DAVID HENRY HWANG: I think most people, Asian and non-Asian, did understand the themes of our remake. They may or may not have liked the show, but they grasped the themes.

US ASIANS: Lea Salonga has stated that your version of Flower Drum Song is a very important show for Asians and Asian-Americans, who have the obstacle of assimilation into this country, where Asians seem to still be considered foreigners. What do you feel still needs to be done to address/improve this situation and what role does this production in accomplishing the above-listed statement?

DAVID HENRY HWANG: The question of how to overcome the "perpetual foreigner" stereotype is a very complicated one, which I think I've addressed in other portions of this interview. I would hope that the production helped by putting an Asian American musical on Broadway, for only the second time in history.
Broadway's Reaction to David Henry Hwang's Updated "Flower Drum Song"

Hwang's passion for accurate and multidimensional portrayal of Asian characters again came into play when he was enlisted by the Rodgers & Hammerstein Organization to rewrite Oscar Hammerstein II and Joseph Fields' book for the 1958 Broadway tuner Flower Drum Song. Over the years, members of the Asian-American community began to feel that the original piece, based on a novel by C.Y. Lee, had become dated and that it perpetuated unfavorable stereotypes. Keeping the Rodgers and Hammerstein score almost intact, Hwang's new version premiered at the Mark Taper Forum in 2001, receiving enthusiastic reactions. Its move to Broadway in 2002, however, was much less successful, critically and commercially. Hwang remarks, "I don't completely understand why it didn't click in New York, and I will probably puzzle over it for quite some time."
For more info, click HERE


US ASIANS: If the original production could be described as "State Fair" in Yellow Face, how would you want your production to be remembered?

DAVID HENRY HWANG: As an old-fashioned musical with contemporary social and cultural themes.

US ASIANS: Considering Ta's transformation of The Golden Pearl Theatre (Peking Opera theater) into Club Chop Suey (Western nightspot), Master Wang enjoying the American nightclub success, Ta discovers his roots by embracing the traditions of Peking Opera and finding happiness with Mei-Li (traditional wife from the Mainland) - are these convergences something you see in today's Chinese American communities?

DAVID HENRY HWANG: I think some of us in the Asian American community have achieved significant success in this country. But what have we lost in our successful search for acceptance?

US ASIANS: Did your version of "Flower Drum Song" purge your creative soul of past conflicts with the original production such as the various stereotypes portrayed, relationships between the Chinese generations, need to provide additional positive pop-culture "real" Chinese/Chinese American images, presenting relevant historical elements (i.e. "Forbidden City" Nightclub to life in China) to audiences and desire to merge traditional Peking Opera style with Western-type theater?

DAVID HENRY HWANG: Yes, I feel that the opportunity take this iconic work for APAs (Asian Pacific Americans) and make it my own helped to integrate many of my own personal, cultural, and artistic ambivalences about the piece.

US ASIANS: As your ode or valentine to the original, did audiences successfully see that you were trying to make the "Chinese American Answer" to "Fiddler on the Roof?"

DAVID HENRY HWANG: I don't know to what degree anyone connected my FDS ("Flower Drum Song") with "Fiddler on the Roof" -- unless they read my interviews!

US ASIANS: Do you feel that your new version of Flower Drum Song was able to update and correct Asian American stereotypes often perceived within the general public - despite calling the Chinese Opera house becomes Club Chop Suey - a dish that was entirely made-up by non-Asians/Americans?

DAVID HENRY HWANG: I think, at best, a theatre piece can only go so far in updating and correcting stereotypes. If the audience enjoyed the show and related to the characters, then we helped advance the status of APAs (Asian Pacific Americans) by one small step.

US ASIANS: Recognizing that the first Flower Drum Song launched the careers of Asian American stars such as Miyoshi Umeki, Jack Soo, James Shigeta, and Nancy Kwan - were you disappointed that this didn't happen with your production?

DAVID HENRY HWANG: In general, I was disappointed that the show didn't run longer on Broadway! Had the overall production been more commercially successful, I would think that great talents such as Jodi Long, Sandy Allen, and Jose Llana would also have received their just recognition.

US ASIANS: Has M. Butterfly (a play that goes farther than works such as Jean Genet's "The Maids"), after all these years, still has a prominent role in forcing a dominant culture audience to recognize the extent to which its expectations "construct" individuals, coercing them into roles rather than allowing them to form their own identities?

DAVID HENRY HWANG: When "Butterfly" was recently revived by the Arena Stage in Washington, D.C., critics noted the play's renewed relevance in light of our current misadventure in Iraq. Toulon's line, "The Americans always like to hear how welcome they'll be" regularly elicited laughter from the audience.

US ASIANS: Do you feel that the ways in which Eastern and Western versions of racism and sexism have provided psychic underpinnings for both Euro-American imperialism in Asia and Eastern attempts to manipulate the stereotypes to political and economic advantage (as noted by many such as Edward Said who have suggested the process of which Europeans have constructed the "Orient" and "Orientals") have changed since the time that you wrote M. Butterfly?

DAVID HENRY HWANG: Again, I think Iraq proves that less has changed than we might have imagined.

US ASIANS: Remembering the words of New York playwright Alvin Eng that '"Broadway is a wasteland for us" - one wonders why this doesn't bother many others of his Asian Pacific American brethren says a lot about what has and hasn't changed in the past half-century of Asian American theater, why do think that this situation exists and the current/future status of Asian American Theater?

DAVID HENRY HWANG: Broadway is actually a wasteland for most serious playwrights, not only those of Asian descent. Your question actually addresses the current/future status of American theatre. In fact, serious drama has been a marginal presence on Broadway throughout most of my career.

US ASIANS: Do you feel that many people understood the implications behind the words you wrote where Gallimard says:
"Absolutely, you were utterly convincing. It's the first time”
"Convincing? As a Japanese woman? The Japanese used hundreds of our people for medical experiments during the war you know, but I gather such an irony is lost on you"
"No, I was about to say it's the first time I've seen the beauty of the story"
"Of her death, it's a pure sacrifice. She - he's unworthy but what can she do? She loves him so much; it’s a very beautiful story."
"Well, yes, to a westerner"
"Excuse me?"
"It's one of your favorite fantasies isn't it? The submissive Oriental woman and the cruel white man"
"Well, I didn't quite mean
"Consider it this way. What would you say if a blonde homecoming queen fell in love with a short Japanese businessman? He treats her cruelly, then goes home for three years, during which time she prays to his picture an turns down marriage from a young Kennedy, then when she learns he has remarried, she kills herself. Now, I believe you would consider this girl to be a deranged idiot, correct? But because it's an Oriental who kills herself for a westerner, all, you find it beautiful."
"Yes, well, I see your point."
"I will never do Butterfly again, Monsieur Gallimard. If you wish to see some real theater, come to the Peking Opera some time, expand your mind"
And Gallimard says: "So much for protecting her in my big western arms."

DAVID HENRY HWANG: I think the audience does grasp the irony and point of this exchange, judging by the laughs it usually elicits.

US ASIANS: Recognizing how M. Butterfly's stage was divided into worlds - the butterfly shape platform (every item/factor was Chinese - apartment, Chinese theater, four red pillars servicing as basic entrances in Chinese Opera's convention of "Chu-Jiang" and "Ru-Xiang" - etc.) where a world of fantasy existed and the off-white area (i.e. French embassy, French countryside, etc.) representing the world of reality, how much was garnered and/or influenced by working with John Lone/Mako and others in F.O.B.?

DAVID HENRY HWANG: I can't take credit for the design and production elements of the show, which were conceived and created by John Dexter and Eiko Ishioka.

A natural progression after creating successful musicals is becoming an opera librettist.
Read about his creative journey by clicking HERE.

Discover David's Viewpoints on the Wide Spectrum of Subjects by Clicking on the Below-Listed Links

Authenticity vs. Stereotypes
Frank Chin Battles
Stereotypes - David's Views

1000 Airplanes on the Roof
Chinese Railroad Workers
Dance and the Railroad
Family & Christianity
Family Devotion
Golden Child & Christianity
Origins of Interest
Rich Relations
Sound of a Voice
Steve Allen's Meeting of Minds
Trying to Find Chinatown



Critical Thinking
Cultural Symbol
Debating Issues
Ethnic Isolationism
Its Issues

2nd Marriage & Its Joys
David on Ismail Merchant
Henry Hwang (Father)
Kathryn Hwang (Wife)
Parents & Relatives
Parting Words
Personal Facts

Needed from APA Artists
From Our Communities



Days of Education & Learning
Dealing with Expectations
Failure's Particular Lessons
Inappropriate Characters
Influences & Inspirations
"Lost Empire" Experience
Pressures with Success
Role Models
Working with Lucia Hwong
Working with Philip Glass
Working with Unsuk Chin

Chinese Mafia-type Films
Desired Projects
Hello Suckers
Inspiration of China
Status of Past Projects
Texas Guinan
The Fly
Yellow Face


APA Theater Organizations
Calvin Jung
Current Status
Daring Films w/Asian Males
Definition of an APA
Ethnic Theater
Life as a Librettist (Ainadamar)
Life as a Role Model
Ms. Saigon Protest
Proteges & Artists
Recognizing APA Artists
State of Asian Women Writers
Welly Yang Learning History

Across the Nightingale Floor
Experience with Hollywood
Golden Gate & M.Butterfly
Interculturalism & Objective Truth
NBC's Lost Empire
Neal Labute's "Possession"


Its Importance
Today's APA Communities
Working with Prince

Anna May Wong
Arabella Hong-Young
Background Research
C.Y. Lee
Creative Choices
Its Importance
Original Version
Remembering Our History

Yellow Face



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