First, a committee winnows down the number of scripts under consideration; then the mentors get five or six plays each and choose the one that speaks most to them. Hwang admits that receiving the stack can be daunting. "I think, 'Oh, do I have to do this?' " he moans. "Then, when I get into the plays, I see why they were chosen. It's kind of exciting to see good work by people you don't know -- to find out that the form still has life, that young people are still engaging in it and finding new things. Young people may not be as interested in theater as they were 40 years ago, but they're sure more interested than they were 20 years ago, when Broadway didn't have enough musicals to nominate. Pop entertainment and media culture are all-pervasive now, so people who are looking to express something that doesn't fit into a certain mold often find that in theater. It's a place to have an individual voice."
Once a mentor has chosen a play and playwright, what exactly does he do? "React to the material and maybe give some practical advice about going through the production process," Hwang says. "We're just there to give good feedback that allows the writer to discover his or her own play. At times, you feel like saying, 'You know, you could stick that scene over there.' But that would be writing the play for the playwright, which isn't what this process is about." He smiles: "Though it is hard to resist making a suggestion, so I go into a gray area where I ask leading questions."
Hwang didn't have the benefit of a Cherry Lane program when he was starting out, but he feels that he had something similar: When he arrived in New York from Stanford at 22, fresh off the plane with his play FOB (Fresh off the Boat) in hand, he almost immediately got it aired at the O'Neill. "Then," he says, "I was really fortunate that Joe Papp gave me a home at the Public. Between 1980 and 1985, he did four plays of mine, and even though two were only one-acts, I got the chance to grow as a playwright." That's one reason why he's giving back now.
His first brush with theater actually took place in an orchestra pit; as a violinist, he has more than once played the opening strains of Fiddler on the Roof. So he had a familiarity with musicals before he took on the book-writing assignments for Aida, Flower Drum Song, and now Tarzan. "I knew very little about Tarzan growing up," he says of the new project. "When Disney asked if I'd be interested, I wondered, 'What's the real story of Tarzan?' It's the second-most filmed title in history -- Dracula is the first -- but all I knew was a guy in a loincloth swinging on vines, Cheetah, and Bo Derek. So I went back to [original author Edgar Rice] Burroughs. I expected racist depictions of African natives, and yes, those are in the book. But what surprised me was that, at the heart, if you strip away the epic thing, it's really an intimate story about a guy who's born into one family but has this vague sense, because he doesn't look like everybody else, that he has some other history. He has no way to access that until this English expedition comes, and that brings him face to face with an identity crisis. He's got one foot in each world, and he has to reconcile the opposing parts of his past in order for him to move forward. It's not completely unrelated to what I write when I do the Asian-American plays, it's just in a different context."
He admits to having a stagestruck moment on the project: "There was the thrill of, 'Wow, I get to meet Phil Collins!' Even better is that Phil has been so active in the process. It's different from working with Elton John," he says, without elaborating on the well-known fact that John more or less mails in his music and then attends the opening. "Phil knows theater," Hwang comments. "Did you know he was the Artful Dodger in a revival of Oliver! that starred Barry Humphries (a/k/a Dame Edna) as Fagin?"
As for Flower Drum Song, Hwang says, "I loved doing it, and I loved the show that came out of it. People got mad at me with a 'How-dare-he-rewrite-Rodgers-and-Hammerstein' argument. I understand that, but people who go on record saying how wonderful the original Flower Drum Song was should produce it. The original text still exists; [my version] just puts another choice out there."
David H. Lewis writes in his new book, Flower Drum Songs, about the 1958 Rodgers and Hammerstein original and Hwang's 2002 revisal, that Hwang refused his request for an interview. Says Hwang, "My side of the story is that he e-mailed me some questions after he'd finished interviewing everybody else -- and I e-mailed back answers, saying I'd be happy to speak with him further. I never heard from him again." Will he read the book? "I'm not really that masochistic," Hwang replies, then stops and thinks again. "I am a little curious about it. It's impressive that a whole book was inspired by a show that only ran five months. I guess it's not out of the question that I'll read it."
[To contact Peter Filichia directly, e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org]
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