From tuxedos to 'Tarzan'

As a Chinese-American, David Henry Hwang is used to being tugged at by dueling identities.

But the playwright is bifurcated in another way, too. He knows life in the pop lane, having written screenplays and the book to Broadway shows like "M. Butterfly" (a Tony Award winner) and Disney's "Aida." He is penning the story for Disney's theatrical version of "Tarzan," with songs by pop singer Phil Collins. But Hwang also has written award-winning straight plays and opera libretto.

"It's hard to think of another artist who's worked with Elton John and Philip Glass," says Mr. Hwang, chuckling, as he speaks by phone from his home in New York.

"I sort of get a kick out of it," he says of moving between high and pop culture.

His ease may have come from having immigrants as parents, he says. "I grew up just sort of freshly absorbing whatever Western, American cultural influences came into my sphere without any preconceptions from my parents about how I was supposed to process them."

He currently is collaborating with Mr. Glass on "The Sound of a Voice," an opera receiving its world première this month at the American Repertory Theatre in Cambridge, Mass. The words are based on two one-act plays Hwang wrote 20 years ago. To turn them into opera libretti, he pared them down to match the minimalist texture of Glass's music.

In the first act, based on Japanese folk tales, a wandering Japanese warrior meets a woman living alone in the woods. Is she a witch trying to ensnare him or a lonely recluse longing for friendship? Is he there to rest or to kill her? In the second act, the madam of a modern-day Japanese brothel befriends an elderly customer. Again, the identities of the man and woman are unclear. He is a journalist who may be writing a story that will put her out of business. She is drugging her girls and clients, but why?

The plays are "about loneliness and solitude and the inability of men and women to connect," he says. Hwang set them in Japan, because when he wrote them in the early 1980s, his native China was still largely closed off to the West.

"Both these pieces are influenced by a lot of reading of Japanese literature I was doing in those days," he says.

"Sound of a Voice" marks his third project with Glass. "We get along really well. We have a nice track record in producing pieces that we're both proud of. A lot of my work is about the coming together of different worlds. And I feel that Philip's music takes one to a transcendent place where the differences between seemingly unlike worlds start to feel not so significant."

Hwang cites as evidence Glass's film score for "The Hours," which earned Glass an Oscar nomination earlier this year. The film chronicles a day in the life of three women at different periods in the 20th century, one of whom is Virginia Woolf. The score "takes those three very different stories and, I think, is successful in weaving into one reality a film which could have been somewhat choppier."

In "Sound of a Voice," Hwang says, the tempo shifts and key changes that Glass makes in the music "correspond very nicely to where I feel there are important changes and transitions taking place within the characters."

Earlier this year, Hwang's heavily rewritten, updated version of Rodgers and Hammerstein's "Flower Drum Song" closed on Broadway after lukewarm reviews and a short run. Though disappointed that it wasn't a hit, he is philosophical about it.

"It was a labor of love, and something I'd worked on for about six years, and so I got a lot of satisfaction out of getting to bring the show back to Broadway," he says. "And it was really the best time I've ever had doing a Broadway show."

Despite the short run, "Flower Drum Song" received three Tony Award nominations, including one for Hwang for "best book for a musical." And it will start a national tour this fall.

"This a piece that was gathering dust on the shelf," he says.

Considered to be one of the lesser works of the famed Broadway team, the musical seemed hopelessly outdated, full of unflattering stereotypes of Chinese-Americans. Hwang thinks that was one of the reasons why the Rodgers and Hammerstein organization let him rewrite the story.

"I think the piece now has some life," he says. "So I take some satisfaction from that."

Hwang hopscotches from pop back to classical in August with the première of "Ainadamar," a "meditation" on the death of Spanish playwright Frederico Garcia Lorca, for which Hwang wrote the libretto.

The music is by Argentine-American composer Osvaldo Golijov, who created the widely praised "La Pasion Segun San Marcos." It will be performed by soprano Dawn Upshaw at Tanglewood, the home of the Boston Symphony Orchestra in western Massachusetts.

Careening back the other direction, Hwang says "Tarzan" should hit Broadway in "two or three years." Pop tunesmith Collins "has written a bunch of new songs" that "I'm melding into the book right now."

Though "Tarzan" is thought of as a simple adventure story, the underlying message has to do with finding one's true identity. It's about "being caught between two worlds and trying to decide which one you belong to - or both - trying to incorporate those two sides of yourself," Hwang says. That's a theme, he concedes, "I'm comfortable with."

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