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Having His Way with Words

Courtesy Writers and Artists Agency

HWANG: A meteoric rise and still burning bright.

By Ginny McCormick

For playwright David Henry Hwang, M. Butterfly was a tough act to follow. It won him Broadway’s top prize, the Tony Award, in 1988. New Yorker critic Edith Oliver called Hwang the most “audacious, imaginative, gifted” young playwright in America, and Time’s William Henry said that he could be the next Arthur Miller. The film version came out in 1993 and reaped still wider attention.

Hwang, ’79, had gone far fast. He wrote and staged his first play, FOB (“fresh off the boat”), in his Stanford dorm. Soon after, the legendary Joseph Papp produced it in New York, and Hwang —then 23 and attending drama school at Yale—took the Obie for best new off-Broadway play. A stream of new works, produced by Papp, followed. One flopped. Then came Butterfly.

The acclaim was heady stuff. But in 1994, Hwang told an interviewer he was dealing with the aftermath: “people being disappointed in what you do after a big success.” True, he has failed to wow at the box office once or twice. But mostly he’s kept to an upward trajectory, even while delving into new territory—librettos for Philip Glass, musicals, TV productions and non-Asian material. He co-wrote the book for Disney’s current Broadway hit, Aida, and the screenplay for A.S. Byatt’s Possessions, due out in February and starring Gwyneth Paltrow. He transformed the beloved 16th-century Chinese novel Journey to the West into The Lost Empire, a TV miniseries that debuted on NBC last March. He also wrote a play about artist Paul Gauguin.

But what has really snapped critics to attention lately is Hwang’s rewrite of the politically incorrect Rogers & Hammerstein show Flower Drum Song. Despite a slew of memorable songs (“Love, Look Away,” “I Enjoy Being a Girl,” “A Hundred Million Miracles”), the original Flower faded after its introduction in 1958 because of its stereotypical portrayal of Chinese. Hwang had to solve the problem of keeping the music while—in his words—writing “the book Oscar Hammerstein would have written if he had been a Chinese-American.”

By all accounts, he’s succeeded by creating a show-within-a-show that was five years in the making. The musical’s scheduled short run at the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles (until January 13) has been deemed a success by critics from L.A. to the Big Apple, and a Broadway run is widely predicted. It looks as though Hwang hasn’t peaked yet.

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