Lyrics: David Henry Hwang
Music & Additional Lyrics: Jeanine Tesori
“What is this America?”, a phrase on the lips of the globe. Two years ago, lyricist & writer David Henry Hwang teamed with composer Jeanine Tesori to create Soft Power, a reversal of the perceived status-quo and keeping an eye on democracy in America, from a Chinese perspective and (slight) first-hand account of Hwang’s experiences upon arriving into the States. This mastered cast recording of the production contains all fourteen tracks (overture & instrumentals included), and though capturing moments of Soft Power’s heavier pangs of emotion and satire – it struggles to reflect the quality of the show.
An infusion of American ballads, to a composition considerably of Chinese influence, there’s a sublime marriage in intervals for the album, as Tesori’s overarching score shifts naturally between short interludes, expositional numbers and even a take on a traditional ‘protest’ song in track twelve with The New Silk Road. Vocally, Conrad Ricamora carries the album, with the ensemble bolstering small-scale numbers with witty, semantical lyrics, and holding them higher than the traditional listener might pick-up. Soft Power’s album, like the production, has flaring sparks of undeniable wit, attempting to stand-out against a sea of bland which sadly makes up a bulk of the album.
For the album to strike out on its own, without the necessary visual clues, it doesn’t manage to grasp attention or melody in its own right until track seven and the introduction of Election Night. Here, the narrative takes a turn, and the pieces which have been mulling around come together with clear direction. One of the album’s stand-out numbers, it draws much of its potential from the ensemble, turning Election Night into a slow, steady build with a stark twist, much like the election night of 2016. This and the preceding number I’m With Her, sung by our dear near-president Hillary Clinton are stand-outs, but suspicions lurk that the latter suffers without visual accompaniment.
Clinton is a major role within the show, portrayed in a starkly different manner, or rather a severely satirical incarnation. Alyse Alan Louis has a tremendous voice, which delivers character as well as vocal precision, capturing the humour within I’m With Her, which traditionally is staged in a McDonald’s. Her harmony with Ricamora can be best heard in Happy Enough, a sombre, reflective number highlighting the ludicrous expectations placed on women presidential candidates. The latter half of Soft Power’s recording leans into the issues of race, and the deconstruction of America’s idealistic views, offering richer substance than the first half.
Communicating merit, the album captures Hwang’s themes of racism, cultural appropriation, and expectations, but as a collective, fails to convey a flowing narrative, breaking off or trailing away following a filler song or instrumental segment. As a collective, earlier numbers serve to build a relationship with the audience, particularly Dutiful and Fuxing Park which present a wealth of nostalgia and emotion but provide little in the way of staying power as solitary numbers.
Soft Power enables America to dance to the tune China whistles, a reversal of a state-wide ideology and grinding against the traditional theatrical numbers found within musical royalties Rodger & Hammerstein and The King & I. There’s a ripple of comradery, beneath the unpleasant truth of our reliance on democracy, abjectly dismissing its incredible short-falls, and perhaps this is a key issue with the lyrics – Soft Power’s narrative already benefits from multiple viewings, or an in-depth watch and so the album suffers, unable to forge an authentic representation of the production.
Soft Power Original cast Album is available from Ghostlight Records now