Tony Award-winning playwright/Offender David Henry Hwang (M. BUTTERFLY) is in rehearsals for his new play KUNG FU, which has its World Premiere at the Signature Theatre in New York on February 24. This is the first of his weekly blog series giving our readers a glimpse into the rehearsal process for KUNG FU. Read previous entries here.
On Tuesday, we did our first run-through of the entire show. As I’ve written in previous posts, KUNG FU consists not only of scenes but numbers – fighting and dances, underscored with music. The amount of work often requires that various components be created separately. We have two rehearsal rooms going at almost all times. Leigh might be rehearsing a scene, while Sonia’s working on dances in another space, Jamie might be teaching Chinese Opera, or dialect coach Deb Hecht could be coaching actors on the authenticity of their accents. Like a movie, we’ve rehearsed many elements out of sequence. So putting everything together from the first time is exciting – and teaches us a lot.
The run-through went surprisingly smoothly. All the preparation of our show’s various parts, plus the cast’s dedication and hard work, paid off. We didn’t have to stop once. Afterwards, the creative team – including Leigh, Sonya, fight director Manny, Leigh’s assistant Alan Muraoka, and Sonya’s associate Al Blackstone – huddled to discuss what we’d learned.
In traditional musicals, the script (called the “book”) is critical to a show’s success or failure. Many musicals have beautiful songs, amazing dances, and spectacle-like design elements. But without a compelling narrative and characters, all the other elements, however well-done, fail to connect with each other – and therefore, with an audience. When the book of a musical works, we hardly notice it – we’re too busy enjoying the songs, dances, and performances. When a musical fails, however, it’s often because the book didn’t work.
Though ours is a “danci-cal,” with movement and fighting numbers rather than songs, similar principles apply. After the run-through, we decided there was one too many dance numbers in the first act. We risked losing track of the story. So we cut a sequence where Bruce was training his students – despite the fact that the dance itself was exciting and beautifully executed. Often, individual elements have to be altered or sacrificed to make the show more effective as a whole.
We made a number of other smaller changes based on the first run-through. This will becoming increasingly part of the process going forward. Each run-through will teach us more about the show we’re making: what’s working, what’s falling short, what we need to improve. This is our last week in the rehearsal halls. As we do our work, designers, technicians, and crew members are building our set and hanging our lights – in preparation for moving onto the stage itself.