Playwright David Henry Hwang continues his weekly report from
rehearsals opening night of the Broadway premiere of his new play CHINGLISH, which officially opened last Thursday.
If you’re a dramatist lucky enough to get a show on Broadway, you know Opening Night will be one evening you’ll never forget. I’m fortunate beyond words, because CHINGLISH was my seventh Broadway show (though only my sixth opening; I had one play that closed in previews, but we’ll save that story for another post).
CHINGLISH opened on Thursday, October 27. It’s customary to present little gifts and cards to everyone involved with the show. Weeks ago, Leigh and I had decided to give chops — you know, those Chinese name stamp things — reading “Chinglish.” Joanna had them made for us in Hong Kong, and Ken served as our tireless mule, lugging a hundred across the Pacific from his recent trip there. The last two preview performances, Leigh and I hunkered in her dressing room, listening to the show on the backstage speakers while writing thank-you cards.
October 27 dawned cold and rainy. A Broadway opening is sorta like a wedding. Friends and relatives from around the world show up to cheer you on. I got a limo and traveled with my family, first to a reception for the Goodman Theatre, which had so beautifully hosted our show in Chicago, and then to the Longacre for Joanna’s ritual burning of incense and presentation of the roast pig.
Then Leigh and I, along with my wife and our kids, dashed through the rain to the Red Carpet, where the photographers included our longtime friend and supporter, Lia Chang (her photos adorn this post). Stepping into the lobby, I bumped into Ang Lee, the master filmmaker behind such works as CROUCHING TIGER and BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN, who’s an old friend of my wife’s: they went to college together at the University of Illinois.
I made my way to my seat, wading through journalists, celebrities, producers, artistic collaborators from my previous shows, investors in this show, and more than a few faces who looked familiar, but I simply couldn’t place in all the hubbub. Finally, I settled in — across the aisle from Angela Lansbury! — and waited for the show to begin.
If you’ve read my posts from previews, you know I always watch my play from the very back of the house. Opening Night is the one time I give myself a really good seat — in this case, seventh row on the aisle — to just enjoy the show that we’ve all made together.
And a fantastic performance it was! Maybe our best yet. As the final curtain fell, photographers rushed down the aisles to snap pictures of the actors taking their bows, while we gave them a well-deserved standing ovation.
My kids went to the party first, along with my Mom and relatives. A little while later, Leigh, my wife, and I piled into a limo … and slowly realized we’d gotten into the wrong car. Arriving at the party, we confessed our mistake to the Driver, sending him back to the theatre to pick up his proper passengers: Production Stage Manager Steve Kaus and his family. (Steve later told us that his flustered Driver reported, “This Chinese guy got in — with two broads!”)
The actors arrived together, according to plan. Jerry, one of our lead producers, got on the mike and announced, “Ladies and Gentlemen, it is my honor to present, with love and respect, the cast of CHINGLISH!”
I left around 1:30 am. The actors, I am told, proceeded to an after-party …
You may have noticed that I’ve written nothing about reviews. Because I hadn’t heard anything. On Opening Night, no news is often — well, if not bad news, at least not wonderful. As it turns out, I learned the following morning that our notices were, for the most part, good to excellent: AP, TIME OUT, VARIETY, NY POST, NY MAGAZINE, NY-1, etc., as well as numerous bloggers and websites. But the NY TIMES review was — not exactly a pan, and certainly not mean, but “mixed,” or I would say, indifferent.
The truth is, this outcome was not altogether surprising to me. When our producers got involved, I advised them to be prepared for the likelihood that we’d get mostly good notices, but not the NY TIMES. My record with their current head critic, Ben Brantley, now stands at 0-6. He severely panned my musicals AIDA, FLOWER DRUM SONG, and TARZAN, and has been dismissive of my plays GOLDEN CHILD, YELLOW FACE and now, CHINGLISH.
Does this make him a bad critic? Not necessarily (though of course he hasn’t done a lot for my career). Maybe our tastes don’t match, maybe he’s not interested in my perspective, who knows? In the old days, a show lived or died on its NY TIMES review. Fortunately, with the decline of Old Media and the rise of the web, a lot has changed. AIDA went on to run five years on Broadway and become an international hit. GOLDEN CHILD was nominated for a Tony Award for Best Play, and won an Obie Award (the Off-Broadway equivalent). YELLOW FACE also won an Obie and was a Finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in Drama.
So, while we would’ve loved to have gotten raves from everyone, including the TIMES, success is still very possible. It’s just harder work. The next day, our producers met and reaffirmed their passion, faith, and determination to fight for our show. They’re working on a new TV spot, making new advertising plans, emphasizing the overwhelmingly good reviews we’ve received. I wrote in an earlier post that Broadway success ultimately depends on Word of Mouth. We believe our show has good Word of Mouth, which will build our audiences and make us a hit.
We’re determined to prove that a comedy with a mostly-Asian cast, dealing with today’s relationship between East and West, partially in Mandarin, can succeed on Broadway. So I’m appealing to YOMYOMF readers too. If you feel inclined, help us spread the word. Follow our Twitter feed @ChinglishBway. Like us on Facebook. If you’re a New Yorker, or planning a visit to NYC, come see us at the Longacre Theatre. I’ll continue this CHINGLISH JOURNAL on a periodic basis, to let you know how we’re doing, whether or not we succeed in turning our show into a hit.
The race continues.