Timothy Huang on Theatre-Making as a Chinese-American Composer/Lyricist
BY JASMINE SHARMA
Timothy Huang has a full portfolio of musicals in all lengths, articles, song cycles and blog posts. He is a 2012 Dramatist Guild Fellow and now serves on the Dramatist Guild Council. He is a member of the BMI Lehman Engel Musical Theatre Workshop. He is no stranger to the New York Musical Theatre Festival. Sometimes he does collaborations, sometimes he’s wins a bunch of awards. Long story short, he writes a lot, and writes very very well.
Huang talked about his work, its relevance, and the delicate balance of being Asian and being American when composing and writing.
Why theatre? How did you get started?
“I started off in theatre through music lessons. My parents made me play the piano as a kid because I’m Chinese…and that’s what happens. Through piano I learned how I liked to sing and it was through singing how I learned I liked theatre…I studied acting in college and I acted for like, 2 years, and transitioned into writing from there.”
Why New York?
“I’m from Delaware originally. When I was in high school, I had a friend who did theatre and we always played opposite each other in shows and she wanted to go to college for acting and my parents didn’t know how to do that. I mean, they didn’t object to it, but they didn’t know, and her parents did. And so her mom said ‘look at this school!’ and ‘this is how you audition and apply!’ and we both ended up at NYU.”
What comes first - the music or lyrics?
“It’s different every time. I think before any songwriting happens, I’m thinking about story? And story is usually derived from a bigger idea. In the full length that we worked on together, Costs of living (Retitled to American Morning), the idea was the marginalization of the working class and about how in this country, language fluency equals class. Once I knew that was what the hook was, every song took that to the next level.”
“I have a piece coming up this summer at the The Samuel French Off Off Broadway Short Play Festival. That piece is called Koi Story* and it’s about this caucasian woman who’s got an Asian daughter, and her husband is Japanese and has passed away…the daughter is 13 and knows very little about her parent culture. Her mom doesn’t feel like she really has any authority to introduce that to her yet she has this crazy obligation, this responsibility. This sorta came about as I was thinking how these days we’re in a “call-out culture”, where somebody wants to write about something they don’t know a whole lot about is being told they shouldn't do that, when really what they should be -in my opinion anyway- is be encouraged to do so, and ask questions and ask for guidance. These are things in the air and world right now, so that story sprung from that. It starts with, ‘What am i trying to say?’ That informs the narrative which informs the songwriting.”
*(Koi Story goes up Wednesday August 22, and if it wins the day, it will go up again that Saturday, August 26.)
Are there Social or Political events right now that you think will inspire ideas for your next story?
“Everything…I don’t even know where to start.
I mean, corralling children, and putting them in cages. This false notion that somehow that isn’t deplorable, but professional athletes kneeling at the nation anthem is this huge offense. All of it. Every day since the November election of 2016 has had me going nuts.”
How do you feel about the artist’s role in creating theatre that take audiences from their own world versus addressing the world head on?
“I’ve always maintained that there are two different types of art. There’s a kind that’s designed to help you forget, and then there’s the kind that’s designed to make sure you never forget. I think there’s plenty of room for both, I happen to be better suited to do the latter.”
You have such a large body of work. Is there a piece that you’ve written that’s become relevant again?
“Peter and the Wall, which nobody was talking about. I wrote that as a Dramatist Guild Fellow, and at the time, the decision for marriage equality hadn’t come down yet and it’s very much about that. I’m really curious to see what it’s next relevance will be, because on one hand, I was writing about marriage equality because it was important, and on the other hand, it’s never not going to be important. There’s always going to be a baker that refuses to bake a cake. The whole flip side of it is it’s told in tandem with a real person who dedicated his life to building a much needed wall to protect his town, his mayor. The entire time I was writing it, the notion of building a wall was a positive thing. Now it’s this horrible demonized thing. For every step forward, there’s this element of NO! NO! NO! I don't know if it’ll ever see the light of day, but if it does, I’m curious to see what it’s relevance would be.”
How do you feel about the role of cross cultural theatre making with and against commercial theatre? Is there a difference?
I think whenever you do cross cultural things in commercialized theatre you always run the risk of having it be fetishized. the larger gain is that more people will be curious and see it. it depends on what you want out of it?
I went to see something a million years ago. The claim was that, ‘you’ll see a play in Mandarin and english, and you won’t be aware you were watching something in two different languages, even if you only speak one.”
I went and I was like, ‘this makes absolutely no sense to me.’
But it was clear they were adhering to Chinese storytelling and costume designs and all sorts of stuff. But it was lost on me, and that’s because I was born in the United States. As far as theatre making goes, they wanted what they wanted, but it was a steep learning curve. I don’t regret seeing it, I just didn’t understand it.”
How do you handle making stories being American born but still coming from China, therefore representing a Chinese-American view? Do you feel a responsibility to write certain types of work?
“The age old question.
I feel like it is my responsibility, but I elected that responsibility. From a very early point in my career, i decided that was what my job was going to be. The years that I spent acting-my track was musical theatre-there were very few ensemble roles for dudes like me that weren’t Miss Saigon, The King and I, or Flower Drum Song…I ended up doing a lot of new stuff, experimental, devised, new musicals about Asian American history. And that was fun, but wasn't great. We achieved the objective of putting Asian faces on the stage, but we haven't achieved the objective of proving we are capable of making American theatre…I decided that’s what I wanted to do. I don't think someone who looks like me should ever feel the responsibility to do that, but i do on the other hand, somebody who doesn't look like me who wants to do that should act responsibly, and ask.”
Every 10 years, everything shifts. Based on changes from 10 years ago to today, what are you hoping for the next shift to bring?
“Oh Jeez. I did not love the Mean Girls Musical, but what was remarkable was that in certain numbers, when the whole ensemble was onstage, and they all had to play girls or they all had to play boys, the were, meaning they were in drag half the time. We’re so aware of gender orientation and presentation, but oh man, wouldn’t it be great if we could do that and it isn’t to make any statement? Maybe we’re already getting there, but I want to see more of that. If we’re okay with people of color being in our ensembles as we are -in fact, demanding it- we should be okay in narrative presenting without the intention of drag, but just being as is.”
When you’re not creating art what are you doing?
(Let it be known, Mr. Huang has the newest shift model, and it is sophisticated and versatile. And shiny.)
Guilty pleasure musical?
“Aspects of Love…I don’t know man. I think the music is lovely.
I like that it takes taboo things and says f*#^ you. In my 40s I have a deeper respect for Sir Andrew Lloyd Weber. I love that show so much.”
You can keep up with Timothy at www.TimothyHuang.net.
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