Soft Power‘s Alyse Alan Louis on Playing Hillary Clinton (Sorta)

David Henry Hwang and Jeanine Tesori's "play with a musical" — at the Curran through July 8 — turns tropes about Chinese-American relations on their head.

(Craig Schwartz)

It’s a truism in international relations that China will overtake the United States as the world’s pre-eminent military and economic power at some point in the middle third of this century (if not sooner). But in the loose division between geopolitcal forms of dominance — in a weirdly gendered schema that equates — it remains to be seen whether China can excel at exporting pop culture the way America has since 1945.

“Soft power” is a subtler, more seductive form of domination than the “hard power” of military conquest, and David Henry Hwang and Jeanine Tesori‘s “play with a musical” of the same name (through July 8, at the Curran) inverts the premise of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s The King and I to show a different version of Sino-American relations. Rather than a teacher helping the King of Siam modernize his backward country, a Chinese film producer comes to the aid of Hillary Clinton — she of the alternate-nostril breathing and Chardonnay — in her post-2016-election recovery.

SF Weekly spoke with Alyse Alan Louis, who’s played Sophie Sheridan in Mamma Mia! and who plays both Zoe Simpson and Hillary Clinton (in the future play-within-the-play) on her performance, which is garnering strong praise.

You’re playing a universally known figure who’s been both savaged and good-naturedly parodied. Is it difficult to inhabit someone like that without caricaturing her?

In my process, I’ve definitely not looked at other impersonations of her. I haven’t looked at interviews of her and tried to be like her, because this version of Hillary Clinton is a version of a character in the musical in Soft Power, so it’s in no way an impersonation of her. I do feel, though, playing a character who is an actual figure in reality,  a sense of pressure — because I think sometimes people will come see the show and they’ll expect certain things from me. As a musical theater performer, playing this real-life person, there are musical expectations already put upon me. I’m not in any way striving for perfection; I’m striving for authenticity as I’m playing it.

This musical is timely. Are you paying attention to the news?

This musical is extremely timely. I am definitely paying attention to the news, but at the same time I feel like I am giving every cell to this musical.

The way this play was conceived was as an answer to The King an I, which has delighted people for almost 70 years but it’s more than a little bit racist. Did the creators go into this with a love of the earlier work, or do you think they maybe hate it a little bit?

I believe The King and I is a jumping-off point. It’s had its origins in so many things. When we’ve tried to piece this together as acast, there’s so many details in the process of writing it that have now led to this point. That’s only one tiny piece of this broad picture.

It’s set in China, and it’s about an American work set in Shanghai, so one culture’s representation of another nested inside the other. That doesn’t sound like it’s playing for easy laughs, so do you find yourself diving into the meta component?

The tone is something that I truly feel that, until you’re truly in the seat, it can’t really be described, because there are parts of this show that make you laugh, parts that make you cry, parts that make people walk out.

What’s offending people?

Some of the themes that we’re dealing with, the bigger ideas like gun control, like politics, like racial stereotypes, gender stereotypes, being reverent about them but also being irreverent. These are all things that make people uncomfortable, so it’s very hard to describe or give some elevator pitch of the show and that’s what’s been so exciting about it, from night to night.

As musicals go, it has a sizeable orchestra. Is that integral to the play itself?

There’s 22 pieces and the musical inside of our play that becomes a musical. We’re using the musical theater form and showing it at its finest to tell the story. I remember the first time that we all listened to the orchestra, it absolutely took our breath away.

A lot different than a bunch of ABBA songs, maybe?

Yes, very different.

Soft Power, through July 8, at the Curran Theater, 445 Geary St., tickets here.

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