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Their Voices Wouldn't Be Silenced

'Beijing Spring' draws musical inspiration from Tiananmen Square's pro-democracy protest.

May 09, 1999|JAN BRESLAUER | Jan Breslauer is a regular contributor to Calendar

The musical is often seen as a sunny, singularly optimistic art form, but in fact the American musical has never really been all sweetness and light. As far back as landmark early works like "Show Boat," "Oklahoma!" and "Carousel," an undeniable dark side has pervaded the seemingly frothy medium. And since the late 1950s, Stephen Sondheim has been taking this tendency even further, into more morally ambiguous terrain. Similarly, contemporary works like "Kiss of the Spider Woman" have found inspiration in such unlikely subjects as political imprisonment.

Indeed, in recent years darkness has supplanted nostalgia in many major musicals about the early part of this century--"Ragtime," "Parade" and "Floyd Collins" all cast a doubtful eye, reexamining that period through the prism of '90s skepticism and millennial anxiety. Given this, it should come as little surprise that East West Players--known of late for its devotion to the work of Sondheim, among others--would choose to present a new musical inspired by one of the most notorious events in recent history: the 1989 crackdown on pro-democracy student demonstrations in China's Tiananmen Square.

"I knew people might think we're crazy, but the events that happened at Tiananmen Square seemed like they would really lend themselves to a musical," says lyricist Tim Dang, who is also East West's artistic director. "A lot of times when people ask what's up at East West and we say, 'We're doing a musical about Tiananmen Square,' they go, 'Oh my gosh, how can you do something like that?' "

Still, the notoriously violent aspects of the Tiananmen events are only part of the story, which is why Dang and composer Joel Iwataki were inspired to create "Beijing Spring." The musical opens Wednesday at East West Players, co-directed by Dang and Deborah Nishimura and timed to commemorate the 10th anniversary of the student uprising as well as Asian Pacific Heritage Month.

"The movement was actually started at least two months before the actual crackdown on June 3 or 4," explains Dang, seated in the living room of his stylish Silver Lake hills home one recent day. "That's why we're opening it in May, to bring attention to the subject."

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Dang got the germ for the idea of "Beijing Spring" while watching television coverage of the uprising. "I was glued to the set every night in 1989, and I was just moved by it," he recalls. "A lot of people say, well, maybe it's because I'm Chinese. I say, you know, I'm a fourth-generation American. But I could really identify with what they were trying to do."

Two years later, in 1991, Dang was working with Iwataki on "Canton Jazz Club," another original musical produced at East West Players. At the time, Dang was a member of the pioneering Asian American company; he did not take the helm until 1993. Dang broached the idea of a piece about Tiananmen with the composer, who shared his enthusiasm.

"I've always been interested in the government of China and how much they've accomplished in 50 years of Communist [rule]," says Iwataki, a third-generation Japanese American. "Of course, there have been terrible tragedies, but I've always had great hope for the country. So I was very excited to see this huge country, which is one-fifth the population of the world, moving toward democracy finally."

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In 1992, Dang applied for and received a $10,000 grant for the project from the city of L.A.'s Cultural Affairs Department, and "Beijing Spring" was on its way. He already had a cache of clippings and books on the subject, and these materials proved an excellent starting point.

He and Iwataki didn't limit their explorations to contemporary material, however. "When we were doing research, we found pro-femocracy movements as early as the 1200s in China," says Dang. "So we wanted to put in the show that this was not the first time. But because of the mass media, it was broadcast all over the world, which is why a lot of people were so aware of what happened."

Inspired by this diverse source material, Dang and Iwataki came up with a fictional scenario for the piece. "It was something that we totally created in terms of this one dissident, and following that dissident and his family," Dang says. "We involve three generations of revolutionaries--son, father and grandfather--all of whom were dissidents, or part of some kind of freedom movement, during their time."

The collaborators also managed to contact some of the Tiananmen participants, including one former Beijing University student then living in Hayward, Calif. "This was in '92, and he was one of the top 10 most-wanted dissidents, and he gave us a lot of information," Dang says.

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