Playwright inspired by Bruce Lee's effect on the Chinese psyche

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 21 June, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 21 July, 2016, 1:19pm

The two-time Pulitzer Prize finalist behind plans to turn Bruce Lee's life into a musical says he was lured to the project by the kung fu legend's pivotal role in changing the world's perceptions of China and Chinese men.

American-born Chinese playwright David Henry Hwang has spoken for the first time about the musical, titled Bruce Lee: Journey to the West, which he hopes to premiere on New York's Broadway next year.

'In Fist of Fury, when Bruce Lee says to his Japanese opponents, 'We are not sick men', that was a huge cathartic moment for a China that for most of the 20th century thought of itself as a sick man,' Hwang said from a beach house on Fire Island, near New York, where he is spending the summer finishing the musical. 'It's the way Bruce Lee sits on that historical axis that I find fascinating. He was the first popular culture embodiment of the new way of looking at China.'

Hwang made his name on Broadway with M Butterfly (1988), for which he picked up a Tony Award and was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize for Drama. He followed that up with another Pulitzer nomination last year, for Yellow Face.

Hwang said he was also lured to the Lee legend by the man's 'fascinating contradictions'. 'Lee was interested in spiritual growth; he was very aware of what it meant to follow a spiritual path. On the other hand he wanted to be the biggest movie star in the world. Those are two paths that are almost diametrically opposed. His story is just so identifiable to people. We want to be good people, we want to pursue our spiritual lives and we want to be successful. These are conflicts we all deal with.'

Hwang, 51, is joined on the project by Tony-nominated director Bartlett Sher (South Pacific), Tony nominee David Yazbek (The Full Monty, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels), who will write the music and lyrics, and choreographer Dou Dou Huang, artistic director of the Shanghai Song and Dance Ensemble. The group recently met Lee's daughter, Shannon, for a read-through of the draft script and Hwang said her input was invaluable.

'We are trying to be accurate and respectful and also capture the spirit of the man,' he said. 'Any time you take on an icon like this it is certain that people with vested interests are not going to like the way we are doing things. But any time you make a show people are going to be offended by one aspect of it or another.'

Hwang revealed how he planned to incorporate the Chinese legend of the Monkey King into the musical. 'There are certain kinds of parallels between the Monkey King's and Bruce Lee's spirits. The Monkey King character will play narrator as well as feature in certain roles.'

Hwang will give a lecture and theatre demonstration at the University of Hong Kong on July 13.