For 20 years, Leigh Silverman has built an impressive directing career in New York and across the country. Since her Off-Broadway debut with 2004’s Well at the Public Theater (which she would restage for Broadway two years later), Silverman has helmed five Broadway and over 30 Off-Broadway productions.
Her Broadway credits include Chinglish, The Lifespan of a Fact, and Grand Horizons, among others, and her sixth Broadway show is this season’s new musical Suffs, which Silverman brings to the Music Box Theatre following its Public Theater premiere in 2022.
Her awards nods include a Tony nomination for her work on the 2014 revival of Violet and two Drama Desk nominations, one for directing the play From Up Here in 2008 and the other for the musical Soft Power. The latter happens to be the show that came to mind for Silverman when Broadway’s Best Shows asked about her most challenging work to date. See what she had to say about the difficult project, and her eye towards its future… 👀
This interview has been edited for clarity and concision.
Broadway’s Best Shows: What has been your most challenging work to date?
Leigh Silverman: This is such an interesting question because every project is rife with its own unique, amazing challenges. I love challenge when it is artistic in nature and forces my collaborators and me to imaginatively and rigorously grapple.
The most challenging work, using this framework, would be Soft Power, a musical I directed at the Ahmanson Theater in 2018 followed by a run at the Curran in San Francisco and was then produced at the Public Theater in 2019.
BBS: What was so difficult about this project?
LS: This musical had been a dream of David Henry Hwang’s, with music by Jeanine Tesori, and was a true exploration/investigation of what is “possible” in musical theater. David wanted to write a play that would shatter when the character of DHH is stabbed (a hate crime that did happen to the real David), and then the play would replay/transform into a musical complete with a full orchestra. He loved the structure of Anne Washburn’s iconic play, Mr. Burns, and in his own spin wanted to create an inverse to Rodgers and Hammerstein’s The King and I. So in his musical Soft Power, America’s struggles are musicalized through a futuristic Chinese musical lens.
We faced challenges in tone and style as we tried to bend and twist and subvert and articulate why we love musicals, and why, even when they are so very problematic and racist, they still have the power to move us so deeply. All this while commenting on China’s possible future point of view about America as told through musical theater and thereby exerting their “soft power.”
BBS: How did you address and/or resolve the challenges?
LS: We worked tirelessly. We love musical theater and wanted to make an exciting piece of musical theater that honored the form while interrogating it. We wanted to explicitly address the brutal and constant racism Asian Americans face. We worked and worked and worked and at one point Jeanine said to David, “David! Put your pancreas on the table!” That’s how hard we were all working.
BBS: Are you proud of the result?
LS: Extremely. But also it is unfinished.
BBS: Is there anything you would do differently with the benefit of hindsight?
LS: The world has changed significantly since 2019 and I believe, when we get back to it, there will be fresh ideas and energy for reinvestigating David’s incredible vision.