Asian women are seriously underrepresented in musical theater. This is what 33-year-old Angela Chan—a pianist for Phantom-The Las Vegas Spectacular, The Lion King and Jersey Boys—realized during Asian-American Heritage Month in May, when she prepared a presentation on the subject.
“We’re really limited,” she says. “We have The King and I and Miss Saigon,” shows that depict the Asian female as a harem wife and prostitute, respectively.
Chan’s revelation inspired her to create a musical that would not only feature Asian actors, but also portray strong female characters relatable to today’s audiences. She found her theme and title, Legacy of the Tiger Mother, in the Confucian term “Tiger Mother,” which describes the strict techniques of traditional Chinese parenting (recently popularized in the book Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother by Amy Chau). Since Chan had herself been raised with a strict regimen of piano training—practicing every day from age 4 and performing in 5-6 competitions per season—she decided to base her musical on her own achievement-oriented childhood.
But first she needed a writing partner.
Michael Manley plays the French horn with The Lion King—and he writes plays. Like his longtime friend, Chan, he’s always wanted to make a musical. So, they decided to work together—collaborating on the story and lyrics, while Chan wrote the music.
Jointly, they created a storyline set within a piano recital, wherein three generations come together to clash over parenting philosophies and music: Lily, a grown woman who’s always been at the mercy of her overbearing mother, is confronted with a difficult decision when her own young daughter asserts her independence, choosing to play Beethoven’s “Moonlight Sonata” instead of the more technically complex piece that was expected of her. (To get an idea of Legacy’s tone, watch a rehearsal of the hilarious song “Lazy White Children” at YouTube.com/CalamityChan.)
Manley began by contending with a limited budget: The story had to be contained within a single act and could feature only two actors. They decided that the young daughter would be present in off-stage voice only, and flashbacks reveal the history of Lily’s relationship with her mother.
Then Manley began writing. And a whole new challenge, unique to this particular project and reflecting the cultural disparity within the story, emerged. Manley—of Irish and German descent and raised by typical American parents—hadn’t anticipated the complications that the Tiger Mother’s stringency would present. When he devised a plan to have Lily speak with an off-stage therapist, in order to simplify exposition, Chan quickly cut him off: “She wouldn’t see a therapist.” Asians are taught to cope with adversity and accept the resulting emotional trauma. “The only Asians that are in therapy are the therapists,” Chan says.
When he wrote a scene wherein Lily’s mother opens up emotionally, Chan explained that, while she might do this, it wouldn’t be in front of her daughter. Later, during rehearsals, when he noted that Lily’s mother wasn’t coming off sympathetic enough, he was overruled. Chan, as well as director Lysander Abadia and actors Celeste Lero and Christine De Chavez (all Asian), insisted that was as it should be. The staunch façade inherent to the Asian culture presented severe limitations within the public piano-recital setting, and the stage show on the whole. Manley grew frustrated:
How was he to create a successful show with unsympathetic characters incapable of expressing themselves? Ultimately, the music saved them. When Chan composed her ballads, it was not only to further the story but to set mood, unearth buried conflict and articulate emotion where the characters could not.
In an ironic turn, the cultural differences that worked to complicate the plot would also expedite the writing process. Chan’s disciplined upbringing had her enforcing strict deadlines on her partner. “I was totally being Tiger-Mothered in a way,” Manley says, which naturally led him to a more intimate understanding of the characters he was creating. The Tiger Mother approach to play production also helped procure Legacy of the Tiger Mother’s international reception. In addition to premiering in Vegas, the show will run at the Times Square International Theater Festival in New York in January and at Australia’s Adelaide Fringe Festival in March.
Finally, the influence of a wholly American writer would assure the universality of the dramatic-comedy—which is, essentially, a story about family. While the term Tiger Mother is credited to Asian culture, Chan and Manley point to the behaviors of other mothers, such as those of Jewish and Italian families, when they say that their story—of discipline in the name of love, and a daughter’s struggle for her mother’s approval—is one of worldwide appeal.