Tiananmen: A New Musical Defies Genre Convention

Robrt L. PelaSeptember 1, 2023
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Tiananmen: A New Musical; Photo courtesy Tim Fuller
Tiananmen: A New Musical; Photo courtesy Tim Fuller

Tiananmen: A New Musical defies genre convention with its look at the 1989 student protest massacre. Our new culture columnist dishes with its director.

Not every musical is built to amuse or inspire. 

Recall Falsettoland, an AIDS musical with a showstopper titled “You Got to Die Some Time.” And Cabaret, about the rise of Hitler in 1930s Berlin. And Les Misérables, with a title that says it all, a story of poverty, child abuse and forced prostitution. And now, Tiananmen: A New Musical, produced by publicist Jason Rose’s Arizona-based Quixote Productions and making its world premiere in October at The Phoenix Theatre Company.

The musical, with book by Scott Elmegreen and music and lyrics by composer Drew Fornarola, depicts the 1989 student-led Tiananmen Square protests calling for democratic reform in China. Presumably, the subsequent massacre of thousands of protestors in June of that year will also be set to music here.

director Darren Lee
director Darren Lee

“I don’t feel this show represents an anti-Chinese or anti-China sentiment,” Tiananmen director Darren Lee tells me. “It’s really a depiction of events, told from both sides of the story to give it humanity and to resonate with an American audience.”

I dare to ask Lee, an American-born Chinese man, if he’d considered the post-PC trend in color-blind casting while preparing this show, which had a reading in New York in 2021. He had not.

Tiananmen is about a Chinese incident, so I felt the only appropriate thing to do was to cast with Asian actors. I saw no benefit in making this a United Colors of Benetton ad.”

He wasn’t the first to be offered the job of helming this difficult story.

“There were two other directors before me,” Lee says. “One of them decided it wasn’t his story to tell, but he meant there was a potential for retribution against his family in China if he were involved in telling this story.”

Six, seven, eight!