When director Chay Yew was invited to direct an Encores! musical at New York City Center, the show he wanted to do was The Light in the Piazza. Yew remembers seeing the pre-Broadway production all the way back at the Intiman Theatre in Seattle in 2003. “I always thought the score was so hypnotic, so gorgeous, so transcendent. So it always stayed with me,” says Yew.
The Light in the Piazza is based on a 1960 novella by Elizabeth Spencer, and follows a Southern woman named Margaret Johnson and her daughter Clara as they are visiting Florence, Italy for the first time. Yew wanted to “reframe the musical in a different sort of way. Not too radically, but from an Asian point of view.” So who better to help him than Tony winner Ruthie Ann Miles, alongside newcomer Anna Zavelson as Clara. In advance of the start of rehearsals, Yew and Miles talked about re-envisioning this modern classic. The Light in the Piazza runs June 21-25.
Why did you want to do The Light in the Piazza?
Ruthie Ann Miles: When Chay said he wanted to put an Asian-American family in it, I said “Sign me up.” Chay wanted to show the otherness of Asian Americans, not just in America, but what happens when the others are in another country, when the otherness is doubly amplified? It’s fascinating to me, because every immigrant story is a little bit different, but we’re also very much the same. My mother and I came to America at the same time. So that makes me both first generation and the immigrant generation, at age five. Because of the age I immigrated to the States and the classes I had to take to catch up over the subsequent years, I have no accent—I’ve assimilated perfectly because of the erasure that I put against my immigrant self, and that’s not something I am now proud of. It’s quite complicated. So Chay and I talk about that a lot. I think it’s really important.
It’s fascinating that we don’t have to change anything about The Light in the Piazza to tell the story of this immigrant family: how this child was brought up, the reasons Margaret put these walls up in herself. I think all of it is very clear without pushing that, you know, weird Tiger Mom/immigrant persona. We don’t have to do that. And I think a lot of lines in the show are going to punch differently for the audience, simply by nature of what we look like. It’s fascinating and it is exciting. And Chay is a very, very smart director.
Chay Yew: We did some research and found out that there was a Korean immigration wave in the early 1900s. And Ruthie being Korean, it all worked out beautifully. And back in the ’50s, women being isolated, being the perfect housewife—compounded by the fact that Margaret is now Asian and Asian in the South—made for an interesting entree into this musical, and how coming to Italy allows her to see a world outside of the one that she was living in in the South.
In The Light in the Piazza, Margaret keeps a positive face while hiding many secrets. Do you think that taps into something relatable to Asian Americans?
Miles: That’s certainly there. She’s proving herself, and proving her worth, and showing outwardly that she’s not so different, that she and her daughter belong. Maybe that’s something most people think about, but certainly somebody with an immigrant mentality such as our Margaret Johnson.
Yew: And also the responsibility and the guilt. She feels so much responsibility for this child. So the notion of mother and child plus the idea of race on top of this whole thing is huge. And with a marriage that’s not going anywhere, and she’s probably the only Asian in North Carolina, I think it’s deeply, deeply isolating. And to come to this country, Italy, is just as isolating. But what is different is she can see her child blossom, and see a reflection of herself. Seeing Clara fall in love and see the world differently means that at some point, Margaret finds a light of her own. That’s why she sings “Fable”; there’s a realization at some point that what is written sometimes may not be truthful, sometimes you have to find your own truth. And you’ve got to take the leap.
Ruthie, how has your own motherhood impacted the way you explore more mature roles like Margaret or the Beggar Woman in Sweeney Todd?
Miles: I am a caregiver by nature. I think that is maybe amplified further because I am a mom. And if you’re hungry, I’ve got snacks. If you hit your knee, I’ve got Band-Aids. I think on stage, what actually translates is who my deepest core person is—not just as a mother, but as Ruthie, I’m ready to embrace and ready to care for and ready to love. And I hope that my company members feel that, specifically Anna. I specifically hope that she will feel that from me, and I know that I will be relying on her to give that to me—not as Margaret Johnson, but as Ruthie.
I think doing this musical that’s set in the ’50s is also a way to show that Asians Americans have existed for a long time. We didn’t just arrive.
Yew: That’s right. That’s why I love the celebration of musicals like these. Our cast has a lot of people of color, which I love—to give everyone the opportunity; that they can do these musicals that are usually not written for them and find a way in without changing the musical radically. Musicals like these, and great works of art in the theater, the best ones are the most malleable. You can always reinterpret them.
I’m not intending to change anything about the musical, not even a single word. But when you see Ruthie come in, it just refracts in a beautiful way. You can actually see the musical anew, and yet maintain what you know of it.