Musical based on 13th century Chinese romantic comedy coming to Poway
【《We Chinese in America》Media Editor Hugh Wang, January 6, 2023】 Following article from San Diego Union Tribune, January 4, 2023.
Judith and Howard Rubenstein’s travels in China in 1984 had a big impact on them.
The trip inspired Howard Rubenstein to create “Romance of the Western Chamber - the Musical.” The family friendly show can be seen at 7 p.m. Jan. 7 and 2 p.m. Jan. 8 in the Poway Center for the Performing Arts.
“We had a wonderful time, were impressed by the beauty and culture of China and the warmth of its people,” Judith Rubenstein recalled about the trip.
It also made her late husband realize that while the La Jolla couple knew plays written in French, Italian, Spanish, German, ancient Greek and Russian, they were not familiar with any Chinese plays, she said.
“He asked, ‘How come we do not know Chinese plays? It is a great culture,’” she recalled.
After 40 years as a physician, in his retirement Howard became a self-taught playwright. He wrote 10 plays, with several presented on local stages, and many books. After their trip to China he decided to find a Chinese play, write an adaptation for the Western stage and turn it into a musical even though he did not speak Chinese or know how to compose music, his widow said.
The result: “Romance of the Western Chamber - a Musical,” based on “Xi Xiang Ji,” a 13th century Chinese romantic comedy that is very well known in China, Rubenstein said. The original play was inspired by a ninth century Chinese poem.
Rubenstein said her husband of 52 years — who died of cancer at age 89 in September 2020 — did extensive research into Chinese plays. He found many with English translations, but they were long and scholarly, making them not suitable for the stage.
However “Xi Xiang Ji” was different. She called it “the equivalent to our Cinderella. ... It is a very old play but in a very modern context ... and it’s charming.”
Chang (played by Jordan Fan) is a poor scholar who falls in love with Ying-ying (Lia Zheng), daughter of the late prime minister. Her attendant, Hong-niang (Evelyn Olson), takes on the role of their matchmaker. However, Ying-ying’s mother, Lady Tsui (Becca Tang), wants her daughter to marry a nobleman due to a promise made by her late husband.
According to Rubenstein, the story is so well known in China that the name Hong-niang has become synonymous with matchmaker.
To write the songs her husband listened to a lot of Chinese music, found segments of folk songs he liked, then worked via email with a composer and arranger to create music that would work with his lyrics. Max Lee, a pseudonym, has composed nearly 100 concert works. This is his first full-length musical theater work.
According to Rubenstein, her husband said the music had to be Chinese, but “sound good to the Western ear” because some here do not appreciate the tonal scale in Chinese music.
“He identified phrases that sounded very pretty and that Westerners would like, then used those phrases to build a song around it,” she explained.
The musical has only been presented twice. The first time was in 2011 in China, presented in English with Mandarin supertitles. The second was in 2017 in New York City.
Tickets to the Poway shows are $20-$40 for standard seats; $10-$30 for seniors, military and students; and $10-$20 for children. Purchase powaycenter.com or at the PCPA box office from 1 to 6 p.m. Friday and Saturday. The PCPA is at 15498 Espola Road. For questions, call 858-748-0505.
(From San Diego Union Tribune, by Elizabeth Marie Himchak )