Inside a New York City Center studio, at a rehearsal for the Encores! revival of “The Light in the Piazza,” two young lovers in 1950s Italy were meeting for the first time.
“This is my mother, Margaret Johnson,” Clara, a suddenly smitten American tourist, said to Fabrizio, a local Italian.
“Johnson,” Fabrizio repeated, connecting the name to a then-popular Hollywood star. “Van Johnson?!”
“Yes!” Clara enthused.
“You are — relative?” Fabrizio asked.
“No, no,” the mother, Margaret, cut in.
And then, so too, did the director, Chay Yew. He turned to Ruthie Ann Miles, the Tony-winning actress playing Margaret, with a note.
“Van Johnson is white,” Yew said, gesturing at his own Asian face.
The group nodded. They started the scene again, and when Miles got to her line, she drew out the “noooo” while encircling her own Asian face with her finger to make the contrast exceedingly clear to the lovestruck Fabrizio.
The move sent onlookers into a fit of laughter.
Nothing in the book, music or lyrics of this Tony Award-winning 2005 Broadway musical has been changed in the revival, which opens on Wednesday for a short run. But the casting of Asian American actresses in two of the main roles has reframed the musical to emphasize its exploration of the otherness — an otherness that some Asian Americans often feel in the United States and elsewhere. Without revisions, that point of view will have to come through in Yew’s direction and the actors’ interpretations.
When Miles (“The King and I”) agreed to play Margaret, Yew began thinking about homing in on her background as a Korean American to further explore the experience of feeling like an outsider. The spike in anti-Asian violence during the pandemic, Yew said, was still very much front of mind.
“No matter how Asian American you are, you’re always going to be the perpetual foreigner. The face that we wear,” Yew said, “always makes you feel that you do not belong in this country.
“So I was interested in, well, what does it really mean to explore the outsider status in this particular musical?” Yew, a playwright and director of shows like “Cambodian Rock Band,” added. “It actually helps open up the music a little bit more. I think in the great works of art, there are ways to find more life between sentences and scenes.”
“The Light in the Piazza,” which originally starred Victoria Clark as Margaret and Kelli O’Hara as Clara, tracks a woman and her daughter on vacation in Italy. Love is at its heart: Clara (Anna Zavelson) falls for Fabrizio (James D. Gish); Margaret wants to disrupt the romance to protect her daughter, who suffered a brain injury as a child that renders her childlike even as an adult; and Margaret herself is stuck in a seemingly loveless marriage to a husband who stayed at home in North Carolina.
It is the Johnsons’ status as tourists — outsiders in a foreign land — that allows preoccupations with Clara’s disability to fade, her love to blossom and Margaret’s perspective to shift such that she can begin to let her daughter go. In leaving home, both women, in a sense, find themselves.
For Asian Americans, determining exactly what and where feels like home can be tricky. Clint Ramos, who designed the set with Miguel Urbino and is part of the Encores! leadership team, recalled having seen the show 10 times during its original run. He had moved to New York from the Philippines, and the idea of becoming totally immersed in a new place — and loving it — resonated. “Every time was ugly crying,” he said of seeing the musical.
Miles was at the top of the Encores! list for the role of Margaret. (In his 2005 review of the show, Ben Brantley wrote that the character “qualifies as a blessing for those in search of signs of intelligent life in the American musical.”) They felt Miles “was virtuosic enough to actually handle the score, but also such an excellent actor,” Ramos said.
With the role cast, Yew and Miles studied the history of Korean immigration and determined, for subtext, that Miles’s Margaret could have come to the United States in the early 1900s to study art and learn English, then met her white husband, settled in the South and eventually had a child.
Miles, who has been juggling this show with her Tony-nominated role as the beggar woman in the Broadway revival of “Sweeney Todd,” was born in the United States, then spent a few years as a young child in South Korea before returning to the U.S. with her mother. She recalled learning English while growing up in Hawaii as her Korean language skills diminished and becoming frustrated with her mother’s stubborn accent and lack of concern, unlike her friends’ parents, about things like having nice clothes. Over time, she said she even developed a sort of bitterness toward her mother.
“And so I carry all of these stories and these ideas with me when we’re building Margaret,” she said.
Zavelson, who graduated from high school last year and is making her professional New York debut in the musical, has always wanted to sing the score, but said she had never seen someone who looked like her play the role of Clara. Zavelson said she is Japanese American and Jewish.
“I don’t think that I had pictured myself being able to sing that role,” Zavelson said, because Clara has usually been played by a white actress. “Growing up, I think every kid is like, ‘Wouldn’t that be fun if I did this?’ But once you get to middle school, high school, and start to realize that you’re perceived differently by certain people, I think a lot of me was kind of like, ‘Oh, well, I’ll let that role die.’”
“But seeing that Ruthie was attached to it just kind of lit something inside of me,” she continued. “I’m from Texas and Margaret and Clara are from North Carolina. So it’s not the same geographically, but having a Southern Asian American with a last name like Johnson isn’t actually that far from me.”
And despite the effects of Clara’s injury, she is a generally upbeat, optimistic young woman who is warmly embraced by Fabrizio’s family, Zavelson said.
So although the actors were still exploring their characters during rehearsals last week, Zavelson said she suspected many of the race-conscious nuances layered into the performance would manifest through Margaret, and the mother-daughter interactions between Clara and Margaret. To what extent does Margaret have an internalized fear of racism that makes her more hesitant to embrace Fabrizio and his family? How have her experiences as an immigrant toughened her? And how does that toughness play out in Margaret’s interactions with Clara?
Exactly how to integrate the feeling of racial otherness into the show was also an ongoing challenge for the cast.
“Maybe it’s slight racism from other people in Italy, whether it’s a gesture or a look,” Miles said.
Miles also saw “The Light in the Piazza” on Broadway, and said she immediately noticed the “sweeping orchestration and beautiful vocals and this really human story of love and grief and regret.”
But as she has played back the music in the years since, it speaks to her differently.
It is no secret, she said, that she and her husband, Jonathan Blumenstein, have endured tragedy. In 2018, their daughter, Abigail, 5, was killed, and Miles herself critically injured when they were struck by a car while walking in Park Slope, Brooklyn. Miles was pregnant at the time, and two months later, near her due date, lost the baby.
“I really feel the ways that Margaret tries to be strong and wants to let everybody know that she is in control and everything is OK,” Miles said. “But then what happens when the doors are closed?”
When Margaret finally allows herself to be vulnerable for the audience, she continued, it could become a way for her personally “to finally take a breath and show perhaps a little bit more of the true me.”
“Hopefully it’s not until the end of the show,” she added. “Because I won’t recover.”