How Broadway's Groundbreaking Play 'M. Butterfly' Has Transformed for a New Generation

Bruce Glikas/Bruce Glikas/FilmMagic
From left, playwright David Henry Hwang, Jin Ha, director Julie Tamor and Clive Owen

Julie Taymor, Clive Owen, David Henry Hwang and breakout actor Jin Ha tell THR of tweaking the revival, which opened Thursday night.

M. Butterfly has transformed for a new generation.

The first major New York revival of the Tony-winning play stars Clive Owen as a married French diplomat who has a 20-year relationship with a beautiful opera performer who spies on him for the Chinese government. Directed by Julie Taymor, the staging has an updated script by original playwright David Henry Hwang.

“It’s an amazing play, but it was written 30 years ago and things have changed,” Clive Owen told The Hollywood Reporter after Thursday’s opening night performance at the Cort Theatre. “It’s still a story about two people who created a world for themselves that worked for them, and when it became public, everything came crashing down and they were vilified. The heart of the play is still there — it had a huge impact and hopefully it still will.”

Hwang tweaked the 1988 drama not only to include newly emerged details from the real-life love affair between French diplomat Bernard Boursicot and gender-ambiguous Chinese opera star Shi Pei Pu, but also to be “consistent with the way the new generation thinks about gender,” he explained, “as opposed to the older story, which was more gender binary.”

Also among the changes are sections told from the perspective of Song, played by Jin Ha. “Song says, I’m not less of a man because of my femininity,’” said the actor, an alum of Hamilton in Chicago. “We’re getting better gradually as a society to accept everybody as they are, in every iteration and nuance and tiny detail of a person’s identity and expression. But I think there’s so much work to do. We need to break down toxic masculinity immediately.”

It’s something that’s easier said than done, especially regarding the stereotypes about Asia and the West. “Right now, this play has so much resonance between Trump and North Korea — look at how he talks about big guns and ‘who’s got a bigger weapon,’” laments Taymor. “That kind of talk that David wrote 30 years ago is still prevalent today.”

Andre Holland, Andrew Rannells, Jonathan Groff, Annaleigh Ashford, Phillipa Soo, Andy Karl and Patti Murin were among the guests of the show’s opening night, which continued with a post-show bash at the Redeye Grill.