“I miss New York, and I live here.” That’s the lyrics to one of the songs that BD Wong sings in Songs From an Unmade Bed. That show was first performed in 2005 Off-Broadway and it’s always been one of Wong’s favorites. So while he was bored and trying to be creative in quarantine, Wong realized that some of the lyrics in Songs From an Unmade Bed, about a lonely gay man living in New York City, were newly resonant in the time of COVID, such as the song “I Miss New York” which has the following lyrics: “I miss the nights of getting home at 5 a.m., and many friends, it’s true, I do miss them.”
During COVID times, that ennui and sense of being removed from the world is now universal. “I started to feel a sense of resonance in the songs, like, ‘Oh, wow, this song actually today, really applies—this song about wanting to go out and not being able to go out,'” said Wong.
The last time Wong, a Tony winner for M. Butterfly, did a Broadway musical was in Pacific Overtures in 2005. Songs From an Unmade Bed was a stretch for the performer in many ways. For one, Wong usually plays supporting roles, such as his Emmy-nominated turn in Mr. Robot or Awkwafina’s dryly hilarious father in Nora From Queens on Comedy Central (next week, Wong flies to the UK to film Jurassic World: Dominion).
Another stretch was how it’s produced: Songs From an Unmade Bed contains 18 songs, all of them filmed in Wong’s apartment and edited by his husband, videographer Richert Schnorr. It will be streamed at 8 pm on Aug. 10 to benefit Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS’ Emergency COVID Assistance Fund. The video will be up until Aug. 14, though Wong hopes you’ll tune in on Monday and support relief for theater workers.
“The rug has been pulled out from under the theater,” Wong said. “So a lot of the performers and the artists—not just actors, not just people on stage, but people backstage (hair, makeup, wardrobe)—many of them are struggling.”
Below, Wong talks about how the project has stretched him creatively, and the state of gay POC representation.
What was the impetus for the project? We know that artists are trying to figure out ways to be creative right now. Meanwhile, you haven’t done a musical in a really long time.
I’d always love this particular song cycle [Songs From an Unmade Bed]. It was done at New York Theatre Workshop in 2005. It’s a one-man show or solo show with 18 songs, one lyricist and 18 composers. And it touches on a gay man, living in his apartment, and he’s kind of ruminating on his romantic life. But it doesn’t have a plot. It’s just all different songs about different guys or different situations or different emotional circumstances. One of my best friends was one of the 18 composers. I went to see it and I loved it. And some of the songs are very challenging and I’ve often used it as part of my vocal workout.
I was doing that during the beginning of March when we were starting to quarantine. And I started to feel a sense of resonance in the songs, like, Oh, wow, this song actually today really applies—this song about wanting to go out and not being able to go out. Song after song kind of had a double meaning. So I thought, I really would like to explore this material. And I had also been talking to the lyricist Mark Campbell, who’s the creator of the piece. I said, “I’d like to make a movie of this.” I had done this last year. And so I went back to him in March and said, “Hey, remember I said I wanted to make a movie of Songs From an Unmade Bed? What if we made videos in our apartment in quarantine, and then the goal would be to use the videos as a charity for something?” And he loved the idea of it.
And I played the songs for Richert, my husband, and he loved the idea. And we started to think, could we really make 18 videos in our house? And we started doing it. We started rearranging the furniture, and we bought some lights and we borrowed some sound equipment and we started recording the songs and then we started filming them. And the challenge became, as we went on, how to make them different and interesting and to have them have a point of view, or an aesthetic or a visual life that was different from the others.
So this is my version of theater made in my home. What else can we do right at this point in order to do an entertain people theatrically? There’s a theatricality to some of the songs. And that’s nice. I feel like artists were kind of struggling to figure out what to do next. And that one of the things that was happening was people were doing a lot of self-made content, playing instruments in their bathtub or whatever. And I thought, well, that’s not going to stay interesting that long.
It was wonderful when people doing it and the outpouring of content that has been happening. That’s really exciting and people are not accepting the fact that they’re having to stay home. They’re being them. I’m a musician, so I’m going to play. I’m a singer, so I’m going to sing. Nothing would stop them. But at the same time, there were limitations that were really strong and are really strong. And I think if this continues on, as we see that it’s going to, we’re going to see people pushing forward and changing the limitations that they have.
We’re all becoming self video makers. It’s self-produced a lot. And what I think is that through costume and things that are in your control, that you wouldn’t normally push to the next level, if people start doing that, the content can become really interesting. So this was our attempt. This is our attempt at that, like saying, “Okay, I’m not just gonna wear my regular clothes, I’m gonna put something on that goes with the song. And I’m going to do my hair to go with the song.”
And there’s a kind of poetic-ness to the the fact that we’re in quarantine making this thing about someone who’s trying to connect with the outside world with other people.
The last thing at the theater I saw you in was The Great Leap by Lauren Yee Off-Broadway at Atlantic Theatre Company, which you also directed the next year at Pasadena Playhouse. In that play, you played a character who felt like a follower and not a leader. And at the end of the play, he learns how to like speak up for what he believes in, not to spoil a play.
And to act for him on his own behalf, for his own wishes and for what he wants.
Just thinking about that play, have you been thinking about it, about The Great Leap, and about how something that you did in a year ago, it’s so relevant now to us, in people finding courage to speak up.
Yes. You know, I haven’t really concretely touched on the play with regards to current events or the way that people feel now. But it is absolutely a play about what’s happening now to people in the world. And does relate to that. And I do, I think that’s why the play’s such a good play, because these things are always threatening to be our plate. There’s a pendulum that swings, and we’re in a place in the pendulum where the pendulum is swinging to this place where people are speaking up and saying things that they did not say before. There’s more of a culture of it and there’s more of an understanding of it and an acceptance of it that actually raises consciousness.
People who were very numb, people that don’t understand, people that were closed down to the whole idea of what, for example, #MeToo was all about, now some of them kind of go, “Oh, I see. I see how that the math is added up, and how I play a role in that math. Or something that I observe is there that really needs to be spoken up about.” Rather than silence. Silence is actually complicity.
And for such a delightful play, because Lauren has written a lovely play, that’s a very deep thing just to witness the character go through. And I think that is one of the reasons why I did the play three times: I did it once in New York, once in San Francisco at American Conservatory Theater, and then I directed it at Pasadena Playhouse just last year.
I think that’s the reason why I keep coming back to it, is to talk about those themes of what it means to put yourself on the line, and how integral that is to being human. And in some ways, you’re robbing yourself of one of humanity’s greatest opportunity, or aspects of being human, by not speaking out. That’s a thing that humans can do. And if you turn out to be the kind of person who doesn’t do that, you’re not really experiencing your full humanity. And so a play like Lauren’s, that really always bring people in touch with that. And that’s really, really wonderful.
It’s very hard to think about any art about queer Asian men that doesn’t involve BD Wong. And I wonder, since you’ve started, what has changed the most when it comes to queer representation that doesn’t involve gay white men?
Well, let me think about that for a second. There’s one song in Songs From an Unmade Bed, [“The Other Other Woman”] which was about a very specific kind of relationship, which is a relationship between a guy and another guy who has a partner. And how the guy that he’s messing around with takes on a third person. And so then he’s saying, “Well, I didn’t really mind being the second person, but I don’t want to be the third person.” There’s a drawing of the line.
And the reason why I’m telling you this is because I was adapting the song to us making a video of it. And I was trying to figure out how. The part of the thing about making these videos is that you don’t have other actors that you can interact with. If you are going to bring another actor in, you have to have used them remotely and figure out a way to use them remotely. And you may have them make a self tape and share it and you have to cut it together. It’s very complicated.
And so in interpreting the song, I was trying to figure out a way to say what I felt about that phenomenon of being grouped together with someone else, of being the third person. And what it reminded me of is the kind of racial profiling that happens in gay dating. And it’s great that people have their preferences, but when I find out that someone I’m dating only exclusively dates Asian people, it’s always disappointing to me. That’s all you see in me? The fact that I’m Asian? Like, what about the fact that I’m so…dot dot dot? Don’t you like that?
I’m not gonna say I don’t see color. But when I’m dating someone, that’s not really a salient aspect of what I’m looking for or I’m initially attracted to. It’s other things. So I find it personally for me a little off putting, that’s my own personal thing. So I took the song and I made the song about not a guy that has two other extracurricular relationships, but 16 and all of them are Asian guys, and I’m trying to, in a whimsical way, describe this phenomenon that happens. That only an Asian guy like me would really know understand. When I brought these gay Asian musical theater performers, from Broadway and TV, and put 16 of them together in this number, not one person said, “I don’t understand what that is.” Everybody knew the phenomenon that we’re talking about.
What I’m saying is a project like this, I wouldn’t have made it five years ago or 10 years ago. I’m in a place now where I’m self-generating material. And I’m actually using my own point of view and my own thoughts and not editing it. I mean, if I stopped for a split second, I might have thought, “Well, does anybody else care about this? Does anybody understand it?” And I didn’t care. I thought, this is something to share. I’ve realized that being very specific in my own work and expressing myself as a writer is essential.
I didn’t always feel that way. If you’re asking me what’s different about the queer point of view and what I’m doing with that and what I care about, it’s evolved. My coming out as a public person was clouded earlier on with doubt, or worry about what would be the outcome of it. And now there’s none of that at all. There’s just no fear about it or anything. In fact, there’s a liberation that will not be foreign to people. The coming out process is a liberating process, there’s no question about it. And I believe that strongly and I have seen the proof of it. And I love that.
And that is different. That is an evolution of my own sensibility that has happened over the years. So now what I’m saying is that it’s involving my actual expressive work. Because I am a writer who also acts or an actor who also writes, that usually means that as an actor, I’m just playing someone else’s part that they wrote for me, and I’m bringing to it whatever I can. But it doesn’t often allow me to be particularly specific. And something like this [Songs From an Unmade Bed], is a really good example of something really specific that is able to be mined from it.
Listen to the rest of BD Wong’s interview on the Token Theatre Friends podcast.