Senior Jared Leong had never written a musical before last July. However, he said he could not refuse the opportunity to portray the Asian-American experience and address the lack of Asian representation in theater when a Facebook post asking for people interested in co-writing a musical came to his attention.
When a friend put him in touch with Julia Riew, a sophomore at Harvard University, Riew had posted on Facebook looking to create a coming-of-age musical comedy about a Chinese-American high school student. Despite his unfamiliarity with stage performances, Leong joined Harvard junior John Lim and began writing The East Side with Riew in July 2018.
The East Side explores 17-year-old protagonist Ryan’s identity crisis during his senior year of high school in New York City’s Chinatown. He and his mother, Ms. Chen, try to preserve authenticity in their dumpling house while gentrification changes the neighborhood around them. Ryan balances his responsibilities at the dumpling house with his schoolwork, passion for visual arts, and romance throughout the musical comedy.
As a 13-year-old busboy growing up in Queens, New York, Leong discovered how Chinese restaurants struggled to cater to their own community while surrounded by gentrification.
“You’re using your own culture to make food for people to like,” Leong said. “You have to rely on people who aren’t from your culture to come in and pay money to buy your food. It’s this weird process of appealing to everybody but not appealing to everybody.”
A visual and media arts major, Leong began writing screenplays at the age of 17. He said the differences between writing for film and writing for the stage challenged him early on.
“The hardest part is that you are looking at a stage,” Leong said. “A lot of times I was writing specific props, but you can’t really do that in theater because nobody can see it. You have to write dialogue like, ‘Oh, what a huge letter!’ but in film, you would never do that. Film is all about subtlety, and musicals are more about speaking outward.”
Riew, who wrote all the music for the show, said the shortage of Asian portrayal in theater entertainment inspired her to make The East Side. The Asian American Performers Action Coalition published a study on the 2016–17 theater season that found white playwrights account for 95 percent of all Broadway shows.
“We really wanted to tell a story that hadn’t been told before,” Riew said. “In theater especially, there’s a really big lack of Asian representation. What drew us to this story was that it felt so close to home to us, and I think that’s how a lot of the actors felt as well.”
Harvard’s Asian Student Arts Project, a theatrical group established by Riew and two peers at the beginning of 2019, sponsored the musical. The cast and crew of The East Side are almost entirely Asian or Asian-American.
Director and Harvard senior KeeHup Yong said the opportunity to help pioneer the production of Asian arts attracted him to the musical.
“We haven’t really had an Asian performing arts group like this, that was Pan-Asian and devoted to storytelling,” Yong said. “I wanted to help create that space for the future for students.”
When writing the script, Riew said the three writers integrated themselves into the three main characters of the musical—Ryan, Vera, and Patrick. Riew said the parallels between her and the characters helped her learn more about herself.
“All three of us inserted different elements of ourselves into the three lead characters, which kind of made me realize things about myself or things that I’ve said before,” Riew said. “I feel like I learned just as much writing musicals through this process as I learned about myself.”
Auditions for the musical took place in February and attracted over 50 people. Riew said many of the cast members will perform at Harvard for their first time. Leong said the story itself brought both experienced and inexperienced students to the audition.
“It proved the fact that, if the material is there and it interests people, then people are going to come out to it,” Leong said. “We had a lot of people who aren’t singers or actors who were like, ‘This is amazing, this is a story I want to be a part of.’”
The musical will host five performances at Harvard’s Farkas Hall from April 11 to April 14. Tickets are free and can be reserved ahead of time online or are available at the box office at the time of the show.
Dana Knox, the production coordinator for Farkas Hall at Harvard, said he plans their production calendar after reviewing competitive applications. He said The East Side earned a spot at Harvard because of its appeal as an original production.
“The initiative that was behind the student group was one that we were supportive of because it was an underrepresented affinity group here at Harvard,” Knox said. “In reviewing the songs and the script they submitted, it was actually a tremendously strong show and a voice we thought definitely needs to be heard.”