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A Harvard student wrote a Disney-style musical about a Korean princess. Now it’s going viral

Written by Amanda Florian, CNN

After realizing that there weren’t any Koreans in the iconic Disney princess ensemble, 22-year-old Julia Riew set out to create her own movie, along with an accompanying musical.

Harvard student, raised in St. Louis, Missouri, has been writing and composing for many years. But with her seventh full-length musical to date, “Shimcheong: A Folktale,” she tapped into her Korean roots and went viral on TikTok, where the story and songs made a splash. resonate with people all over the world.

“For the first time, I felt such a strong sense of community and belonging, which I’ve always really craved,” Riew said in a video call. “I never imagined that something like TikTok … could take me to a place where I have such a warm sense of belonging.”

The song that first made fans discover Riew on TikTok, “Dive,” has garnered nearly a million views, with fans performing their own on an instrumental version. The soaring lyrics encourage listeners to be fearless and to not let anything stand in their way.

“Now all the fish in the sea can’t stop me,” Riew sings in The clip is 41 seconds long, use the filter to transform yourself into a Disney-style cartoon character. “All the waves in this world can’t shake me. I’m on a mission and bro, just look at me!”

The one-act musical tells the story of a brave young girl named Shimcheong, who falls into the depths of the ocean while trying to save her father. She entered the magical Dragon Kingdom with seemingly no exit. Ten years later, she plots a prison break, risking everything to find her way home. It is not until the end of the story that the powerful Shimcheong acquires the title of princess, and like any good fairy tale, this one is filled with adventure, a prince, and a villainous Dragon Queen. Riew has released short clips of both Prince and Dragon Queen songs on TikTok, but eager fans will have to wait to hear all 16 of their songs.

The musical is an adaptation of the Korean folk tale “Daughter of the Blind”, in which a daughter sacrifices everything for the blind father she loves so much. Riew, a third-generation Korean-American, began working on the musical more than a year ago for her senior thesis project but said she never expected it to be a hit online. Her dream, she said, is to inspire others with stories that bring some “good things into the world.”

“I think stories are very important for children,” she added. “Especially as someone who, when I was young, I never saw myself represented in the media, or in movies, television, or on stage – that’s what I’ve always dreamed of. to wish.”

Julia Riew transforms into a character on TikTok.

Julia Riew transforms into a character on TikTok. Credit: Julia Riew is polite

Increase fan base

When it comes to the music scene in the era Covid-19, TikTok and Gen Z have proven a powerful combination. In 2020, TikTok creators teamed up to produce “Ratatouille: The Musical” after a 15-second teacher’s video about Disney Pixar’s beloved rat, Remy, went viral. The co-productionput together for a few weeks, was online for 73 hours and streamed by 350,000 people – a viewing figure equivalent to a year of showings at a sold-out Broadway show.
Other TikTokers, like Katherine Lynn-Rose, have jumped into the songwriting field by composing songs for “”Avatar: The Last Airbender“or the Netflix hit”Squid fishing game“as if they were musicals.

For Riew and other creators, the platform goes beyond lip-syncing and dancing videos. Fans of her fully scripted musical have also produced fan art featuring her characters, and although Riew initially envisioned Shimcheong’s trusty sidekick, Lotus, as a dragon, she liked the fan’s suggestion that the Lotus could be represented as a “gumiho,” or nine-tailed fox, instead.

Artist Victoria Phan paints the princess next to a gumiho, or nine-tailed fox, named Lotus.

Artist Victoria Phan paints the princess next to a gumiho, or nine-tailed fox, named Lotus. Credit: Courtesy of Victoria Phan (Instagram: @Vdoodles)

Riew’s fans – including parents, children and Disney enthusiasts across the globe – say they want to see the story on the silver screen.

“(The buzz) started in the US and then it started trending on Korean Twitter,” Riew said, adding, “Even when the producers reached out, that’s when my parents told me, ‘I have a 5-year-old, or 3. young, or 9-year-old – I know they would love to see this movie on screen and we’ve heard your songs.’ It’s really heart-stopping. I’m warmer than that.”

Although she started writing musicals at the age of 15, Riew wasn’t sure she would pursue a career in musical theater and she initially enrolled in pre-university school.

“I was afraid to be an artist. I was afraid to enter a profession that seemed unsustainable,” she said. “I think a lot of that came from my desire to fit in with the Asian-American community. I didn’t really see that many other Asian students were on stage at the time, but a lot did. changed over the years.”

Artist MiJin imagines what Shimcheong would look like wearing a traditional hanbok.

Artist MiJin imagines what Shimcheong would look like wearing a traditional hanbok. Credit: Courtesy of MiJin (Instagram_ @mjtotoro)

During his freshman year, Riew participated in Harvard’s “New Year Musical,” which gives freshmen the opportunity to write and produce a musical. However, at the audition for the show, she was disappointed by the lack of Asian representation.

“It made me feel, ‘Oh maybe this isn’t the thing for me, but at the same time, it motivates me to want to create more space for Asian students on campus, who can no. theater discovered.”

Riew switched to majoring in musical theater the summer after her sophomore year and since then, her performances have been staged at the American Repertory Theatre, Harvard University’s Farkas Hall, and the Agassiz Theatre, School The UNC-Greensboro Stage and beyond.

Looking for Belonging

The process of writing “Shimcheong: A Folktale” was challenging but meaningful, Riew said, as it allowed her to confront many aspects of her identity. After her grandfather died and her grandmother moved in, Riew found herself wanting more exposure to her Korean heritage.

“My inspiration definitely comes from a lot of different places,” she says. “I can say, first of all, it comes from my quest for belonging. Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about identity and how that intersects with the art and stories that we have. I chose to tell. I was really inspired by my grandparents, and my experience in college – and that’s how I found my way to ‘Shimcheong.’

Riew, a student at Harvard, has been writing musicals since the age of 15.

Riew, a student at Harvard, has been writing musicals since the age of 15. Credit: Courtesy Ramona Park

When she made her first trip to Seoul, South KoreaAt the age of 18, she discovered things about herself and her own story that helped shape the musical.

“It was an exciting time. But in many ways it was an eye-opening moment where I realized where I’d always been and imagined myself belonging to a lot different than I expected. wait,” she said. “And I’m more of an outsider than I expected.”

Although Riew and her family celebrate both Korean and American traditions, she is not surrounded by a large growing Korean community. In recent years, she has been trying to learn more about her Asian roots, either through Korean classes at school or through her music. Now, she hopes people of all ages can be inspired by Shimcheong’s story.

“My dream has always been to walk down the street and hear a child sing my song,” says Riew. “I feel like I’m almost living that dream right now seeing duets from all different kinds of people singing the song. It’s unbelievable.”

Disney may not have chosen the script yet, but Riew has heard from producers and filmmakers who want to bring the story to a wider audience. For now, she’s working with an agent to figure out what’s next.

“It was probably the craziest three weeks of my life, but it was a really, really exciting time,” she said. “And to be honest, I’m really grateful.”

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