I caught up with writer/composer Jason Ma as his musical GOLD MOUNTAIN is about to reach a milestone, a world premiere production presented by Utah Shakespeare Festival. In the midst of pre-production and sorting through video submissions from actors, we talked about what was on his mind as he prepares for the upcoming November run of his show, a new musical about Chinese laborers on the transcontinental railroad in the 1860s.
Jason and I have been friends since the ’80s when we acted opposite one another in Cherylene Lee’s Yin Chin Bow, a play that takes place during the same time period as GOLD MOUNTAIN. We reconnected years later as he was developing the show and I signed on as the documentary photographer in 2012. Below are excerpts of our chat, the GOLD MOUNTAIN timeline and photo essay.
Lia: You began writing GOLD MOUNTAIN 25 years ago. What inspired you to do so?
Jason: Hi Lia! Wow, those readings of Cherylene Lee’s play at libraries and community events seemed so very long ago. Remembering them reminds me how often plays about Asians in American history were often relegated to smaller spaces, considered too niche and too esoteric for larger audiences. The inspiration to write GOLD MOUNTAIN? I think I gave you the long answer with the particulars the last time we did an interview years ago, but the short answer now is that absence creates a vacuum which must be filled.
Lia: What does it mean for you to have the World Premiere in Utah?
Jason: We spent a lot of time in Utah over 2018 and 2019 for the planning of the Spike150 concerts, and I was fortunate enough to make some life-changing friendships there. What I’ve learned about the people of the state is that they have a very strong connection to history, more so than I’ve experienced anywhere else in the country. In addition, it is a community that has support for and enjoyment of the arts woven into their DNA, along with a family-based culture that parallels so many traditional values of Asian culture, and that makes Utah a natural first home for a production of GOLD MOUNTAIN. I couldn’t be happier.
Lia: Witnessing the GOLD MOUNTAIN journey over the years, it is evident that it really takes a village. How does this moment feel?
Jason: The predominant feeling I have is gratitude for the AAPI theater community. This family of artists has been nothing but a source of inspiration and strength throughout the years, and when I think back on the history… the many years that this show has been waiting for a place in the light, what keeps coming to mind is the multitude of people who have given their time, talents, and support; especially the actors, so many who have jumped in and helped us develop, promote, and perform this piece over and over and over again. As we know, actors don’t make a living off of working on pieces in development. They do it because they love the theater and believe in it as an essential art form. It’s overwhelming to think about, and I don’t really have enough words to describe this feeling of loving, grateful indebtedness to the community. So maybe I’ll just name them for you, or at least name as many as I can remember…
So, thank you to the following folks, our AAPI theater family and a few others, you’ve made it possible for GOLD MOUNTAIN to see the light of day…
– 1ST TABLE READ 1996
• Ann Harada sang and read through through the entire thing with me for my agent, Jim Flynn. We played all the roles. She was awesome and I played the piano, badly. p.s. Jim is still my agent, super loyal and obviously, very patient!
– DEMO RECORDINGS 1996
• Chloe Stewart, Paul Nakauchi, Eric Chan, Marc Oka, Zar Acayan, Alan Ariano, plus… ???
• To anyone I left off the list, let me know. My memory is not what it used to be. I was doing MISS SAIGON with these folks, and we rehearsed in the basement of the Broadway Theater. I still have a cassette tape with all of their voices on it. Chloe was perfection as Yook Mei.
– TABLE READS and DEMO RECORDINGS in the 2010s
• Alan Ariano, Daniel J. Edwards, Steven Eng, Ali Ewoldt, Francis Jue, Ray Lee, Whit K. Lee, Jose Llana, Kelvin Moon Loh, Hansel Tan, Dax Valdes, Austin Ku, Koh Mochizuki
• Early submissions brought on what I think of as “the rejection years” from the late 90s into the early 2000s, rejections which were often hostile and laced with barely veiled or outright racism. Unable to hold up under this onslaught, I put the show away. However, in 2010 I found myself in a concert with Ali Ewoldt, and upon hearing her sing, the sun rose, and hope returned. (She has that effect on many.) Inspired by her talent and that wondrous voice, the score and script came out of the box under my bed and I got back to work. And every time we asked for help, our community was right there with a “yes.” Imagine how lucky we felt to have Francis Jue and Jose Llana, among others, doing a table read for us… for pizza.
– 2012 ACTORS EQUITY AAPI HERITAGE MONTH CONCERT
• Alan Ariano, Joshua Dela Cruz, Marc delaCruz, Daniel J. Edwards, Andrew Eisenman, Steven Eng, Ali Ewoldt, Brian Jose, Ray Lee, Whit K. Lee, Jake Manabat, Paolo Montalban, Buzz Roddy, David Shih
• This was pivotal, a first public concert reading of the show directed and produced by my dear friend Christine Toy Johnson with a spectacular cast, all ready to give us their time and formidable talents. Baayork Lee, who founded National Asian Artists Project, and Cara Reichel, the artistic director of Prospect Theater Company, both came to our last run-through before performance. And when Baayork came up to me and said she loved the piece and wanted to help us going forward, I burst into tears and cried like a baby. So embarrassing. Cara, who didn’t know me well back then, probably thought I was an unstable mess. Looking back, those tears were probably a release of trauma from “the rejection years.” Poor Baayork. All she could say to me was, “I didn’t mean to upset you!” To be honest, I cried more than once during this experience, including the first time Ray Lee sang “Back In China” for me… so beautiful. After this, I started submitting the piece again. Rejections came, but the tone and substance were so much more humane, constructive, and definitely encouraging. I could tell that the world and our industry were changing.
– 2016 ASCAP/DREAMWORKS MUSICAL THEATER WORKSHOP
• Daniel J. Edwards, Andrew Eisenman, Marius Beltran, Randy Guiaya, Jonny Lee Jr., Q Lim, Daniel May, Ray A. Rochelle, Stephen Jeffrey Stewart, Tedd Szeto, Reuben Uy, Justin W. Yu, Alan Muraoka, Mark Abulencia
• An event that changed everything for this show. I was at the gym when the call came from Michael Kerker at ASCAP that I was finally getting a chance to present GOLD MOUNTAIN at an ASCAP Musical Theater Workshop after years of submitting. He sounded as excited as I felt, and he’s has been in our corner supporting us ever since. And once again, so much generosity from the AAPI community. Alan Muraoka took time out of his busy schedule to fly to Los Angeles and direct our presentation, which gave me much needed peace of mind. Tim Dang, then artistic director of East West Players, emailed me a list of singer-actors and music directors immediately after I reached out to him in a panic, since I was unfamiliar with the local talent pool. Most of the cast was chosen from this list, including Jonny Lee Jr., who has been playing Lit for us ever since. These guys would drive, some for considerable distances, through LA rush hour traffic to get to our rehearsals. Our music director was also a Tim Dang referral, a really gifted musician, Mark Abulencia, who took it upon himself to arrange rehearsal space for us at his church in West Hollywood. The highlight for me was watching these men walk onto the stage and hearing a huge swell of applause and support from The Wallis theater audience. They knew that this was major, a stage full of AAPI men was something very rare and very special.
– 2016 SAN FRANCISCO LABORFEST AT THE AURORA THEATER
• Perry Aliado, Lawrence-Michael C. Arias, Bobby August Jr., Michael Ching, Monica Ho, Alex Hsu, Jonny Lee Jr, Brian Rivera, Alex Rodriguez, Rafael Sebastian, Colin Thompson, Phil Wong
• Grad school classmate, dear friend, and descendant of labor union hero Harry Bridges, Marie Shell, invited us to be a part of San Francisco’s annual celebration of labor, generously taking on the arduous task of producing our presentation. Muraoka, again, flew over from the east coast to direct, and Jonny came up from LA to join the Bay Area cast, who were game and ready to play. These San Francisco based actors were scrappy, bold, and authentic. They brought so much humanity to these characters, and taught me a lot about the piece. They changed the way I looked at casting. So grateful to this group.
– 2017 NAAP/PROSPECT THEATER IGNITE CONCERT at TheTimesCenter in New York – October 21, 2017
• Alan Ariano, Lawrence-Michael C. Arias, Eric Badique, Ben Bartels, Marc delaCruz, Tyler Bunch, Eric Bondoc, Daniel J Edwards, Eric Elizaga, David Eng, Steven Eng, Ali Ewoldt, Alphonse Gonzalez, Alex Hsu, Brian Kim, Jonny Lee Jr., Daniel May, Andrew Sakaguchi, Viet Vo
• In 2017 Baayork Lee received the Isabelle Stevenson Tony Award, and in that year while all eyes were on her, she chose to reflect her spotlight onto us. National Asian Artists Project teamed up with Prospect Theater Company to produce a semi-staged concert, a part of Prospect’s IGNITE series at TheTimesCenter. I’ll always be grateful for this amazing gift from Baayork and Cara. Muraoka assembled a team that included choreographer Billy Bustamante and music director Kristen Lee Rosenfeld.
Jonny (always game to travel, thank you!) flew in from LA, Lawrence-Michael C. Arias and Alex Hsu from the LaborFest presentation flew in from San Francisco. It occurs to me that I’ve become Dorothy, picking up friends on the journey and bringing them along to Oz.
A lion’s share of gratitude, however, goes out to Ali Ewoldt. Ali was performing in Phantom of the Opera, the historic first Asian actor to play Christine Daae on Broadway. An unfortunate convergence of outside gigs occurred, because she was also rehearsing her imminent debut with The New York Pops at Carnegie Hall at the same time we would be rehearsing and performing our concert. I figured I’d lost my muse and inspiration to these much fancier and lucrative gigs, but instead she told me, “I can do all three. I’ll make it work.” Superhuman stamina with a super generous heart, that’s our Ali.
National Asian Artists Project and Prospect Theater Company Present a Concert Performance of Jason Ma’s GOLD MOUNTAIN Featuring Ali Ewoldt, Jonny Lee, Jr., Alan Ariano, and More at The TimesCenter on October 21
– 2019 SPIKE 150 CONCERTS IN UTAH
• Lawrence-Michael C. Arias, Eric Bondoc, Kiet Tai Cao, Eric Elizaga, Steven Eng, Ali Ewoldt, Alex Hsu, Darren Lee, Jonny Lee Jr., Daniel May, Robert Scott Smith, Viet Vo, Joseph Steven Yang, Alan Muraoka, Billy Bustamante, Darren, Lee, Kristen Lee Rosenfeld
• A couple of months after the TimesCenter concert, the emails started coming in from the west coast and from Utah. Apparently, word among the Chinese community had spread from audience members at our concert all the way across the country (thanks again, Baayork and Cara). These emails were about the upcoming 150th anniversary of the golden spike ceremony and one in particular, came from the president of the Chinese Railroad Workers Descendants Association, Judge Michael Kwan of Utah.
This initial contact resulted in an invitation to bring the cast and creative team to “Spike 150”, celebrations and events marking the official completion of the world’s first transcontinental railroad. Judge Kwan introduced me to Max Chang, a Salt Lake City businessman/ community activist/advocate who was on the governor’s Spike150 board.
A year of planning and multiple trips to Salt Lake City later, we became brothers. I’ll forever be grateful to Max and Mike, because the experience was so profound and so inspiring for our Gold Mountain family. It was an honor for us to be a part of the reclamation of history and to participate in the healing and amplifying of the community that had been sidelined from the historical narrative for many decades. We’re going to find a way to honor and remember Judge Michael Kwan, who we lost all too soon last year. He did so much good in the world and I miss him terribly.
So, Lia… I’ve been looking at some photos and came across this beautiful shot of Ali, Jonny, and I at the Museum of Chinese in America Fall gala, waiting nervously to perform. Those two, always willing to put on fancy clothes and forego a night on the couch to sing and mingle, such troupers.
You know, this photo does lead me to one more “thank you.” You, Lia Chang, deserve a big virtual hug and a large dose of gratitude from me and from all the BIPOC folks you have highlighted, documented, and amplified over many, many years. In our age of the internet, things haven’t really happened until they’re posted online, and you have made us happen over and over again. Thank you from the bottom of my heart, Lia. (And no, you don’t get to edit this out!)
Jason Ma (馬智培) is a son of an immigrant family and a grateful descendant of a long line of those who were able to persist, overcome and succeed on their way to becoming Americans. In addition to writing, he is an actor who has performed extensively on Broadway and Off-Broadway stages, in regional theaters and many international venues. Jason is the ASCAP Foundation’s 2017 recipient of the Cole Porter Award for his work as a composer/lyricist. He wrote the music, book and lyrics for GOLD MOUNTAIN, which was performed as a key commemorative event for Utah’s Spike 150 anniversary celebrations in 2019. GOLD MOUNTAIN was also presented in a 2017 concert at TheTimesCenter in New York City by the National Asian Artists Project in partnership with Prospect Theater Company, as well as selected for the 2016 ASCAP/ DreamWorks Musical Theatre Workshop in Los Angeles. With librettist/co-lyricist Christine Toy Johnson, Jason wrote music and lyrics for the full-length musical BARCELONA, which was subsequently selected for Village Theatre’s 2015 Festival of New Musicals and currently, they are writing and developing the new original musical BROKEN GROUND, a commissioned work for Village Theatre.
Ali Ewoldt, Ann Harada, Josh Dela Cruz, Jaygee Macapugay, Jason Ma, Kendyl Ito, James Seol, Vishal Vaidya and More in Rehearsal for National Asian Artists Project’s Concert of Rodgers & Hammerstein’s CINDERELLA
Lia Chang is an actor, a multi-media content producer, an Award winning filmmaker and co-founder of Bev’s Girl Films, making films that foster inclusion and diversity on both sides of the camera. Bev’s Girl Films’ debut short film, Hide and Seek was a top ten film in the Asian American Film Lab’s 2015 72 Hour Shootout Filmmaking Competition, and she received a Best Actress nomination. Her short film, When the World Was Young, written and directed by Garth Kravits, recently garnered a 2021 DisOrient Film Audience Choice Award for Best Short Narrative. Lia has appeared in the films Wolf, New Jack City, A Kiss Before Dying, King of New York, Big Trouble in Little China, The Last Dragon, Taxman. She stars in and served as Executive Producer for the short independent films Hide and Seek, Balancing Act, Rom-Com Gone Wrong, Belongingness and When the World was Young. She is also the Executive Producer for The Cactus, The Language Lesson, The Writer and Cream and 2 Shugahs. BGF collaborates with and produces multi-media content for artists, actors, designers, theatrical productions, composers, musicians and corporations.
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