I met Lily Ling, a Chinese Canadian music director, conductor, pianist, and educator at a 4th of July rooftop party in New York. She had literally gotten off a plane, checked into her hotel and come to the party.
I got to know this extraordinary woman over the course of the evening and less than a month later, Ms. Ling made her Broadway debut as the first person of Asian descent to conduct the production on Broadway at the Richard Rodgers Theatre in New York on August 3.
Lily Ling is the first female Music Director of Hamilton. I caught up with her after she conducted the matinee on August 7, with my pals, Marc delaCruz starring as Alexander Hamilton and Eddy Lee featured as Charles Lee.
The principal cast of the August 7 performance included Krystal Joy Brown as Eliza Hamilton, Deon’te Goodman as Aaron Burr, Mandy Gonzalez as Angelica Schuyler, Tamar Greene as George Washington, Kyle Scatliffe as Marquis de Lafayette/Thomas Jefferson, Fergie L. Philippe as Hercules Mulligan/James Madison, Daniel Yearwood as John Laurens/Phillip Hamilton, Aubin Wise as Peggy Schuyler/Maria Reynolds, Euan Morton as King George, Alexander Ferguson as Phillip Schuyler/James Reynolds/Doctor, Thayne Jasperson as Samuel Seabury, Willie Smith III as George Eacker.
Below are excerpts of our chat:
Lia: What does it mean to make herstory as the first person of Asian Descent to conduct Hamilton on Broadway?
Lily: It means that a new generation of immigrants and girls who aspire to be in the arts will now have someone who look and speak like them. It means I can now be a resource for those who are interested in the field of musical theatre. More importantly, it means that ONE of us has broken through. I am keenly aware that I have been the exception and not the norm. I will endeavour to educate, mentor, and help propel Asian artists to similar places of success while I continue to work on my craft.
Lia: What did it feel like to make your Broadway debut?
Lily: It felt surreal. This is a show I have played and conducted for four and a half years but the significance of the performance was not lost upon me. I recognized it had been more than four years since there was a woman in the Hamilton pit and I would also be the first person of Asian descent to conduct the show. I was so well prepared and supported by the music team – the amazing Ian Weinberger and Mike Moise! I was also incredibly lucky to have debuted with a handful of my OG Philip (2nd national) Tour cast members. Once the downbeat started, the butterflies settled and much of the muscle memory returned. I had an amazing group of friends and family in the audience as well. It was an exhilarating evening!
Lia: How did you first become involved with Hamilton?
Lily: Roberto Sinha, the original music director for the Philip tour, and I met in grad school at Penn State. When he landed the job as MD/Conductor, he requested for me to submit and audition to be his associate. I spent my first year learning the show under Roberto with the Philip tour then moved to San Francisco to serve as the MD for the And Peggy company.
Lia: You have been travelling the globe for the And Peggy Tour and other projects. What prompted your move to New York at this time?
Lily: I have mostly been away from Toronto since August 2013 and have been nomadic for many years. Between grad school, The Lion King in Shanghai, and then touring throughout the US with Hamilton, I have been living in furnished rentals, AirBnB’s, and hotels for almost a decade. After spending time in Toronto through most of the pandemic, I felt a need to finally plant some roots and settle.
I have never felt like I fit in anywhere. I was born in China, grew up in Vancouver, moved to Toronto, and hit a glass ceiling when I was very young. I rediscovered my cultural roots in Shanghai but always felt like an outsider – someone who presented Chinese but had just differing enough values to ever fully belong. Throughout my career, Canadians assume I am American and Americans assume I am a New Yorker. It just felt like the right place at the right time.
Side note, I am also pursuing a part-time Doctorate of Education in Music and Music Ed at Teacher’s College. Living blocks away from campus and walking to classes has been an amazing experience!
I have only moved to New York for a month and I have never felt so embraced and accepted. New York is home.
Lia: This was not your first time working with Marc delaCruz as Alexander Hamilton. Please elaborate.
Lily: Every experience with Marc delaCruz is a joy and a treat! Pre-pandemic, the And Peggy company in San Francisco had a personnel emergency and we were very low on coverage. Marc flew in last minute, had a short walkthrough rehearsal, and performed the titular role that evening! His energy was infectious! I still remember how kind and lovely he was when we first met. And it was such a joy to perform with him again last Sunday!
Lia: How did you choose music as your profession and your life path?
Lily: I think music chose me. I can’t quite remember a time where music was not a part of my life. I started the accordion when I was three and a half and my accordion teacher suggested to my parents that I should take piano lessons. I was never the best student because I truly hated practicing. But I was gifted with incredibly patient teachers who saw my potential and pushed me with a lot of tough love. I ended up spending five years on my undergrad because my parents wanted me to be a doctor. But I just couldn’t stay away!
Lia: You are an advocate for education and outreach, and an active mentor for both MAESTRA, an organization that provides support, visibility, and community to the women and nonbinary people who make the music in the musical theater industry, and MUSE, an organization whose mission is to cultivate more racial equity in theatrical music departments by providing access, internships, mentorships, and support to historically marginalized people of color. What do you hope to accomplish with your involvement with these organizations?
Lily: I hope to bring visibility and accessibility to more women, Asians, and immigrants. I hope to use these platforms to speak not only with aspiring musicians but also to their communities. I hope my story and my ability to speak Cantonese and Mandarin can help the families of young artists understand that music and performance is not only an honourable career but also a pragmatic one.
Lastly, there is so much xenophobia in both the East and the West. I hope to use musical theatre and education as a bridge to reconnect our societies and humanity.
Music has given me so much. It taught me patience and tenacity. It has enabled me to visit and work in the most vibrant cities and amazing jobs all around the world. It has introduced me to lifelong friends and colleagues. I am incredibly aware how lucky I am to have the honour and call music my career. I do not take that privilege lightly and will endeavour to uplift women and my community for the rest of my career.
Lia: What were you were working on prior to moving to New York?
Lily: Most recently, I served as the music director and conductor for the world premiere of Bruce at Seattle Repertory Theatre. This show could not have been more different that Hamilton. It was such a refreshing experience – a palette cleanser after working on the same show since 2017. The music team was instrumental in the success of the piece. I could not have asked for a better boss than Greg Anthony Rassen and a more supportive and FUN associate in Angela Chan!
Lia: What’s your next project?
Lily: Next, I travel up to Syracuse to MD and conduct the world premiere of How To Dance In Ohio. This is an incredible piece that speaks to me not only as a musician but also as an educator. It is based on an HBO documentary with the same title and follows a group of autistic/neurodivergent teens and young adults in Columbus, Ohio as they prepare for a Spring Formal. The cast members who portray the teens and young adults in the film all identify as neurodivergent. I am so excited to learn and experience the show with this incredible team and cast!
Most recently, Lily served as the Vocal Music Coordinator for the Netflix movie adaptation of 13: The Musical. Other theatrical credits include Music Director and Conductor for the 20th Anniversary Off-Broadway revival of john & jen, Associate Music Director and Vocal Coach for the Chinese language premiere of The Lion King, Music Supervisor for the Chinese premiere of A Gentleman’s Guide To Love And Murder, along with numerous productions in Toronto including the Canadian premieres of Kinky Boots, The Light In The Piazza, Parade, High Fidelity, Jerry Springer: The Opera, and Reefer Madness.
Lily holds a BMus in Piano Performance from the University of Toronto and an MFA in Music Direction from Penn State University. She is currently pursuing an EdD in Music and Music Education at Teachers College, Columbia University.
Lily Ling will be conducting Hamilton on Wednesday, August 17, for the 2pm matinee, before she leaves for Syracuse Stage. Click here for tickets.
LIA CHANG is a Chinese-American actor, a multi-media content producer, an award-winning filmmaker, and a photo activist and documentarian, who lifts up and amplifies BIPOC communities and artists and the institutions that support them.
Lia moved to New York from her home in San Francisco when she was 17 years of age and made her stage debut as Liat in a national tour of South Pacific with Barbara Eden and Robert Goulet. She spent many years working extensively Off-Broadway, including Signature Theatre’s revival of Sam Shepard’s Chicago. Her film work includes Wolf, New Jack City, A Kiss Before Dying, King of New York, Big Trouble in Little China, and The Last Dragon. The decades of being viewed by others through the narrow lens of “Asian actor” in the industry brought Lia to a turning point, and she picked up her camera, determined to create awareness by documenting the work and the lives of her BIPOC colleagues, resulting in the creation of thousands of photographs and pieces of video. Her photo archives are housed in the AAPI collection in the Library of Congress’ Asian Reading Room under “Lia Chang Theater Portfolio collection,1989-2011” and in the “Lia Chang Photography Collection” in The Billy Rose Theatre Division of the New York Public Library.
Lia’s awards include the 2000 OCA Chinese American Journalist Award, the 2001 AAJA National Award for New Media and the 2022 Prospect Muse Award. She is also an AAJA Executive Leadership Graduate, a Western Knight Fellow at USC’s Annenberg College of Communications for Specialized Journalism on Entertainment Journalism in the Digital Age, a National Press Photographers Association Visual Edge/Visual Journalism Fellow at the Poynter Institute for New Media, and a Scripps Howard New Media Fellow at the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism.
More recently, Lia co-founded Bev’s Girl Films, which makes films that foster inclusion and diversity on both sides of the camera. She executive produced and starred in the indie films Hide and Seek (AA Film Lab’s 2015 72 Hour Shootout Best Actress Nomination), Rom-Com Gone Wrong, and When the World Was Young (2021 DisOrient Film Audience Choice Award for Best Short Narrative).
A retrospective of Lia’s photographs will be on view at the Museum of the City of New York later this year, documenting her BIPOC colleagues and contemporaries in the performing arts, which will include photos of Prospect Theater Company artists at work. http://www.liachang.com, http://www.liachangphotography.com Lia is also the host and Executive Producer of BACKSTAGE PASS WITH LIA CHANG, a new Arts and Entertainment program that airs on MNN.org.
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