After realizing there weren’t any Koreans in the pantheon of iconic Disney princesses, 22-year-old Julia Riew set out to create one herself, along with an accompanying musical.
The Harvard student, who grew up in St. Louis, Missouri, has been writing and composing for years. But with her seventh full musical to date, “Shimcheong: A Folktale,” she has tapped into her Korean roots and gone viral on TikTok where the story and songs are resonating with people around the world.
“For the first time, I have felt such a strong sense of community and belonging, which I’ve always really longed for,” said Riew in a video call. “I never imagined that something like TikTok … could bring me to a place where I feel such a warm sense of belonging.”
The first song that led fans to discover Riew on TikTok, “Dive,” has garnered almost a million views, with fans performing their own renditions over an instrumental version. The uplifting lyrics encourage listeners to be fearless and not let anything hold them back.
“Now all of the fish in the sea can’t stop me,” Riew sings in the 41-second clip, using a filter to transform herself into a Disney-style animated character. “All of the waves in the world can’t rock me. I’m on a mission and gee, just watch me go!”
The one-act musical tells the story of a brave young woman named Shimcheong who falls into the depths of the ocean while trying to save her father. She enters the magical Dragon Kingdom with seemingly no way out. Ten years later, she plots an escape, risking it all to find her way home. It’s not until the end of the story that the strong-willed Shimcheong earns the title of princess, and like any good fairytale, this one is filled with adventure, a prince and a villainous Dragon Queen. Riew released short clips of both the prince and Dragon Queen’s songs on TikTok, but eager fans will have to wait to hear all 16 tracks in their entirety.
The musical is an adaptation of the Korean folktale “The Blind Man’s Daughter,” in which a daughter sacrifices everything for her blind father whom she loves dearly. Riew, a third-generation Korean American, began working on the musical over a year ago for her senior thesis project but said she never expected it to take off online. Her dream, she said, is to inspire others with stories that put some “good into the world.”
“I think stories are so important for kids,” she added. “Especially as someone who, as a young person, never saw herself represented in media, or in film, TV or on stage – that was something I always longed for.”
Growing fan base
When it comes to musical theater in the age of Covid-19, TikTok and Gen Z have proven a powerful combination. In 2020, TikTok creators joined forces to produce “Ratatouille: The Musical” after a schoolteacher’s squeaky 15-second video about Disney Pixar’s beloved rat, Remy, went viral. The collaborative production, which came together in a matter of weeks, was online for 73 hours and was streamed by 350,000 people – a viewing figure equal to that of a year-long run at a sold-out Broadway show.
For Riew and other creators, the platform stretches far beyond lip-syncing and dance videos. Fans of her fully scripted musical have also created fan art featuring her characters, and though Riew initially pictured Shimcheong’s trusty sidekick, Lotus, as a dragon, she loved fans’ suggestion that Lotus could be represented as a “gumiho,” or nine-tailed fox, instead.
Riew’s fans – which include parents, kids and Disney enthusiasts across the globe – say they’d like to see the story on the silver screen.
“(The buzz) started off in America and then it started trending on Korean Twitter,” Riew said, adding: “Even beyond producers reaching out, it’s when parents tell me, ‘I have a 5-year-old, or 3-year-old, or 9-year-old – I know that they would love to see this movie on screen, and we’ve been listening to your songs.’ That is really the thing that warms my heart most of all.”
Though she began writing musicals at the age of 15, Riew wasn’t sure she would pursue musical theater as a career, and she initially enrolled as a pre-med student.
“I was afraid of being an artist. I was afraid of going into a career that didn’t seem sustainable,” she said. “I think a lot of it came from my desire to fit in with the Asian American community. I wasn’t really seeing that many other Asian students take theater at the time, but a lot has changed over the years.”
During her freshman year, Riew participated in Harvard’s “First-Year Musical,” which gives freshmen the opportunity to create and produce a musical. At auditions for the show, however, she was disheartened at the lack of Asian representation.
“That sort of made me feel like, ‘Oh maybe this isn’t the thing for me, but, at the same time, it fueled my desire to want to create more of a space for the Asian students on campus who might not have discovered theater.”
Riew switched her major to musical theater the summer after her sophomore year and, since then, her shows have been staged at the American Repertory Theater, Harvard University’s Farkas Hall and Agassiz Theater, The UNC-Greensboro School of Theater and more.
Search 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 passed away and her grandmother moved in with her, Riew found herself wanting to get more in touch with her Korean heritage.
“My inspiration definitely came from a lot of different places,” she said. “I would say, foremost, it came from my journey to search for belonging. I’ve recently been thinking a lot about identity and how that intersects with artistry and the stories that we choose to tell. I was really inspired by my grandparents, and my experience in college – and that’s sort of how I found my way to ‘Shimcheong.’”
When she took her first trip to Seoul, South Korea, at 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 this place that I always looked to and imagined myself belonging to was much more different than I expected,” she said. “And I was much more of an outsider than I expected.”
Though Riew and her family celebrate both Korean and American traditions, she was not surrounded by a large Korean community growing up. In recent years, she strived to learn more about her Asian roots, whether through Korean classes at school or through her music. Now, she hopes people of all ages can be inspired by Shimcheong’s story.
“It’s always been my dream to be walking down the street and hear a child singing my song,” Riew said. “I feel like I’m almost living that dream right now seeing the duets from all different kinds of people singing the song. It’s been incredible.”
Disney may not have picked up the script yet, but Riew has already heard from producers and filmmakers interested in bringing the story to bigger audiences. For now, she is working with an agent to figure out what’s next.
“It’s probably been the craziest three weeks of my life, but it’s a really, really exciting time,” she said. “And honestly, I’m just really thankful.”