The world premiere of the musical “Gold Mountain” will take place on Thursday, November 4 at the West Valley Performing Arts Center, just 24 years after Jason Ma wrote.
It’s a love story that takes place in the Sierra Nevada during the construction of the transcontinental railroad, shortly before its completion in 1869. A young Chinese, Lit, who works as a “fuse” – he lights the explosives and runs away before they explode – falls in love with a young Chinese woman, Mei, who has been forced into prostitution to support her family.
It’s heartfelt, moving, funny, dramatic and very entertaining. Almost the entire cast is Asian American, as is the backstage crew. The creative team – scenographers, clothing designers – is made up entirely of women. And “Gold Mountain” is, arguably, more relevant today than it was when it was written.
“It’s so important,” said director Alan Muraoko, “especially right now, to tell an Asian American story, given some of the things that have happened over the past two years – the violence and anti-Asian racism “.
But when Ma, who wrote the book, music and lyrics, tried to get producers interested in “Gold Mountain” in 1997, he met with “extremely negative” reactions.
“We think the theater is so open and liberal in its views,” Ma said. “But I got rejection letters that said, ‘Why would you want to write something like this? Or “Don’t you think it would be better if you just focused on making Chinese opera more enjoyable than trying to write a great Broadway musical?” “” It doesn’t sound like something you would write. “
He “had no kind of context then” for the rejection. “But in the present, we would know exactly what that meant -” You don’t belong here as a person of color to write like us. “No one would ever say these things to me now. But back then, it was perfectly acceptable.
So Ma, a native Californian then working in New York, tried to forget about the show he had written. “I put it in a box and put it under my bed and let it go for a few years,” he said. He gave up writing and acting for a while. Went to higher school. But then he heard Ali Ewoldt sing when they were both invited to perform at a concert.
“I remember thinking, ‘Oh my God, he’s the perfect actor to play Mei on’ Gold Mountain! ‘,” Ma said. And that made him start to “push for the play” again. .
He got out from under his bed and – with Ewoldt, who is now a Broadway star, on board – was staged in concert form in a few cities, including Salt Lake City and Ogden at the Spike 150 celebration in 2019. which commemorated the 150th anniversary of the transcontinental railroad. As a result of these performances, the executives of the Utah Shakespeare Festival were convinced to produce “Gold Mountain” as a fully staged musical. Plans were well advanced when the COVID-19 pandemic hit.
Once again, Ma “kind of let go” of the project in her mind, unsure if the Shakespeare Festival would remain interested. “But they got it right away,” he said. “It was amazing. I couldn’t believe my good fortune, actually.
“I mean, I had lost hope,” Ma said with a laugh. And he didn’t really believe the production would take place this time “until we walk into the (rehearsal) room and start working.” I was so used to it not being a full production that it was a bit mind-blowing.
A first for the Utah Shakespeare Festival
Ma was invited to meet with the leaders of the Utah Shakespeare Festival in Cedar City in 2019, and he arrived “intimidated.” But festival founder Fred Adams, said Ma, “was in the lobby when I arrived. And he was so warm and so welcoming.
Ma said he was wondering, “What am I doing here with my Chinese railroad musical at the Utah Shakespeare Festival?” But Adams, who died a few months later, “immediately put me at ease. We talked about what it would take to put on a show of this size – something they are used to doing. “
The first full production of “Gold Mountain” will be the first off-tour show that the Utah Shakespeare Festival has produced outside of Cedar City. “A lot of our audience here at the festival is from the Wasatch Front, and this is a great opportunity for them to see a Festival production in their own neighborhood,” said festival executive producer Frank Mack.
And festival executive director Brian Vaughn has promised it will be “one of many future collaborations with the West Valley City Performing Arts Center.” (The 42,000 square foot Municipal Theater located at 3333 S. Decker Lake Drive is the former home of the Hale Center Theater.)
A first for the theater
Ewoldt, who has appeared on Broadway in “Phantom of the Opera”, “Les Misérables” and “The King and I”, stars in “Gold Mountain” as Mei. Jonny Lee Jr. stars as Lit.
“The fact that we have 11 Asian American men on stage together at a time,” Muraoko said, “is so rare…”
“Rare?” Ma intervened, laughing. “Let’s call him,” Muraoko said. “It doesn’t happen.” Until now.
Most of the cast have been involved with “Gold Mountain” for years, singing and performing at concerts. “We kind of handpicked the people we wanted across the country who we thought would be suitable for this show,” Muraoko said. “And not just the cast, but we also chose our choreographers and our musical team. We are made up of an American team of Asian origin. I don’t think this has ever happened in a regional theater anywhere. “
Has the show evolved?
Since Ma finished writing “Gold Mountain” in 1997, the series hasn’t changed much.
“We have the same number of characters. They all do the same thing. The plot has not changed, ”he said. There are new lyrics and new lines of dialogue, “but our characters have retained most of their essential nature. … But as our world changed, they all started to have this experience of being in a foreign land, building this railroad and being mistreated. Or treated as less than.
It is the genre or representation that Asian Americans have never seen on stage. And the first full production of “Gold Mountain” includes a staging that its creator did not expect.
“I think we even surprised Jason with some of the things we created,” Muraoko said. “In the best possible way,” said Ma, who was Muraoko’s roommate at college. “There is so much magic in this room. I mean, part of that is also that we’ve all known each other for a long time. Many of us have worked together for decades.
“Gold Mountain” tells the story of Chinese workers who made up 90% of the Central Pacific Railroad’s workforce. “And even in the story, there was this idea of trying – sort of for lack of a better word – to whitewash the event,” Muraoko said. “The important part of this story is that we show that the Chinese were actually an integral part of the fabric of American history.”
It’s a part of history that has been largely forgotten. Even Ma, who is the son of Chinese immigrants, did not know “until long after I graduated from college. In my high school… it was not taught at all, ”he said.
And, although it takes place in the Sierras, “Gold Mountain” certainly has a resonance in Utah, where the railroad was completed. Before rehearsals began in Cedar City, Ma and Muraoko visited Promontory Summit, where the last spike was driven to complete the transcontinental railroad.
“It was so cold that Jason and I lasted maybe five minutes before we had to go back to the gift shop and warm up,” Muraoko said. “And so for me, it was in a moment of -” Oh my God! These people worked under these conditions and survived under these conditions.
But “Gold Mountain” is not a dark story. It is filled with quirky and often very funny characters, with moments of giggles. Members of the public do not feel like they are attending a conference.
The aim is to entertain the public. And if they learn some things along the way, so much the better.
“It’s kind of like my daytime job on ‘Sesame Street’,” said Muraoko – a theater actor / director who has played the owner of Hooper’s Store on the children’s educational series since 1998. “You educate while you’re entertaining. You put all those little educational things in there.… One of the purposes of this show is just to get people out there and say, “OK, I didn’t know that.”
Even so, “Gold Mountain” is not meant to make the audience think, but to make them feel it.
“It’s actually something that has to be experienced with your heart,” Ma said. “It’s a love affair. We’re only telling stories here, like any play or musical.
Forward and up?
Is the “Gold Mountain” premiere the first step on the road to bigger and better things for the musical? Well, Ma and Muraoko are crossing their fingers.
“Sometimes the biggest hurdle for productions is getting to that world premiere,” Ma said. “And we were given it. But because of the pandemic, all bets are off. “
And, Muraoko said, he believes that as a result of the huge success of “Hamilton” there are “more theaters trying to find different stories and different people.”
Ma said the West Valley shows have “already opened a whole bunch of doors for the play and for me to continue this journey.” We have people who come to see the show who are able to influence its future.
“This piece always seems to find its place in the sun again and again. … If the past is any indication, it will rise again.
“Gold Mountain” runs November 4-20 at the West Valley City Performing Arts Center, 3333 S. Decker Lake Drive. There are 17 scheduled performances – 14 in the evening and three mornings on Saturday.
Tickets cost $ 59 and are available at wvcarts.org or by calling (801) 965-5140.
Face masks are mandatory to attend performances.