Jonny Lee Jr. at “Gold Mountain” concert, Ogden, Utah, May 2019 | Photo by Lia Chang, St. George News
ST. GEORGE –There is an image at the heart of Jason Ma’s new musical, “Gold Mountain,” which was developed by the Utah Shakespeare Festival and opens at the West Valley Performing Arts Center on Thursday.
“Gold Mountain” tells the story of the Chinese workers who worked on America’s first transcontinental railroad. The workers, recruited by the Central Pacific Railroad Company, used only hand tools and dynamite to lay more than 100 miles of track through the Sierra Nevada mountain range.
But the commemorative photograph taken in May 1869 at the Promontory Summit in Utah does not show any Chinese people, Ma said.
“’Gold Mountain’ is an attempt to reframe, refocus and expand this shot,” Ma told St. George News. “Sometimes you have to create your own image. “
For Ma, the journey that will culminate in “Gold Mountain” began in the mid-90s, when he starred in “Miss Saigon” on Broadway. Inspiration struck unexpectedly, he said, as he waited for a day in the theater.
“I heard this melody,” he said, “which ultimately turned out to be a song about two people falling in love. After that, the story and its characters came to me. Usually I did. first made up the story, then I organized it and made up songs, and this one came out of nowhere.
To capture that inspiration, Ma said he spent a lot of time writing in restaurants and phone booths all over Manhattan. Her friend and UCLA roommate, Alan Muraoka, was also in the cast of “Miss Saigon”. Muraoka aspired to be a part of works like Ma’s.
“At that time, Asian Americans had no opportunity to tell their own stories,” Muraoka told St. George News. “We had to do it ourselves. “
Muraoka, a Japanese-American actor and director who plays the owner of Hooper’s store on “Sesame Street,” said he was delighted to see his friend working so diligently to tell this story.
About two years ago, Ma and her company performed a concert version of the show in Salt Lake City. Actress Ali Ewoldt, who played roles in Broadway productions “Les Miserables”, “The Phantom of the Opera” and “The King and Me”, was part of that cast.
“Jason asked me to watch the role of May as he was developing the show,” Ewoldt said. “Since then, I have been involved in the development of the play. “
She told St. George News that Ma designed the role based on her strengths and the result was a complex, multi-layered character who felt joy despite the trauma she had suffered.
“He’s a real person with a real story to tell,” Ewoldt said. “For those who are willing to listen, she tells a story that speaks of our common humanity.”
Utah Shakespeare Festival new play development director Derek Livingston said he was captivated by how Ma tells a complex story about love and work. Livingston also serves as a “Gold Mountain” playwright, literary advisor, or production editor.
“What makes this story so powerful is how this man and this woman come to America with hopes and dreams,” he said. “But they came to work, and it threatens to tear them apart.”
All of the performers involved said they were thrilled the show opened in West Valley City, which they say is Utah’s most racially diverse city.
“So this show is a natural fit for the community,” Livingston added. “There may be people in this audience who know that their ancestors helped build this railroad, but they were put aside.”
And that, Muraoka said, is the point.
“Even today there is anti-Asian sentiment in the United States,” Muraoka said. “But we helped build this nation. We are an integral part of the fabric of the United States.
“Gold Mountain” was developed as part of the Utah Shakespeare Festival’s commitment to developing new American plays. It will open at the West Valley Performing Arts Center, 3333 Decker Lake Drive in West Valley City on Thursday and will run through November 20. Information on tickets and timetables can be found in line.
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