After realizing there were no Koreans in Disney’s pantheon of iconic princesses, 22-year-old Julia Riew set out to create one herself, complete with a musical.
The Harvard student, who grew up in St. Louis, Missouri, has been writing and composing for years. But with her seventh full-length musical to date, “Shimcheong: A Folktale,” she tapped into her Korean roots and went viral on TikTok where the story and songs resonate with people around the world.
“For the first time, I felt such a strong sense of community and belonging, which I always dreamed of,” Riew said in a video call. “I never imagined that something like TikTok…could take me to a place where I feel such a warm sense of belonging.”
The first song fans discovered Riew on TikTok, “Dive,” garnered nearly a million views, with fans performing their own renditions on an instrumental version. The uplifting lyrics encourage listeners not to be afraid and not to let anything hold them back.
The one-act musical tells the story of a brave young woman named Shimcheong who falls to the depths of the ocean trying to save her father. She enters the magic kingdom of dragons without any exit. Ten years later, she plots an escape, risking everything to find her way home. It is only at the end of the story that the volunteer Shimcheong earns the title of princess, and like any good fairy tale, this one is filled with adventures, a prince and an evil Queen Dragon. Riew posted short snippets of the Prince and Dragon Queen 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 folk tale “The Blind Man’s Daughter”, in which a girl sacrifices everything for her blind father whom she loves dearly. Riew, a third-generation Korean-American, began working on the musical more than a year ago for her senior thesis project, but said she didn’t expect it to take off in line. Her dream, she says, is to inspire others with stories that put “good in the world”.
“I think stories are so important to kids,” she added. “Especially as someone who, as a young person, never saw themselves represented in the media, in film, on television or on stage – it’s something I always dreamed of.”
Julia Riew snaps into character on TikTok. Credit: Courtesy of Julia Riew
Growing fan base
For Riew and other creators, the platform extends far beyond lip-syncing and dance videos. Fans of her fully scripted musical have also created fan art featuring her characters, and although Riew initially imagined Shimcheong’s trusty sidekick Lotus as a dragon, she loved fans’ suggestion that Lotus could be depicted as a “gumiho” or nine-tailed fox, instead.
Artist Victoria Phan draws the princess alongside a gumiho, or nine-tailed fox, named Lotus. Credit: Courtesy of Victoria Phan (Instagram: @Vdoodles)
Riew’s fans – which include parents, children and Disney enthusiasts around the world – say they would love to see the story on the big screen.
“(The buzz) started in America and then it started trending on Korean Twitter,” Riew said, adding, “Even beyond producer contacts is when parents say to me, ‘J I have a 5-year-old or 3-year-old or 9-year-old child – I know they would love to see this film on screen, and we have listened to your songs. It’s really the thing that warms my heart the most.”
Although she started writing musicals at the age of 15, Riew was unsure whether to pursue a career in musical theater and she first enrolled as a pre-school student. medicine.
“I was afraid to be an artist. I was afraid to embark on a career that didn’t seem to be sustainable,” she said. “I think a lot of it came from my desire to fit in with the Asian American community. I didn’t really see a lot of other Asian students taking acting at the time, but a lot of things have changed over the years.”
Artist MiJin imagines what Shimcheong would look like dressed in traditional hanbok. Credit: Courtesy of MiJin ([email protected])
During her freshman year, Riew participated in Harvard’s “First-Year Musical,” which gives freshmen the opportunity to create and produce a musical. During auditions for the show, however, she was discouraged by the lack of Asian representation.
“It kind of made me feel like, ‘Oh maybe that’s not the thing for me, but, at the same time, it fueled my desire to want to create more space for students. Asians on campus who might not have discovered theatre.”
Riew changed her major to musical theater the summer after her sophomore year, and since then her shows have been staged at the American Repertory Theatre, Farkas Hall and the Agassiz Theater at Harvard University, ‘UNC-Greensboro School of Theater and more.
The writing process for “Shimcheong: A Folktale” was difficult 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 connect with her Korean heritage.
“My inspiration definitely came from a lot of different places,” she said. “I would say it comes first and foremost from my journey of finding belonging. I’ve been thinking a lot lately about identity and how that intersects with the art and the stories we choose to tell. I I was really inspired by my grandparents, and my college experience – and that’s kind of how I found my way to ‘Shimcheong’.”
Riew, a Harvard student, has been writing musicals since she was 15. Credit: Courtesy of Ramona Park
“It was an exciting time. But in many ways, it was an eye-opening moment when I realized that this place that I always looked to and imagined myself to belong to was far more different than what I felt myself to be. was waiting,” she said. “And I was a lot more of an underdog than I thought I was.”
Although 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 has 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.
“I’ve always dreamed of walking down the street and hearing a kid sing my song,” Riew said. “I feel like I’m almost living that dream right now seeing the duets of all kinds of people singing the song. It was amazing.”
Disney may not have picked up the script yet, but Riew has already heard from producers and filmmakers interested in bringing the story to a wider audience. Right now, she’s working with an agent to determine 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 really, really grateful.”