The largely anonymous Chinese immigrants who built the American transcontinental railroad in the 19th century finally get a collective voice — and it sings! — in the world premiere of Jason Ma’s new musical Gold Mountain, presented by Utah Shakespeare Festival Nov. 4-30 in the West Valley Performing Arts Center in West Valley City, Utah.
The famous 1869 photograph of the Golden Spike ceremony — Andrew J. Russell’s “East and West Shaking Hands at Laying of Last Rail,” at Promontory Summit in Utah — focused sharply on white people as the builders of the railroad. You can’t discern any Chinese workers in the glassplate exposure. But some 20,000 Chinese immigrants were key to the building of the rails, which essentially laid the foundation for a modern United States of America.
Gold Mountain lyricist-librettist-composer Jason Ma, who is of Chinese descent, told me: “Recently, there has been a lot of pushback against the idea that there are no Chinese folks in the famous Russell photograph. But even if some of those blurry bodies on the outskirts of the photo with their faces turned away from the camera are indeed Chinese workers, the composition of the photo, centered on the white railroad bosses and their champagne toast, speaks volumes about the historical narrative, and it echoes the way we look at Asian folks in our culture at-large — backgrounded, marginalized, and unnoticed.”
Gold Mountain reframes that picture. A cast of 13 Asian actors (plus a white actor playing an Irish foreman) tells the story of a population of Chinese rail workers, including Lit Ning, who meets and falls in love with Yook Mei in the brutal context of Lit agreeing to become a “fuse runner” — planting dynamite in mountain tunnels and escaping before the explosions. The deeper the progress of the tunnel, the riskier it all is.
“I think on many levels, Gold Mountain is a social justice piece embedded into the traditional outlines of a classic musical form,” Ma explained. “That said, I don’t think my goal was to write about social justice. I just wanted to write a story about human beings, who are usually not centered in the stories that we tell in American culture.”
Gold Mountain is set three years before the east and west branches of the railroad were linked. It’s 1866 in the Sierra Nevada, in California, at the worksite for the Summit Tunnel near the Donner Pass. Ma says, “We meet a team of Chinese railroad workers, their Irish foreman, and a woman who comes and changes the lives of all.”
Of the company of 14, which includes Emily Song Tyler as the Yook Mei understudy, 13 actors are of Asian descent. Utah-based actor, director and educator Robert Scott Smith (who was so good in a reading of my play Two Henrys for Pioneer Theatre Company) plays “Hagan,” the Irish foreman of the team of all-male Chinese railroad workers.
“There’s not doubling,” Ma says. “Each Asian actor in the show, plays a single human being. That’s intentional, and I’ll leave it at that.” (Ma himself is a gifted actor with credits on Broadway and around the country, but that’s another story.)
The opening of Gold Mountain comes on the heels of the October announcement that Ma received the 2021 ASCAP Foundation Harold Adamson Lyric Award for Musical Theatre.
Here’s how Utah Shakespeare Festival bills the show “Gold Mountain, a new original musical, is a love story set against the backdrop of a pivotal event in America’s history: the construction of the first transcontinental railroad. It is a heartfelt, universal tale that celebrates the striving immigrant spirit, the redemptive power of love, and the ultimate nobility of self-sacrifice among a team of Chinese railroad workers.”
The Gold Mountain production team features director Alan Muraoka, choreographer Billy Bustamante and music director Amanda Morton. The cast also features Lawrence-Michael C. Arias, Eymard Meneses Cabling, Kiet Tai Cao, Michael L. Ching, Steven Eng, Kennedy Kanagawa, Darren Lee (who is also assistant choreographer and assistant director), Kelvin Moon Loh, Jimmy Nguyen and Viet Vo.
The team includes production stage manager Tanya Searle, assistant stage manager Sarah Hudson, costume designer Helen Q. Huang, lighting designer Jaymi Smith, set designer Jo Winiarski and associate music director/conductor is Joanna Li.
During rehearsals in Utah, bicoastal writer and actor Jason Ma took time out to answer a bunch of my questions about Gold Mountain.
In my white suburban Midwest upbringing, I wasn’t taught about Chinese immigrant contributions to our nation in any expansive way. As a student, how aware were you of the Chinese labor contribution to the building of America, specifically of the transcontinental railroad? What did you know about the laborers before you began writing the show?
Jason Ma: Same. In my white suburban West Coast education, I wasn’t taught about Chinese immigrant contributions at all. I believe it wasn’t until I was at UCLA as an undergrad that I began to get educated about Asian American history. When I started to write this show, all I actually knew about those particular laborers was that Chinese men “helped” build the transcontinental railroad.
And what sort of research did you embark on? What was the most surprising thing you learned in your research? And did it end up in the show?
Jason Ma: Full disclosure, I starting writing this show before I did any research. It started as a melodic/lyric fragment that came to be out of nowhere, and eventually expanded into a song, which currently occurs near the end of the first act. Characters, plot points, and other songs followed. This show was written from the inside out and the research that happened as I wrote was sometimes fact-checking and other times it was a guideline for what could happen next in the story. The most surprising thing I learned was that the Chinese railroad workers had to pay for their own food, housing and tools, whereas the white railroad workers did not. The Chinese also received a smaller salary and also, had a longer workday than their white counterparts, and you can bet it’s in the show. This inequity fueled a strike in 1867, and we have a whole musical number that depicts the heated lead-up into this work stoppage.
There’s a gorgeous ballad in your show called “Back in China.” I’m curious about the idea of characters looking forward and looking back. Can you share a little about that tension or how that plays out? That is, what do your characters seek in the moment, and what are their greater goals beyond the moment?
Jason Ma: Every character in this piece has this “tension” that you’ve identified, and this tension spills into every aspect of their lives, as it does for anyone who is an immigrant or a member of an immigrant family. Yearning for “home,” but desperately needing to be “here” creates a dichotomy in identity and a tug-of-war in your heart. How to adapt to the new, hostile country and culture in the present of the new world while keeping sacred the ties to your homeland and family of the past and uncertain future. The danger, always present, of going too far in adapting and too close in adjacency, and finding that you’ve begun to erase yourself in order to survive.
Without giving too much away, can you share what the title “Gold Mountain” refers to? Is it a real place? Is it metaphor?
Jason Ma: It is both a real place and a metaphor. The early Cantonese speaking immigrants from China called Northern California “gum san” in the 19th century, which translates directly as “Gold Mountain.” I love the idea of this huge, valuable, impossible-to-reach peak that our characters have to scale. It invokes the struggle and sacrifice of any first generation immigrant trying to achieve the American dream.
Did performing many roles in Miss Saigon (including playing Thuy) on Broadway specifically spark something in you that you wanted to express an Asian story? On some level was Gold Mountain a response (conscious or unconscious) to Miss Saigon?
Jason Ma: With the passage of the decades since that initial impulse to write this story, it’s become very clear to me that Gold Mountain is a response to portrayals of Asian culture and Asian people, written primarily by non-Asian writers of musicals, plays, television, film and every other kind of media. And yes, that includes Miss Saigon. It started out as a subconscious act, but I could see as the story began to unfold that what was being written was pushing back against many of the tropes and damaging narratives that were part of our standard societal shorthand, that was imposed upon Asian people in our collective storytelling.
Can you share a little about your own Chinese heritage? Your parents were born in China but you were born in the States? What did your folks do? How much are they on your mind as your show dawns?
Jason Ma: I was born in the Stanford University hospital, where my father was pursuing an advanced degree in Electrical Engineering. My mother and father were both immigrants from the Guangdong province, who came to the U.S. during periods of political upheaval in China, and they met at Stanford. My mother and father, as well as other members of my family and dear friends, are all embedded in the libretto. My father and mother’s names are Lit Ning and Yook Mei, the names of the two leading characters in Gold Mountain. By the time we had public presentations of the piece, dad’s health and mobility prevented him from seeing the show, but he read the script and listened to demo recordings. He passed in 2017, shortly after our Times Center concert in New York City. Mom has driven to Beverly Hills, flown to New York City and Salt Lake City to see almost every version of the show. She’s coming to West Valley City to see the world premiere.
How does your Asian heritage inform the musical? Is there something specific in the show that says, “That’s me and my family and my forebears”? Or is there some musical reference that you feel is culturally specific?
Jason Ma: The musical is grounded in a family-centered culture with Confucian, Buddhist and Taoist values that resonate very strongly with the Asian actors who have played these roles over the years and with Asian audience members. My friend, artist/community activist Lia Chang, once pointed out to me that Gold Mountain is the only piece in her experience, that can get Asian people to talk back to the stage during performances, and she’s right. It does happen! The relationship between father and son is particularly Chinese in its dynamic, and we have incorporated China into the score in various ways. There are elements of Chinese opera, old school Cantopop/Mandopop, the sound of Chinese instruments, and even the tonality of the Cantonese language is heard in the score. All of it is mixed in and hybridized with American musical theater genres. It’s a synthesis that feels like being Asian American to me, a musical embodiment of being of two cultures that clash, mix and eventually become a hybrid of both that is neither one or the other.
What sort of exposure did you have to theater when you were a kid? Were you in school plays? Where’d you grow up and go to school?
Jason Ma: My parents took us to see the first national tour of A Chorus Line the summer before I was to start high school. When we walked into the theater, I was a newly crowned math champion of my middle school, which entailed rounds of testing and competition. As it has been for so many, that iconic piece of theater about the lives of Broadway dancers, changed my life, holding up a mirror where I discovered some profound truths about my own identity and passions. Going forward, I was never good at math again, almost as if seeing the show had rewired me in some way. I tried out for my first musical as soon as I got to high school the next fall. I grew up in a suburb of Los Angeles on the Palos Verdes peninsula, received a BA in theater at UCLA and a MFA at George Washington University in classical acting.
What sort of musical training do you have?
Jason Ma: One of my biggest regrets in life is that I quit piano lessons when I was nine, having started as a five-year-old. I still struggle to learn and play successfully the more difficult piano parts that I’ve written. I played the trumpet in middle school and high school bands and orchestras, and stopped playing as a junior in high school to take my first drama class. Choir was always something that I made room for in school. No formal training in composition, but reading and absorbing music and scores has always come naturally to me.
How did you create the songs for the show — what’s your process? At a piano? Music and lyrics at once? Music first? Lyrics first? Does it vary?
Jason Ma: It does vary. With Gold Mountain, other than the first song which came as a melody with a lyric fragment, it was definitely story and lyrics first, and it is definitely the most lyric-driven score that I’ve written to date. But now? I’d say my usual process is to come up with a hook or key phrase, write a quick dummy verse or chorus, and then go to the piano for a while, then walk around for a while, then back to the piano, procrastinate by doing some long-neglected chore in the house, back to the piano, sit and stare into space while listening to whatever is going on in my head, procrastinate some more. Rinse. Repeat. Eventually, a melody and some underlying chords will crystalize, and then the lyric writing starts in earnest. I’ll keep whatever is still useable from the dummy lyrics and keep writing from there.
When you came to New York City to be an actor, were you aware that a dramatist was lurking underneath? What is the first thing you wrote for the stage? Did you write plays, too, or always musicals?
Jason Ma: The undergraduate theater program at UCLA was designed so that students had to learn to wear multitudes of hats as theater artists, often simultaneously. Because of that, I’ve always identified as a multi-hyphenate, and to this day, it is a struggle to stay in my lane as a collaborator. I also gravitate toward the similarly inclined when assembling creative teams and creative partners. Gold Mountain was actually the first full-length piece I’ve ever written for the stage and started me on a writing journey that continues to the present. Before that, I had written a good number of songs, but never a book a musical.
How is Gold Mountain different from (or similar to) another project you’ve written?
Jason Ma: I’m currently collaborating on another China piece, Broken Ground. I do think of it as a kind of companion piece to Gold Mountain. It is set in 1911 China, just short of 50 years after the completion of the transcontinental railroad in the U.S. My writing partner is my dear friend Christine Toy Johnson, and the piece is set amongst a community of women in the Hunan province who developed their own writing system called “Nushu,” a result of a society that didn’t educate women and their desire to communicate, connect and preserve their stories and history. It’s a really ambitious piece and there are a number of interesting roles for Asian women. We play with genre and toggle between a metaphorical world of gods and goddesses and a real world of a China on the brink of huge political and societal change that has the potential to change the lives of women forever in their country.
What musical theater writers or shows can you point to that perhaps inspired some of your storytelling? What cast album(s) would you take with you to a desert island?
Jason Ma: I would take A Chorus Line for the book writing, A Little Night Music for the score and lyrics (and probably Follies, too), Once On This Island for the genius in its apparent simplicity, and Hamilton because Lin-Manuel Miranda.
Is there a specific (perhaps secret and subtle) link between a treasured show and Gold Mountain?
Jason Ma: I’m going flip this question a bit, and start with an apology for being a bit of downer here. People will often compare the writing in the show with Golden Age composers and Sondheim, and I won’t quibble with that, because it’s true. Most of us who write musical theater are heavily influenced by the original greats of the genre. Decades have passed since I did the majority of the writing on Gold Mountain and the link that stands out to me, is the link to the past, and what the younger man who wrote that show decades ago was yearning for, but did not exist in the world that he lived in. He wanted a world and an industry where he felt included, represented and celebrated. A world where the essential humanity of Asian people was seen.
When and where did Gold Mountain have its first sponsored reading? Can you point to a major change that happened in the subsequent development process?
Jason Ma: I think I would point to our presentation of the first 30 minutes of Gold Mountain at the 2016 ASCAP/Dreamworks Musical Theatre Workshop as a major turning point for the development of the show and for its writer. As any regular attendee of the ASCAP musical theater workshops knows, the stated purpose is for a Stephen Schwartz-moderated panel of well-respected industry veterans to comment, analyze and encourage with the focus on the craft of songwriting and non-prescriptive feedback, all in front of an audience of musical theater aficionados and industry insiders. The discussion always starts as planned, but songwriting notes inevitably transition into long, protracted discussions about the book. (Why is it always the book that’s the hardest thing to get right in a musical?)
Non-prescriptive feedback [then] turns into [prescriptive ideas] “Why don’t you…” or “maybe you could…” and “have you ever considered…” And to be honest, those parts of the discussion were definitely the most useful and helpful to me. After getting feedback during the panel, we cut a song, refocused and reordered the first 15 minutes of storytelling, and wrote an entirely new song for one of the secondary characters. As a result, to this day, the show really moves in the opening beats, and drives all the way to the first still moment: our young leading man’s “I want” song.
The other key element that I took away from this evening was a new sense of confidence in the work and my abilities, all because Mr. Schwartz reacted positively to our opening number and told the audience he was worried when it was over, because he feared they’d have little to no feedback to give. The memory of this moment has become a personal talisman, a way to ward off self-doubt and negativity.
Share a little about your journey to Utah Shakespeare Festival.
Jason Ma: Staged concert performances of Gold Mountain were part of Utah’s Spike150 celebrations for the 150th anniversary of the completion of the transcontinental railroad. The artistic director of Utah Shakespeare Festival, Frank Mack, reached out to the executive producer of our Spike150 performances, Max Chang, and in late 2019 I traveled to Cedar City to the grounds of USF during their off season to discuss the possibility of a world premiere. That possibility became a reality, that still, with only days left until opening night, feels completely unreal!
White writers have been telling Asian stories for as long as musicals have been around, many with good intent but with some complicated and harmful impact. I think of the promotion of stereotypes or robbing Asian actors of work. What sort of conversations did you have with producers about insisting on an Asian production team/creative team? Was there pressure to bring non-Asian “stars” onto the creative team?
Jason Ma: The Utah Shakespeare Festival was ahead of the curve on this one. I believe that in 2019 they were already actively seeking to support pieces like Gold Mountain which is why they reached out to us. They welcomed the team we had previously assembled, noted that our cast and creative team skewed heavily male and together, we found women for our design and creative team to address the imbalance. It felt like we were on the same page from the get-go, and we feel extremely fortunate to have landed in such a welcoming, inclusive, and forward-thinking institution.
All of our interactions over the years have not been as fortunate, and I’d feel remiss if I didn’t mention that there have been a number of instances over the years of performative support and inclusion, many suggestions on how to make the piece more commercial or accessible by adding white savior tropes to the plot, multiple requests to change culturally specific elements in the writing that could possibly be alienating to “mainstream” audiences, and finally, so many meetings that ended with praise for the writing, but a rejoinder to let them know when I’d written something less esoteric and niche.
Was the current team on this project from the beginning?
Jason Ma: When we were selected for the ASCAP/Dreamworks workshop presentation, I knew that my old friend and former college roomie, Alan Muraoka, was the only person who I could trust to pull it together quickly, and give me both the personal and dramaturgical support that I would need to get through this very high pressure event, that was potentially a career-changing opportunity. When I asked him, he immediately agreed to fly to L.A. and help me make this thing happen. He’s directed every iteration of the piece since then, and what I love about our collaboration is that he and I have very different lenses through which we look at theater and storytelling. His dramaturgical insights over the years have been invaluable and he’s taught me to be a merciless editor of my own work.
Choreographer Billy Bustamante joined the team when Prospect Theater Company and Baayork Lee’s National Asian Artists’ Project co-presented our staged concert at The Times Center as a part of Prospect’s IGNITE series. We’re so lucky to have Billy, who is also a director, teacher and actor, and he brings so much insight into the physical, emotional and psychological threads of the story in the movement and choreography he has created over the years. With our current full production, he has created some astonishing set pieces of movement filled with humanity. The story is being told in a way that I had never imagined before. He is a next level creator.
I’d been hearing about the amazing Amanda Morton for years, but never gotten to work with her. One of the things that most intrigued me about her was that when we inquired about her availability for this production, her first response was that she would need to be a “thought partner” in the process in order to take the gig. It was not going to be just about plunking out notes and keeping tempo. She is a creative powerhouse who is not afraid to hold space and contribute to the process. When we met, we clicked instantly, and I still have such a huge talent crush on this woman. She is a top-notch musician, a born storyteller, and a generator of light and good vibes. The quality of life in our room has increased greatly because of this special soul.
What have you learned about the show (or what has changed) in the current rehearsal process? Has a song been cut? Something written and inserted? Have trunk songs accumulated over the years?
Jason Ma: There is literally one trunk song, which was cut in 2016, and the vestiges of it exist in a piece of underscoring/transition music. There have been multiple revisions of lyrics, song structure and new bridges in the score for the current production. We’ve inserted a “half-song” that sheds some more light into the inner lives of two characters, as they take in the news that the Chinese laborers will receive no concessions in their request for better working conditions and compensation that is commensurate to what white workers are getting.
Not a lot has changed when you look at the basic structure, the events of the plot, and the essence of each character’s personality since 1997, but the world and our audiences have changed quite a lot in decades that have passed, since the first draft. And I think that is what has created the most substantial changes in our story and the characters. As our world keeps changing, so do the ways in which our characters take in and react to the events of the story. The lens through which they view their lives has definitely been evolving over the years, and the fact that this piece can adapt and continue to hold up a mirror to the current world in which it exists, is greatly satisfying to me.
What would you like people to walk away with after they see Gold Mountain?
Jason Ma: More than anything, I’d love for them to consider and remember the long history of immigration in our country and the essential humanity of those who have come to our shores, past, present and future. We are a country of immigrants, and each wave, from the Mayflower onward, contributes to the body, heart and soul of our country.
What are your hopes for the musical beyond Utah Shakespeare Festival?
Jason Ma: We’ve been riding a series of waves that started in 2016, and every time I think we’re done, something else has come up to keep us moving. My hopes beyond USF are to keep on moving forward and in doing so, keep on moving audiences. It is a privilege to be the helicopter parent to this show, and I’m going to follow it around and make sure that it’s well taken care for as long as I’m needed.
The cast hails from all over the U.S. map, right? Robert Scott Smith is the only Utah resident.
Jason Ma: The rest of our cast is mostly New York-based, but we do have some West Coast folks and one actor from the Midwest. There was an embarrassment of riches when we put this group together. There were so many others that we loved and would have happily cast. It was difficult and at times, heartbreaking to narrow it down. I’d also like to take this opportunity to point out that my dear friend Ali Ewoldt, who has been involved with the project since 2012, has turned down multiple gigs, rescheduled vacations, and generally, turned her life upside down for us over and over again. Her loyalty and dedication to this piece over the years has been such a blessing. We’re so lucky to have her on our team.