At the age of seven, the Korean American from St. Louis, Missouri began composing classical music and at 15 years old “fell in love” with writing musical theatre where she wrote her first story and has “pretty much been doing it ever since.”
The 22-year-old continued the passion in her academic career and studied theatre and music at Harvard University where she recently graduated from - it was there she began writing "Shimcheong – A Folktale” as part of her college degree when she travelled on a personal journey of identity and self-discovery.
It started in 2020 when the world dramatically changed due to the Covid-19 as millions tragically passed away from the virus – including Riew’s grandpa, and it was when her grandma moved in that the songwriter connected with her Korean culture.
“For the first time I was practising speaking Korean with her and hearing all their stories about Korea,” she told indy100.
“And it made me realise how sort of detached from Korean culture I was in a way that I didn't want to be.
“So I decided that it was sort of time to unite my art, which is one of the most important things to me with my culture, which is another really, really important thing to me.
For Riew writing a musical for Disney “has always been a dream” of hers, especially since there wasn’t a Korean Disney Princess in the line-up she could relate to growing up, so rather than waiting for the studio to create one she came to the realisation that she could actually create the character herself.
“I realised in that moment, why do I have to wait to write this story? Why do I have to get permission to write this story from someone else when I could just write it myself? So that's where it began."
As a result of this cultural merge and epiphany, Shimcheong – A Folktale was born.
There was no Korean Disney princess so I decided to make my own :) #disney #korean #koreanamerican #disneyprincess #musical #originalsong #originalmusical #musicaltheatre #theater #music #newsong #dreamworks
It takes inspiration from Korean folk-tale 심청전 or 맹인 남자의 딸 (“The Blind Man’s Daughter”) and the story is all about a young woman called Shimcheong who bravely dives into the ocean deep in an attempt save her father. But she ends up trapped in the magical Dragon Kingdom and 10 years later decides to escape – with some obstacle along the way.
When it comes to composing a musical, where does one begin?
For Riew, the story is always the most important aspect.
“My process is very plot and emotion-driven,” Riew explained.
“I think music has such a wonderful way of taking us on an emotional journey. And so sort of envisioning how the music is going to take us on that journey and combining that with the lyrics that will move the plot forward or will reveal things about the character. That's how I make up each of the songs”
Of course, putting together a musical is no easy feat as the project took Riew over a year and a half to complete, and during this process, she always knew she wanted to post her work on TikTok.
During this time musical theatre thrived on the video-sharing platform, especially when we were all stuck at home during the pandemic and unable to attend live performances. A notable example of this success is when a 15-second viral song by Emily Jackson about Disney Pixar's chef rat, Remy which brought creators together to create Ratatouille: The Musical.
It only took a few weeks for a charity benefit concert presentation to be organised and the production was livestreamed for 72 hours where impressively 350,000 people streamed the performance.
Although Riew witnessed the demonstrable success musical theatre has had on TikTok, nothing could have prepared her for the viral reaction she received for her song “Dive”.
The video of Riew, aptly using a Disney princess filter and dressed in a traditional hanbok as she impressively belts out the empowering tune has received 1.2m views, 263,000 as well as thousands of comments who loved her original song.
“I had no idea how much that one single video could possibly change my entire life,” Riew said and added it was “definitely gratifying after working on a project for so long.”
The viral song piqued the interest of those in the entertainment industry as Riew described how she was “receiving emails and messages from producers, Hollywood producers, people in theatre people in entertainment.”
But for any creative, it can be a scary prospect to put something you have produced that is so personal out into the world which is something that ran through Riew’s mind as she composed the story.
“I was really afraid that I wouldn't be able to accurately represent my own culture. Which is a mix of two cultures.
“Ultimately, I'm Korean American. And there was so about Korean culture that I didn't know or understand that I had to learn during this process. And that I was really excited to learn and I think a lot of the during the process of creating the story.
“I was really, really afraid that I wouldn't be seen as inauthentic,” she added.
While Riew may have been apprehensive, she had nothing to worry about in the end as her musical was well-received all over the world and her story went viral in Korea, leading to Riew appearing on Korean TV and being interviewed by Korean musicians.
Can someone with an actual villain voice please sing this?!!! #disney #shimcheong #korean #korea #disneyvillain #disneyprincess #musicaltheater #originalmusic
She also received a lot of love from the Korean American community too – “I received countless messages from Korean Americans that said, 'This is something that I always wished I could have seen growing up.'"
“It was just this feeling of wow, this community has risen up to gather around this project that we are so excited about. And it was just honestly the warmest hug I possibly could have received,” she added.
While Riew’s creation was in response to a lack of representation in Disney Princesses, she does believe the entertainment industry is at a “turning point."
"We've been in sort of in this amazing turning point for the last year or year and a half or so where for the first time representation is not only welcomed but it's almost like it's in demand.
"I think it's really really exciting and I hope that I can just help contribute to that movement."
According to Riew, her “favourite part of the artistic process is collaboration” and so the songwriter was delighted when the opportunity arose for her to work with creators from around the world on the first-ever commissioned TikTok musical.
For You, Paige was created by Daniel Mertzlufft who previously worked on the iconic viral sensation Ratatouille: The TikTok Musical.
Roman Banks (High School Musical: The Musical: The Series) and Sri Ramesh (EarCandy), and hosted by Emmy®-winner and 18-time nominee Andy Cohen (Bravo’s Watch What Happens, star in the online production.
from #Broadway to your home, this is your front row-seat to #ForYouPaige, the TikTok musical! #ProjectBroadway 🎟 Part 1 - watch the full musical on our page.
The story is inspired by the real TikTok community, and features teenage music nerd Landon collaborates with his best friend Paige, on a TikTok song inspired by her favorite book series. Landon’s TikTok goes viral, thrusting him into the spotlight — and leaving Paige behind – until he realizes the power of collaboration, and that he needs her help, the plot synopsis says.
The musical was recently performed live on stage in New York City and streamed globally on TikTok - amassing over 40m views across the platform and raised $1m in ticket sales for the Actors Fund – something Riew couldn’t have imagined when she penned the track “Only and Only Me” for the musical.
“The prospect that I could have a song performed on Broadway, viewed by 14 million people was something I never possibly could have envisioned if you asked me even months before it had happened,” she said.
“One of the crazy things and one of the amazing things about TikTok is that it can bring someone from creating music all alone in their bedroom for no one to creating music for hundreds of thousands of people online.
“So I'm just honestly really grateful for the process for the opportunity and to be able to work with Dan [Mertzlufft] and Macy [Schmidt] and to hear out in the incredible performers. Roman singing the song is absolutely mind-blowing.”
“Only and Only Me” also has a personal connection to Riew who explained how it was “heavily inspired” by her own experience of writing Shimcheong and the pressure that came with creating her own musical, especially given she had to complete it as part of her senior thesis project.
“Throughout the process of writing, I was determined to make it the best thing ever. I admit I put a lot of pressure on myself actually, during that writing process to almost to the point where I was throwing out songs left and right. I was upholding almost an unreachable standard for myself.
Now, For You Paige follows in the footstep of the Ratatouille: The TikTok Musical as it has entered the 2022 Emmy race, competing in categories including Variety Special (Live), as well as craft categories in music, direction, and camerawork/technical direction.
Riew’s song “One and Only Me” is also up for “Outstanding Original Music & Lyrics” (Best Song) and as a newcomer, Riew admitted wasn’t too sure what she was looking at first when she received the big news.
“I remember I was in the car and I opened the email. And to be honest, my first reaction was what does this mean? Because I'm very, very new to this.
“I think this was such an exciting moment to be recognised in this way. I'm still even now finding my footing and understanding what it means to be able to create music for so many people and I think my primary reaction was just simply excitement and gratitude," Riew said.
As well as her Shimcheong project and For You Paige collaboration, Riew has also worked on a muscial called Alice's Wonderland with co-writer J. Quinton Johnson who recently concluded his Broadway debut as Hercules Mulligan/James Madison in Hamilton.