The world premiere of the musical “Gold Mountain” is Thursday, Nov. 4, at the West Valley Performing Arts Center — a mere 24 years after Jason Ma wrote it.
It’s a love story set in the Sierra Nevadas during the construction of the transcontinental railroad, shortly before its completion in 1869. A young Chinese man, Lit, who works as a “fuse runner” — he lights the explosives and runs away before they explode — falls for a young Chinese woman, Mei, who has been forced into prostitution to support her family.
It’s heartfelt, emotional, funny, dramatic and highly entertaining. Almost the entire cast is Asian American — and so is the backstage crew. The creative team — set designers, clothes 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,” director Alan Muraoka said, “especially at this time, to tell an Asian American story, given some of the things that have happened in the last two years — anti-Asian American violence and racism.”
But when Ma, who wrote the book, music and lyrics, tried to interest producers in “Gold Mountain” back in 1997, he met with “extremely negative” reactions.
“We think of the theater as being so open and liberal in its viewpoints,” Ma said. “But I got rejection letters that said, ‘Why would you write something like this?’ Or ‘Don’t you think it would be better if you just concentrated on making Chinese opera more palatable instead of trying to write a big Broadway musical?’ ‘That doesn’t sound like something that you would write.’”
He “didn’t have any sort of context” for the rejection then. “But in the present, we would know exactly what that meant — ‘You do not belong here as a person of color to write in our genre.’ Nobody would ever say those 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’d written. “I put it in a box and I put it under my bed and I let it go for a few years,” he said. He gave up writing and performing for a while. Went to grad school. But then he heard Ali Ewoldt sing when they were both invited to perform at a concert.
“I remember thinking, ‘Oh my gosh, this is the perfect actor to play Mei in ‘Gold Mountain!’” Ma said. And that prompted him to start “pushing for the piece again.”
It came out from under his bed and — with Ewoldt, who’s now a Broadway star, on board — was staged as a concert performance in a few cities, including both Salt Lake City and Ogden during the Spike 150 celebration in 2019 that commemorated the 150th anniversary of the transcontinental railroad. Following those performances, the leaders of the Utah Shakespeare Festival were convinced to produce “Gold Mountain” as a fully staged musical. Plans were well underway when the COVID-19 pandemic hit.
Once again, Ma “kind of let go” of the project in his mind, unsure whether the Shakespeare Festival would remain interested. “But they picked it right back up,” he said. “It was amazing. I couldn’t believe my good fortune, actually.
“I mean, I had given up hope,” Ma said with a laugh. And he didn’t really believe the production would happen this time “until we walked into the (rehearsal) room and started working. I’ve been so used to not having it be a full production that it’s been kind of mind blowing.”
A first for the Utah Shakespeare Festival
Ma was invited to meet with Utah Shakespeare Festival leaders in Cedar City in 2019, and he arrived feeling “intimidated.” But festival founder Fred Adams, Ma said, “happened to be 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 worker musical at the Utah Shakespeare Festival?” But Adams, who passed away 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 that they’re quite used to doing.”
The first full production of “Gold Mountain” will be the first nontouring show the Utah Shakespeare Festival has produced outside Cedar City. “Much of our audience here at the festival is from the Wasatch Front, and this is a great chance for them to see a Festival production in their own neighborhood,” said festival executive producer Frank Mack.
And festival executive director Brian Vaughn promised it will be “one of many future collaborations with the West Valley City Performing Arts Center.” (The 42,000-square-foot, city-owned theater at 3333 S. Decker Lake Drive is the former home of Hale Centre Theater.)
A first for theater
Ewoldt, who has starred 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 once,” Muraoka said, “is so rare …”
“Rare?” Ma interjected with a laugh. ”Let’s call it out,” Muraoka said. “It doesn’t happen.” Until now.
Most of the cast members have been involved with “Gold Mountain” for years, singing and acting in the concert performances. “We got to sort of handpick the people that we wanted from around the country who we thought would be right for this show,” Muraoka said. “And not only cast, but we also got to pick our choreographers and our musical team. We are comprised of an all Asian American team. I don’t think that’s ever happened before at a regional theater anywhere.”
Has the show evolved?
Since Ma finished writing “Gold Mountain” in 1997, the show 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 some new lyrics and new lines of dialogue, “but our characters have retained most of their sort of essential selves. ... But as our world has changed, they have all sort of started to take in this experience of being in a foreign country, building this railroad and being mistreated. Or treated as less than.”
It’s the kind or representation that Asian Americans have never seen on stage. And the first full production of “Gold Mountain” includes staging that its creator didn’t expect.
“I think we have even surprised Jason with some of the stuff that we have created,” Muraoka said. “In the best way possible,” said Ma, who was Muraoka’s college roommate. “There is so much magic going on in that room. I mean, part of it is also that we’ve all known each other for a long time. Many of us have worked together for decades.”
“Gold Mountain” tells a story of the Chinese workers who comprised 90% of the Central Pacific Railroad’s workforce. “And even in history, there was this idea of trying to — sort of for lack of a better word — whitewash the event,” Muraoka said. “The important part of this story is that we’re showing that the Chinese were actually a really integral part of the fabric of American history.”
It’s a part of history that’s been largely forgotten. Even Ma, who is the son of Chinese immigrants, didn’t know “until well after I graduated college. In my high school ... it wasn’t taught at all,” he said.
And, while it’s set in the Sierras, “Gold Mountain” certainly has resonance in Utah, where the railroad was completed. Before rehearsals began in Cedar City, Ma and Muraoka 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 run back into the gift shop and get warm,” Muraoka said. “And so for me, that was in a moment of — ‘Oh my God! These people worked in these conditions and survived in these conditions.’”
But “Gold Mountain” is not a grim story. It’s filled with quirky characters who are often very funny, with laugh-out-loud moments. Audience members don’t feel like they’re sitting in a lecture.
The goal is to entertain audiences. And if they learn a few things along the way, so much the better.
“It’s kind of like my day job on ‘Sesame Street,’” said Muraoka — a theater actor/director who has played the role of the owner of Hooper’s Store on the children’s educational series since 1998. “You educate while you entertain. You sneak all those little educational things in there. ... One of the aims of this show is just to have people walk out and go, ‘OK, I didn’t know that.’”
Even so, “Gold Mountain” is not intended to make audiences think, but to make them feel.
“This is actually something that’s to be experienced with your heart,” Ma said. “This is a love story. We’re just storytelling here, like any play or musical.”
Onward and upward?
Is the premiere of “Gold Mountain” the first step on the road to bigger and better things for the musical? Well, Ma and Muraoka have their fingers crossed.
“Sometimes the biggest obstacle for productions is actually getting to that world premiere,” Ma said. “And we’ve been given that. But because of the pandemic, all bets are off.”
And, Muraoka said, he believes that in the wake of the huge success of “Hamilton,” there are “more theaters trying to find different stories and different people.”
Ma did say that the West Valley shows have “already opened up a whole bunch of doors for the piece and for me to continue this journey. We do have people coming to see the show who are in a position to affect its future.
“This piece seems to always find its place in the sun over and over again. … If the past is any indication, it will rise again.”
“Gold Mountain” runs Nov. 4-20 at the West Valley City Performing Arts Center, 3333 S. Decker Lake Drive. There are 17 performances scheduled — 14 in the evening and three Saturday matinees.
Tickets are $59 and are available at wvcarts.org or by calling (801) 965-5140.
Face masks are required to attend performances.