The Disney-inspired Korean musical from Harvard became a hit online

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. – Disney made a frozen Scandinavian princess, a Chinese warrior princess and many others in between. But the Korean princess? Not so much.

Harvard University student Julia Reeve decided to fix it. Written by a 22-year-old Korean American “Shimchon: a folk tale” is a full-length musical inspired by a Korean folk tale with the obvious atmosphere of a Disney film – as her dissertation.

She was releasing fragments of it in TikTok since January and quickly gathered passionate fans through short videos showing how she turns into a Disney animated princess when she performs her songs.

Reeve even sparked interest from Hollywood and theater producers, and fans set about creating visuals and animations to help liven up her story.

“Honestly, it still feels like I’m dreaming,” she said recently. “It was nice to see the reaction, especially among the Korean American community.”

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Rio, who grew up in St. Louis, Missouri, before her family moved to New York and then Connecticut, hopes the musical will follow the same trajectory as others, successfully conducted and crowdsourced in TikTok in recent years.

Ratatouille: TikTok Musical debuted in 2020 as a charity concert featuring Adam Lambert, Wayne Brady and other stars after the idea spread for months on a social networking platform among musical theater fans and non-working performers.

Last year, the female duo, known as Barlow & Bear, went viral on TikTok with a song inspired by the Netflix-era soap opera “Bridgeton”. This led to “The Unofficial Bridgerton Musical,” an album of 15 songs now at the Grammys – for the first time for TikTok collaboration.

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The musical Reeve is based on the Korean folk tale “Daughter of the Blind” about a young woman who tries to restore sight to a blind father, but falls into the distant Kingdom of the Dragon.

In the Reeve version, young Shimchon grows up in a magical realm for years before embarking on an epic journey home. In this way, truths are revealed, obstacles are overcome, and there is no shortage of laughter and memorable songs.

If that sounds like a plot for many of Disney’s favorite works, that’s the case, says Reeve, who grew up on a constant diet of Disney and Broadway soundtracks and began writing her own songs and musicals at a young age.

“I was struck by the fact that this is a story about a young woman who goes on an adventure,” she explains. “There aren’t many stories about women in Korean folklore, especially those where they go on adventures.”

“Disney” is historically struggling to reflect the diversity of its audience by turning to stories that feature predominantly white characters and stereotypical images of non-white cultures, says Jana Thomas, a professor of media and communications at the University of Kansas in Manhattan, Kansas. social media, and wrote about a performance in Disney movies.

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But the entertainment giant has responded to calls for more representative work and has succeeded, from Moana 2016 to Coco, Soul, Raya and the Last Dragon and last year’s hit Encanto, she said. Disney’s Pixar studio animated film, which is scheduled to be released next week, with a Sino-Canadian teenage hero.

“Using Julia TikTok to build a fan base and get Disney’s attention was a well-executed move,” Thomas adds. “She used a social media platform that is preferred by demographic groups of users who support her goal of increasing representation in the media and entertainment. I would like Julia’s story to be an example for those who want to make the most of the initiative and positive forces of social networks. “

Disney officials did not respond to an email this week asking for comment. But even if the film studio does not call, Reeve is optimistic that Shimchon will live after graduation and begin a career as a composer and lyricist. She has already hired an agent to help navigate some of the first discussions.

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“It seems at this point the project will move forward,” she said. “Not sure yet what it means as a stage production, like an indie movie or something, but there was definitely interest.”

Reeve says she played with the idea of ​​a musical image from her Korean heritage for a long time, but began serious work on it only after the coronavirus pandemic struck, and she eventually returned home because the campus was closed.

Reeve admits that it was sometimes difficult for her to write a story, and she wondered if it was appropriate for her, as a Korean American of the third generation, to tell it.

“There were times when I tried to quit smoking when I felt like a fake loincloth,” she said. “But in the process, I realized that we can only really represent our own story, and that’s perfectly normal. There is no single way to be Korean. ”

Posting the video to TikTok not only helped create a stir for the project – it also helped her improve it.

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Reeve says she changed the character of Lotus, Shimcheong’s partner and the comic relief of the story, from a dragon to a humic – a mythical nine-tailed fox in Korean folklore – based on fan reviews.

“It comes to life,” she said, outlining her work to the sometimes critical eye of social media. “It was opening my eyes to understand how many people would like it to come true.”

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