Utah Shakespeare Festival premieres musical in northern Utah based on Transcontinental Railroad workers

Jonny Lee Jr. in a concert performance of "Gold Mountain," Ogden, Utah, May 2019 | Photo by Lia Chang, St. George News

ST. GEORGE — There’s a picture at the heart of Jason Ma’s new musical, “Gold Mountain,” which was developed by the Utah Shakespeare Festival and is opening at the West Valley Performing Arts Center on Thursday.

“Gold Mountain” tells the story of the Chinese laborers who worked on America’s first transcontinental railroad. The laborers, recruited by the Central Pacific Railroad Company, used only hand tools and dynamite to lay more than 100 miles of track through the Sierra Nevada mountain range.

But the commemorative photograph taken May 1869 at Promontory Summit in Utah doesn’t show any Chinese people, Ma said.

“‘Gold Mountain’ is an attempt to reframe, refocus and widen that shot,” Ma told St. George News. “Sometimes you have to make your own picture.”

For Ma, the journey that would culminate in “Gold Mountain” began in the mid-’90s, when he was playing in “Miss Saigon” on Broadway. Inspiration struck unexpectedly, he said, as he waited in the theater one day.

Headshot of Jason Ma, location and date unspecified | Courtesy of Jason Ma, St. George News

“I heard this melody,” he said, “which eventually revealed itself to be a song about two people falling in love. After that, the story and its people came to me. Usually, I’d come up with the story first, then map it out and come up with songs. This one came out of the blue.”

To capture that inspiration, Ma said he spent a lot of time writing in restaurants and phone booths all over Manhattan. His friend and roommate from UCLA, Alan Muraoka, was also in the “Miss Saigon” cast. Muraoka longed to be part of works like Ma’s.

“At that time, Asian Americans weren’t getting any opportunities to tell their own stories,” Muraoka told St. George News. “We had to do it for ourselves.”

Muraoka, a Japanese American actor and theater director who plays the owner of Hooper’s Store on “Sesame Street,” said he was excited to see that his friend was working so diligently to tell this story.

Roughly two years ago, Ma and company performed a concert version of the show in Salt Lake City. Actress Ali Ewoldt, who has played roles in Broadway productions of “Les Misérables,” “Phantom of the Opera,” and “The King and I,” was part of that cast.

“Jason asked me to look at the role of May as he was developing the show,” Ewoldt said. “I’ve been involved in the development of the piece ever since.”

L-R: Jonny Lee Jr. and Ali Ewoldt in a concert performance of “Gold Mountain,” Ogden, Utah, May 2019 | Photo by Lia Chang, St. George News

She told St. George News that Ma has crafted the role around her strengths, and the result is a complex, multilayered character who feels joys in spite of the traumas she’s endured.

“She’s a real person with a real story to tell,” Ewoldt said. “For those willing to listen, she tells a story that speaks to our shared humanity.”

Utah Shakespeare Festival’s director of new play development, Derek Livingston, said he was captivated by Ma’s way of telling a complex story about love and labor. Livingston also serves as the “Gold Mountain” dramaturg, the literary adviser or editor for the production.

“What makes this story so powerful is the way this man and woman come to America with hopes and dreams,” he said. “But they came to work, and that threatens to tear them apart.”

All of the artists involved said that they were excited for the show to open in West Valley City, which, they said, is the most racially diverse city in Utah.

“So this show is a natural fit for the community,” Livingston added. “There may be people in that audience who are aware that their ancestors helped to build that railroad, but they were pushed aside.”

Scene from a concert performance of “Gold Mountain,” Ogden, Utah, May 2019 | Photo by Lia Chang, St. George News

And that, Muraoka said, is the point.

“Even today, there’s anti-Asian American sentiment in the U.S.,” Muraoka said. “But we helped build this nation. We’re integral to the fabric of the United States.”

“Gold Mountain” was developed as part of Utah Shakespeare Festival’s commitment to developing new American plays. It will open at the West Valley Performing Arts Center, at 3333 Decker Lake Drive in West Valley City on Thursday and run through Nov. 20. Ticket and scheduling information may be found online.

Copyright St. George News, SaintGeorgeUtah.com LLC, 2021, all rights reserved.

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