But looking back, it is important to note that not everyone shared the same spellbinding experience. We know now that representation matters, and many kids missed out on the feeling of empowerment that comes with seeing someone who looks like you on-screen.
That is why 22-year-old composer-lyricist and playwright Julia Riew set out to create her own Disney princess, whose story is based on her Korean heritage.
Riew is a current senior at Harvard University, soon to graduate with a degree in Theater and Music. She has worked on several projects, including “Alice’s Wonderland,” an original musical in collaboration with J Quinton Johnson, “Jack and the Beanstalk: A Musical Adventure,” a TYA (Theater for Young Audiences) show commissioned for the American Repertory Theater (A.R.T.)’s 2020 Family Musical and “Thumbelina: A Little Musical” (The A.R.T. 2019 Family Musical), but she recently received international support for her original musical, “Shimcheong: A Folktale.”
After introducing the concept of “Shimcheong” on TikTok with the caption, “There was no Korean Disney princess so I decided to make my own,” Riew gained an influx of followers who were just as invested in her quest to create a Korean princess.
The initial post has accumulated over 1.1 million views, and Riew has since continued to post updates documenting her progress, as well as behind-the-scenes clips of her creative process in writing and composing the musical’s soundtrack. Although the future of the project has not yet been set in stone, the quick success of “Shimcheong” amongst the public can be attributed to Riew’s extensive background in writing.
From a young age, Riew displayed a fascination with performance storytelling. While other children might have enjoyed games such as tag or foursquare during their break time, Riew was creating plotlines and writing songs with her friends.
“I’ve been in love with theater and storytelling for as long as I can remember,” Riew said. “In elementary school, drama was my favorite class, and I’d make up little plays or musicals on the playground and ‘direct’ my friends in them and we’d perform for the teachers during recess.”
By around seven-years-old, Riew was already composing her own music, and by 15, she had written her first musical. As a teenager, this accomplishment bolstered her love for the creative process.
But how did Riew’s love for writing and composing fuel her journey into creating the first Korean Disney Princess?
Riew was ultimately driven by the theater and film industry’s lack of Asian, and specifically Korean American, representation. In an early TikTok post, Riew said, “‘Shimcheong: A Folktale’ is the Disney movie that I wish I could’ve grown up seeing as a Korean-American kid.”
Though the project, which started as her senior thesis at Harvard, is not affiliated with Disney, Riew expressed her hope that supporters would give her musical a platform and eventually catch the eye of Disney producers and filmmakers.
“Shimcheong: A Folktale” is inspired by the Korean folk-tale 심청전 or 맹인 남자의 딸 (“The Blind Man’s Daughter”). The one-act musical follows a brave young woman named Shimcheong, who dives into the depths of the ocean to save her father.
She finds herself trapped in the magical Dragon Kingdom until she sets out to escape 10 years later. Riew’s musical chronicles Shimcheong’s journey home — a trip that involves a prince, a villainous Dragon Queen and a variety of obstacles that will ultimately lead to Shimcheong’s princess status.
“I sort of followed the Disney formula in that I looked at the original folktale, identified the main themes, characters and overall story arc, and then created an entirely new story of my own,” Riew said. “It resembles the original Shimcheongjeon probably as much as ‘Frozen’ resembles The Snow Queen.”
But considering the story’s strong cultural foundation, it is clear that Riew’s work goes beyond Disney’s standard formula. In fact, Riew drew much of her inspiration from Korean cultural music and themes.
The score, for example, features a variety of styles, including trot, a genre of Korean popular music known for its repetitive rhythm and vocal inflections. And, true to her identity, many of the themes featured throughout “Shimcheong: A Folktale” revolve around common Korean American experiences.
The musical not only represents many of the struggles multi-generation Korean Americans face growing up in America, but it also reflects Riew’s personal relationship with culture and her struggle to embrace both halves of her identity.
Growing up in St. Louis, MO, where she was often the only Korean American in social settings, Riew longed to find a place where she felt like she truly belonged. For many years, she expected that Korea would be that place. It wasn’t until she visited the country that she realized neither location seemed to embody her identity.
“I was shocked to find that I felt even more like an outsider and foreigner [in Korea] than I had ever felt in St. Louis,” Riew said.
She has shared on TikTok that she is still learning to accept the duality of her identity and that the main plot of “Shimcheong: A Folktale” is a direct reflection of her search for a sense of belonging.
Shimcheong’s desire to return home is parallel to Riew’s own battle with cultural identity, and Shimcheong’s impulsive decision to dive into the water to save her father serves as a metaphor for many first, second and third-generation children of immigrants such as herself, Riew said.
“As a Korean-American who grew up in the middle of the United States dreaming about visiting Korea and reuniting with my culture, I felt very connected to Shimcheong’s journey of wishing to return home and reunite with her father in the original folktale,” she said.
Throughout the course of the project, Riew used her research as an opportunity to learn more about her heritage. After the passing of her grandfather in 2020, Riew became especially close to her grandmother, with whom she would practice speaking Korean.
During this time, her grandmother would share stories from her past and parts of Korean history.
“Listening to her stories made me realize how out of touch I truly was with Korean culture and that it was time for me to unite my ancestry with my art,” Riew said.
With this goal in mind, Riew set to work on creating a piece that truly represented each part of her identity. Not only would her musical portray an accurate representation of Korean culture and feature an all-Korean cast, but it would also have a largely female-driven plot. The protagonist, villain, comedic sidekick and best friend characters are all women, Riew said.
For the workshop production of “Shimcheong: A Folktale,” she cast eight other Harvard students to play the roles of “Appa,” “the Dragon Princess,” “Young Yena,” “Jae,” “Hana,” “Lotus,” “the Dragon Queen” and “Young Shimcheong.” Riew herself will be portraying “Shimcheong.”
“My favorite part of the making of a new musical is auditions,” Riew said. “It’s the first time you hear your characters and songs come to life, personified by real people.”
After casting, she worked with the Harvard Radcliffe Dramatic Club to mount a staged reading. She received input and then started the long process of fine-tuning her work. When asked about her creative process throughout the whole journey, she summarizes her 20-page senior thesis critical essay for me.
“Long story short…I started off with a single concept,” she said. “Wrote a treatment and scene-by-scene plan including where all the songs would go. Started following that treatment and wrote over the course of a year and a half, taking many breaks — some as long as two or more months — had several identity crises, and finally finished in January.”
Though Riew has already submitted her senior thesis project, her work is far from over. The lyricist and playwriter is excited to see what the future will bring for her musical and will continue to advocate for the first Korean Disney princess. To her fans and others interested in seeing “Shimcheong: A Folktale” on the big screen someday, Riew says, “Stay tuned.”