The 22-year-old wrote and composed the musical based on a Korean folktale. She connected with the tale as a third-generation Korean American.
While Disney has been on a mission to create more animated movies like "Encanto" and "Raya and the Last Dragon" that feature diverse characters, the studio is yet to release a flick starring a Korean character. This is the gap 22-year-old Harvard student, Julia Riew, sought to fill when she wrote and composed an entire musical starring a Korean princess called "Shimcheong: A Folktale." Riew—who studies theater, dance, media and music at Harvard University—recently went viral on TikTok by sharing clips of her animated character singing original songs from the musical which she made for her senior thesis project.
"Now all the fish in the sea can't stop me. All of the waves in the world can't rock me. I'm on a mission and gee just watch me go," Riew sings in the first of the series of videos she has uploaded to the social media platform. The incredible tune titled "Dive," which shows the talented woman transforming into an animated character at the snap of her fingers has been viewed almost a million times since being shared on January 8 and has prompted calls for Disney to make the film a reality ASAP.
@juliariew 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 ♬ original sound - Julia Riew
"It's been my dream for a very, very long time to write for Disney and to be a musical theater writer," Riew told TODAY. She admitted that she initially chose a different concept for her final college project. However, six months after working on that idea, the COVID-19 pandemic hit and her grandfather passed away. "My grandma ended up moving in with us, and, for the first time, I was practicing speaking Korean with her and hearing all of her stories," Riew—who has been writing musicals since she was 15 or 16—recalled. "I realized how out of touch I was with Korean culture."
@juliariew Introducing the Korean Disney princess: Shimcheong! #disney #korean #korea #disneyprincess #musical #musicaltheatre #theater #shimcheong #한국 ♬ original sound - Julia Riew
She then started hunting for Korean folktales and was immediately inspired by "Shimcheong" aka "The Blind Man's Daughter." Explaining how she connected with the tale as a third-generation Korean American, Riew said: "It was a story about a girl who goes on an adventure, but also a story about a girl who's looking for home. I think that was something that resonated with me. So, I ended up choosing this folktale and then I've been working on it ever since for the last year and a half." She wrote around eight or nine different drafts of "Shimcheong: A Folktale" with some help from her mentor Jeanine Tesori, a Tony-winning composer, before settling on the current version which has an 80-page script, 23 demos and 16 full songs.
@juliariew Can someone with an actual villain voice please sing this?!!! #disney #shimcheong #korean #korea #disneyvillain #disneyprincess #musicaltheater #originalmusic ♬ original sound - Julia Riew
"I'm an orchestrator and arranger as well as a composer, lyricist. So in writing those songs, a lot of them came deep down from the heart," Riew said of her songwriting process. While working on "Shimcheong: A Folktale" during the last year and a half has been really challenging, she said it has also been a rewarding and meaningful experience. "I discovered more about my own identity as a Korean American and as a composer and my finding my voice so it’s been a lot of fun to work on," Riew explained, adding that she appreciates Disney's recent efforts to showcase lead characters with a diverse background.
@juliariew The Korean Disney prince is here 🤴🏻 #disney #korea #korean #prince #originalsong #musical #musicaltheater #theater #shimcheong ♬ original sound - Julia Riew
"I think it was hard to find things where I ever saw someone who looked like me on screen and, and still today," she said. "So, it's a little bit harder to find a Korean story specifically, but I'm excited about the fact that it seems like right now there is a push." However, she added that there's "always more that can be done" to improve diversity in Hollywood. "I think we're moving in this direction where all voices, and especially the voices that haven't been heard, can continue to be represented," she said. Hopefully, Riew will be among those leading the change. "I'm currently in talks with just a couple different people to try to see what the future of the project might look like. It's not super settled," she revealed. "Of course, the absolute dream would be to see it as an animated feature or on a Broadway stage."
My dream is to create the Korean princess that I wish I could’ve seen growing up. 🥰 Kaylee, you nailed this song!!!!! 💕💕💕♬ original sound - Julia Riew
"It's been meaningful to see (the) Korean American community coming together (to support) a project that I think would be really meaningful to our community," Riew explained. "And even now, it's getting a bit of traction in Korea. I think, for the first time, I'm feeling a sense of community and belonging that I've never really felt before." After graduating in May, she plans to move to New York City and become a musical theater writer.