Musical theater acts of kindness and vigilance

HuangMusical theater composer Timothy Huang started writing because he wanted to change the “nature of representation” for Asians and Asian Americans. He's at Harvard this week working with the Asian Student Arts Project and the original musical The East Side

By Truelian Lee ’21

Playwright and composer Timothy Huang has a way of cascading thoughts and words into each other, moving from one subject to the next.  Huang also makes statements with short, dramatic assertions.

Consider what he calls himself: “Composer. Lyricist. Asian Dude.” He received his BFA from New York University and his MFA in Musical Theatre Writing from the Tisch School of the Arts. Huang has written multiple shows featuring Asian and Asian American characters. In conjunction with the Office for the Arts and the Asian Student Arts Project (ASAP), Huang will offer a songwriting workshop, which is free and open to the public, 4-5:30 p.m. Friday April 12 in Farkas Hall.

Huang started to write to “change the national conversation.” “I think as an industry and as an art form, we're kind of a snake eating its tail. We honor things that are remakes and not innovative more often than not,” he said.

Writing shows about Asians, he said, was a response to the nature of representation of what he was seeing in the 1990s.Huang and students

“How do I make what moves me?” Huang said. “I love musicals that were about the Asian immigrant experience, from being first generation to second generation immigrants. And for me personally it actually means third generation.”

Timothy Huang will review original music by Julia Riew ’21, Michael Yin ’22, Ian Chan ‘22 and Chloe E.W. Levine ‘22 in a free and open-to-the-public workshop 4 p.m. April 5 at Farkas Hall. All are welcome. 

Huang highlighted the power of musical theater. He shared with me an opinion he first heard from the composer Maury Yeston.

“I think the human brain is actually doing something completely different when it's processing music and lyrics together, different from when you're reading, different from when you're listening to an instrumental song,” Huang said. “When the lyric is married so well to the melody and the harmonies, that's when the magic happens.”

In the decades since he’s started writing musical theater, Huang has witnessed the field evolving.

“I came from a very specific a time when if somebody wanted to write a musical, they first went to school for it. It makes for an academic and kind of unnecessarily intellectual angle,” Huang said. “I think that so much what's great about social media and the advent of the iPhone in particular is that when people are creating their own content and sort of learning on the cloud.”

Huang stressed the importance of helping others achieve their artistic goals. He tries to be vigilant to the work of emerging artists because he knows that any privilege that has allowed him access is a powerful tool for helping others. He was overlooked for 15 years, and he wants to be part of the force to prevent that from happening to others.

For aspiring writers, Huang recommends random acts of kindness to “sharpen your humanity.”

“I talk about this, but I never give examples, so it’d look like I was lying. I assure you I'm not,” he said. “I try to do anonymous favors for people like two or three times a year just for the sake of doing them.”

And ultimately, when it comes to the art, he advised: “Pay attention. Look for that detail. The devil's in the details.”