East Side Story

4: Cynthia Meng // From Moulin Rouge to Hadestown

Episode Summary

Having music assisted on Hadestown (Broadway), In The Green (Off-Broadway) and Moulin Rouge (Pre-Broadway), Cynthia Meng has worked with some incredible composers, music directors and orchestrators. Every time I asked for recommendations for Asian music directors, Cynthia's name was mentioned. And even though I haven't had the chance to work with Cynthia on a full musical development process, she music directed a concert at Joe's Pub for Musical Theatre Factory and that's where I got to work with her. Only one year going from a full-time job to a freelance artist, Cynthia has been in rooms that other musicians can only dream to be in. I was curious as to how she got started, more insight on what music assistants do on Broadway, and how her identity has helped or hindered her. Full transcript available on website. Instagram: @eastsidestorypod / @cheeyangmusic / @cynthiameng

Episode Notes

Grappling with Otherness

"Don't ever forget, you will be thought of as an other." - Cynthia Meng

Within a year of freelancing, Cynthia has worked in rooms for musicals in-development on Broadway, Off-Broadway and out-of-town tryouts. What is her secret? Does it only have to do with luck, like she puts it? Or is it more? I believe there's certainly more to that and we investigate that in the episode.

In This Episode, You Will Learn:

Some Questions We Discuss:

Links and Resources:

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Episode Transcription


Cynthia [00:00:00] Yea. It's like I feel very uh... isolated. Even though the fact that, like, it's clearly in a marketplace...

Cheeyang [00:00.08] And like everybody can look in, it's like a little fish tank and it's like, we're just like...

Cynthia [00:00:10] Yea! I feel like I'm in a museum or something. (laughs)

(EAST SIDE STORY Theme Song Plays)

Cheeyang [00:00:17] This is East Side Story and I'm your host Cheeyang Ng. Each week I sit down with an Asian or Asian-American artist working in the New York theater scene and I excavate their life story. How they grew up, how they got their start in theater, as well as projects they've worked on and upcoming work that we should anticipate.

Cheeyang [00:00:38] This week's guest is Cynthia Meng. Cynthia music assisted on the musical Hadestown, which won 8 Tony Awards including Best Musical and she also assisted Grace McLean's In The Green that played at Lincoln Center. I finally got to work with Cynthia for one of Musical Theatre Factory's Concerts and I was struck by her positivity, musicianship and the way she commanded a room with precision and confidence. This episode is recorded with Listening Party inside Canal Street Radio. Shoutout!

(EAST SIDE STORY Theme Song Ends)

Cheeyang [00:01:09] Tell everybody a little bit more about yourself, and who you are, what you do and a little tidbit!

Cynthia [00:01:15] Cool. I'm Cynthia. Cynthia Meng. "Meng", technically, I guess.

Cheeyang [00:01:19] Yes!

Cynthia [00:01:20] And I'm a music director, pianist, sometimes composer, but I really wouldn't bill myself that way. But I work a lot in theater and I, I used to be a software engineer. That was also something I used to do. And this was kind of a recent career change for me. So...

Cheeyang [00:01:35] I love it. Wait. Can I ask how old you are. Is that a taboo question?

Cynthia [00:01:39] No! That's not taboo. I'm 25.

Cheeyang [00:01:41] My God you're a baby.

Cynthia [00:01:43] I... That's really funny because I mean, I don't know. You know, I'm doing assistant work now and sometimes it feels like I'm old to be an assistant.

Cheeyang [00:01:53] No!

Cynthia [00:01:55] Because you see all these kids coming out of school. And I'm like, OK well I'm not, like, right out of school anymore. I got, you know, I will acknowledge, OK, obviously, like, I'm not, like, old but, you know, there are those young young whippersnappers coming out of college and I'm definitely not that. So...

Cheeyang [00:02:10] Yea you're only three years older. Calm down.

Cynthia [00:02:12] I know but, you know, I think that's probably part of growing up. Is, like, is that you you feel older than, like, the people who are younger than you. And I just feel so old compared to you, like, you're 21 and right out of school and I'm like, I already have a few years under my belt so...

Cheeyang [00:02:26] Yes. Just Imagine. Just imagine. Give it a few more years. And you'll be like... Like I'm 45. No I'm not 45. But, like, it feels like I'm 45? And I'm, like, oh God...

Cynthia [00:02:35] But the great news is Asian don't raisin. So, like, we're gonna look young and [inaudible] for a while.

Cheeyang [00:02:41] People constantly think I am, like, 18. I'm like, "Okay great. Sure, I'll take it. Why not?" Share a little bit about your background. How you grew up? Where you grew up? How you grew up? What kind of environment were you in?

From Chicago to California

Cynthia [00:02:53] Cool. My parents are immigrants. They came from China in '89. They were students when they came. They got their masters degrees here. And so I was born in the States. I'm the eldest of three.

Cheeyang [00:03:05] Wow.

Cynthia [00:03:05] So I was born in the states and then... Born in Chicago. Lived there for, like, a little bit but, like, not enough to remember anything. And then to California and that's where I lived and grew up. So I lived in the Bay Area, which was a interesting place to, to grow up. I played classical piano like every good Chinese kid that I knew. I grew up playing classical piano so I was trained from a very young age and you know what I was like five or six playing little preludes and stuff. And I did the competition route. That was... I don't mean this... I'm not shading like my parents, or my teachers, because I do appreciate all the things that I grew up with, but the competition thing was horrible. It was really bad for me, like...

Cheeyang [00:03:50] Why?

Cynthia [00:03:52] I don't know. I think that when you put that kind of pressure on a kid, like a young kid, and I don't know... Everyone gets like very competitive around, like, you know, who gets the prize and stuff. So it just, it was so much pressure and I really felt that as a kid, and... And as a result, at least with the type of personality I was maybe, I just would choke. Like that was, like, my thing. Choking under pressure. So I would, you know... You have this piece you practiced, whatever, you memorized all these things and then you get up on the stage and all of a sudden you're like, "Oh my God I can't do it. I forgot how to play piano, you know." And that was really like, you know, that was a pretty big part of my life. And, and it was very... I was the least happy when I was competing.

Cheeyang [00:04:40] Competing.

Cynthia [00:04:40] Like, I think that was the truth and 'cause I loved playing and there were... I don't know, like, they were just so many moments where I was like... "I feel like I don't like this. But I also really do like it." And I couldn't figure out why. And obviously now, in hindsight, it's like, "OK. Well... I didn't love the fact that I had to be put in these super high pressure situations that ultimately now in my life, like, don't matter at all."

Cheeyang [00:05:02] Yeah.

Cynthia [00:05:03] But that was, you know, that was that was my introduction to music.

Cheeyang [00:05:06] Did all three of your, like, you and your two siblings... Did you all go through the same thing?

Cynthia [00:05:10] We all did. I was definitely the most intense one. And then like each progressive sibling was like less. So part of me was like, "Ugh you guys don't know.".

Cheeyang [00:05:20] 'Cause you paved the way. So...

Cynthia [00:05:21] Right. I mean and... They saw, you know. They definitely saw the emotional toll it took. I mean, like, 50% of the fights that I would have with my parents were about this. Like, were about, like, oh, like, I just, I, you know, either like, you're not practicing hard enough or blah blah blah. It's, like, because you're not, like, you know, showing the results, you know... Or me being, like, "Ugh, like, I just want to play, like, fun stuff too." And there was something about it, 'cause like you would go and, like, the competitions and, like, your parents, like, all talk to each other right? And they mingle with each other and are all speaking Chinese, you know. So it is, like, in some ways, like, a part of growing up. It's not just Chinese but, like, or Asian, but Asian-American too. Because it felt in some ways like it wasn't necessarily you competing. It was you competing.

Cheeyang [00:06:07] On behalf of your entire family.

Cynthia [00:06:09] Exactly.

Cheeyang [00:06:09] Yeah. And then you have to, like, yeah, yeah.

Cynthia [00:06:11] Absolutely and that's, that's where the weight comes from. That's where the pressure comes from. Because you're like, "Oh my God it's not just about me doing that... It's about, like, showing that my family is, is good at this thing.".

Cheeyang [00:06:22] Yeah.

Cynthia [00:06:23] It was bizarre.

From Classical Piano to Computer Science

Cheeyang [00:06:24] Wow. And then when did it change? I mean, you went to college for...

Cynthia [00:06:29] For Computer science.

Cheeyang [00:06:30] Right.

Cynthia [00:06:30] Yea.

Cheeyang [00:06:30] So clearly it didn't change that drastically.

Cynthia [00:06:33] Well, I mean it was just weird. So I guess to backtrack even further, like, when I was in middle school, I was in choir and I could sing. So I was, I was in choir and we sang "For Good" at our middle school graduation...

Cheeyang [00:06:47] It's cute!

Cynthia [00:06:47] No, it's so cute! And, like, I was like, "What is this?" Like, this is weird. Doesn't sound like anything else that we've ever sung. And that's how I, that's how I discovered musical theater. So, you know, I mean it was true Wicked was like a huge turning point in my life. And once I figured out what musical theater was, and then there was, like, this kind of, like, theater, community theater troupe in the area and I got to be a part of that, and of course, the, you know, the schools are always looking for free labor. So, like, they're like, great! Like, the sixth grader can play piano? Like, just let's just have them play piano. So...

Cheeyang [00:07:17] Free! For free!

Cynthia [00:07:19] Right. So I would, you know, play in a company and that's how I learned that aspect of playing piano, and what it meant to be a collaborative pianist, and sort of...

Cheeyang [00:07:28] So if, like, music was such a huge part of your life throughout high school, why go into, you know, computer science?

Cynthia [00:07:35] Computer science? Yeah that's a good question. I... I went to college and it was just very much expected. It was like... Dude... This is, you know, you do these things because they enrich your life as a high schooler, and then you get a...

Cheeyang [00:07:46] Real job.

Cynthia [00:07:46] Practical... Yeah... You get a practical degree. I think I felt that too.

Cheeyang [00:07:50] And where did you go to college?

Cynthia [00:07:51] I went to Harvard.

Cheeyang [00:07:52] Oh. Excuse. Casually. She just casually dropped that. She was just, "I went to Harvard. Yeah. Like it's just, just what you do. It's Harvard duh. Like, where else would I go?".

Cynthia [00:08:03] No, I mean...

Cheeyang [00:08:04] Rude.

Cynthia [00:08:04] That's where I went to school. But yeah. So, and when I was, when I was there, I was kind of, like, "OK, well, I don't know what I want to do, of course." You go in undecided, you don't declare before you go. And I was there and did the first year, I took this introductory computer science course, both my parents are programmers. And I was like, "This is cool." I liked it, you know. I'm...

Cheeyang [00:08:26] And you were good at it.

Cynthia [00:08:26] I was good at it. I mean I did like it. And I do like it. And I didn't know at the time either, that I would would be interested in music direction, because I didn't know that was a thing. That was another thing... I didn't know that this job that I now do, or the things that I do it was a thing.

From Wicked to Broadway

Cheeyang [00:08:41] When you were exposed to theater as a kid, was it like you were exposed only in school, and not part of your family exposure?

Cynthia [00:08:47] Definitely not.

Cheeyang [00:08:48] So it was just, like, your own little experience?

Cynthia [00:08:50] Yeah it was. And, you know, my parents knew about it because they knew me and I would talk about or I would beg them to buy like the Vocal Selections book from Hal Leonard, you know, this kind of thing. I mean, I have this very distinct memory of my, my mom, like, bringing me to see Wicked in LA. 'Cause I really wanted to go see it, and the regional production was at the...

Cheeyang [00:09:09] The touring production, yeah.

Cynthia [00:09:11] Yeah I guess it was, it must have been at the... Yeah. Not Regional. But it was... It was at the Ahmanson. No no the Pantages, sorry.

Cheeyang [00:09:18] Big, big theater.

Cynthia [00:09:18] Yeah. And my mom... We bought these like scalped tickets from this guy in his backyard. We, like, drove to his, like, house, 'cause it was, like, it was like a family trip to L.A. and, like, my mom was like, "Okay I found these like cheap tickets, like on craigslist or something." And we went to this guy's house and then we went to see Wicked together.

Cheeyang [00:09:34] Wow.

Cynthia [00:09:33] And that was my first show and it was really really cool! I was so excited and so they were... They facilitated that in a way.

Cheeyang [00:09:41] Yeah.

Cynthia [00:09:41] And that's a very fond memory... I will.

Cheeyang [00:09:45] I always say that Wicked is my first show, but truly it's not. Mary Poppins is my first musical. But I got into musical theater very, very late like in 2010, 2011.

Cynthia [00:09:55] Oh wow. That is late! Yeah.

Cheeyang [00:09:56] So late.

Cynthia [00:09:57] Yeah.

Cheeyang [00:09:57] Right. It's like... Wait what?

Cynthia [00:09:59] Wow.

Cheeyang [00:10:00] I know. I mean, I didn't grow up here, so my exposure to theater...

Cynthia [00:10:02] I guess that's true.

Cheeyang [00:10:03] But I find that's because... Because I've been talking to so many people, the thread of, like, theater not being a part of their lives, as part of their family tradition...

Cynthia [00:10:12] Yeah.

Cheeyang [00:10:14] It's... It's a big deal especially to Asian people. And, and how we eventually end up in theater. It's like a miracle.

Cynthia [00:10:21] It is, like, you know, it's just, it, because it's such an, it is such an American art form. And that's also partially why I think I was drawn to it as a kid. Like, I felt like, this is like... Feels like very American and...

Cheeyang [00:10:34] Right... Let's dig into what you just said, right?

Cynthia [00:10:36] Yeah.

Cheeyang [00:10:37] Like you said a little bit about... You wanted to feel a bit more American. And it's not necessarily that you didn't feel American, but just that all your living circumstances, and how you grew up affected how you felt towards that. Do you want to elaborate on that?

From Chinese to American

Cynthia [00:10:51] Yeah. I grew up in a in a predominantly white town. And, like, and I will also say, like, there were not a lot of black people or Latino people period either. So, like, you know, the next, the next minority group down was Asian people, but, but at the same time, it was still mostly white and like, there was definitely... All my friends were white and, like, it was kind of a thing. Oh, like, "That's so Asian of you to, like, do this thing." Right?

Cheeyang [00:11:13] That they would say that?

Cynthia [00:11:14] Yeah there are things that were said to me that were like that. Or, or even that I would, like, say, you know, to be like, oh my god, like, I'm in on the joke right? And so. Because classical piano it actually did feel so, like, Asian to me? Just because everyone around me was Asian and doing, like, Classical piano.

Cheeyang [00:11:31] Yeah.

Cynthia [00:11:32] That when I was playing modern music, and when I learned to play by ear, and play, like, pop songs, and things like that. Well that was, that felt very white to me... And American. And so, in some ways that was what, I think, drew me to it. 'Cause it's like, this is different. This is different than other stuff that I see. I definitely did sometimes feel, like, "Oh, like, my parents don't have this cultural background that so many of my other friends share." And so, you know, I would go over to a friend's house and her dad would, like, play Simon and Garfunkel and things like that. I have such a clear memory of, and he played guitar, and it was great! And that's how I learned about Simon and Garfunkel. Definitely not through my parents but, you know, the only thing my parents, like, really brought over with them in terms of like musical, pop culture knowledge, was like the Beatles, which was, you know, as universal as you get. So, like, getting, getting to know those other art forms through people who were, like, my peers, as opposed to, like, the people that I was surrounded with in other facets of my life was part of that.

Cheeyang [00:12:40] Do you feel like during that time you actively ran away from what your parents associated with, so that you could assimilate a little bit more with your peers? Did you feel like... Were you, were you even aware of what you were doing?

Cynthia [00:12:53] Yeah I definitely would not have been aware of it at the time. I, I, certainly like... I wanted to do that more. And oftentimes more than I wanted to play, like, the classical stuff. I think I really was drawn to... the, you know, playing with people who were singing, or me singing and playing at the same time. And so that, that I was attracted to. And I don't know if it necessarily was like a purposeful like, like, fuck you. to like, my, my culture but it was... A side effect of that was that I kind of was, like, "Well this is, this is cooler." Like, you know, this is, this is what gets people to kind of respect me in the social hierarchy of schools. Like, oh, like, you can play like Piano Man... Like stuff that people know right?

Cheeyang [00:13:40] Instead of Bach...

Cynthia [00:13:45] It's pop.

From Harvard to New York

Cheeyang [00:13:45] When you went to Harvard... Let's talk a little bit about when you went to Harvard. How was that experience like? So you said that you took, it was practical reasons that you took computer science. Did you enjoy computer science while you were doing it? And how did theater play a part in that journey at Harvard?

Cynthia [00:14:01] I did like computer science. I was really drawn to the, the way that you think as a software programmer. I mean, it was tough, you know. I think it was very clear to my parents and to me that, like, this is not necessarily... It wasn't, like, my destiny to do it? I think I chose that way for me. But like, you know, I, I had some really good friends that really helped me out. Like, during.

Cheeyang [00:14:26] From computer science?

Cynthia [00:14:26] Yes. Like I owe a lot to them in that way.

Cheeyang [00:14:30] In what sense?

Cynthia [00:14:31] In that I just... I just felt like. It was either that part of me that felt like I just didn't want... Ultimately want to do this for a living? And so I, like, maybe wasn't applying myself as hard in that way or that I just, my brain was not naturally attuned to thinking in such ways. Anyways, I was doing a lot of theater at school. I music directed a few shows.

Cheeyang [00:14:53] Was that your primary focus when you were doing theater?

Cynthia [00:14:54] No. I would say my primary thing was, was singing in an a cappella group. That was a huge...

Cheeyang [00:15:00] Which a cappella group?

Cynthia [00:15:00] They were called the Harvard callbacks.

Cheeyang [00:15:02] Yes Harvard callbacks! Shout out!

Cynthia [00:15:04] Yes exactly. Shout out. But Yeah. And, you know, I arranged for them, and I music directed the group at some point. Of course, you know, everything you hear about a cappella... And you know! You are in one as well. I mean, it's just madness. And they're my best friends. But I did do a lot of theater and it was my second half of school that I actually became involved with this theater troupe at school called the Hasty Pudding. And that was like a student run, although heavily alumni funded, organization.

Cheeyang [00:15:33] That's great.

Cynthia [00:15:34] It was important for me because. Because as a composer for that organization, I, and I was like the student conductor for two years, it was, like, eye opening to me to be, like, "Oh, like, this is actually..." First of all, I love the process of putting up a show. I love the, like, going from writing the score and then, like, running it in the rehearsal room and making all the changes, like, as you go and then the orchestration, and the arrangements, and we have all these pros like backing us up on that! That was, like, really eye opening for me. And kind of seeing some of the famous, like not famous, but famous to me now, like, alumni who came from that theater troupe.

Cheeyang [00:16:13] I mean Larry O'Keefe came from that.

Cynthia [00:16:15] Yeah, Nevin Steinberg whose was the sound designer on Hadestown and a ton of other shows like, he's also a part of that. So, you know, later, like, realizing all of these kind of like... Oh, like, this is a, this is a career path and this is a viable kind of, like, job. The thing that I like to do, which is play piano and, and use that ability that I can sing, and sight read and sing, what all these things, like, all these skills are applicable to a job.

Cheeyang [00:16:40] Right. Right. But you still, and then it's still a leap right? You still went from college into a job that had to do with computer science.

Cynthia [00:16:49] Yeah I did that. And I know I had a job and it was just like an inkling in my mind this whole like music direction thing. But then, when I got, when I got a job, I knew I wanted to be in New York. And the idea was that I would come to New York and gig. That was always the plan.

Cheeyang [00:17:02] So, like, you do your day job in the day and then you gig at night?

Cynthia [00:17:04] Yeah. And the great thing about software engineering is, I mean, it was really flexible. I have to, you know, I have to give a shout out. I got this job at a startup called Next Big Sound. They did data analytics for the music industry. Really cool stuff and, like, I love this kind of thing. Data visualization, and just what data means in various industries, and obviously for me the music industry was like super cool and interesting. And so, but before I graduated, they actually got acquired by Pandora Music Company.

Cheeyang [00:17:33] Oh wow.

Cynthia [00:17:33] So yeah. And so before I even started, that's how I went to Pandora. They weren't gone.

Cheeyang [00:17:37] Oh! So you went to Pandora...

Cynthia [00:17:38] They didn't get liquidated or anything. They just, like, were like, enveloped by the parent company. So then, I was working for Pandora but, like, for this, like, little company, and so I, you know, I, I did. I hustled quite a bit, and for the first year I would say I kind of, like, played it safe. You know, in the, in the following year and a half, that I was there I was gigging very heavily and I think my co-workers can attest to that. I was, you know, I took advantage of the fact that in tech a lot of times you can work from home a lot. You can work on your own hours. And you can kind of make your own schedule.

Cheeyang [00:18:11] As long as you finish your work.

Cynthia [00:18:12] Right. Yeah. And you know there are some caveats to it, which is ultimately why I did leave because it was just not going to be sustainable. But I took advantage of that. I was, I was gigging all the time. Every time I could I was gigging. And I took... It was just like the period of time where I was, like, say yes to everything.

Cheeyang [00:18:29] I love that. I love that.

Cynthia [00:18:30] Which I mean, it's, it's hard. You do that and you're like, oh my god I'm making no money.

Cheeyang [00:18:35] You're making no money... I'm making no money and then I'm doing so much work.

Cynthia [00:18:38] Yeah. But I did have the supplement of, like, having this other job which was like a salaried job. And that, I will admit, like, that was a very weird, and probably unrealistic situation for anybody else. Other people ask me, like, "Oh how did you do that?" I'm like, it was lucky, like, I was lucky that this job was willing to trust me enough, and that they liked me enough to let me do that kind of stuff.

Cheeyang [00:19:00] Yeah.

Cynthia [00:19:00] But yeah that's what I did for a bit. And then during that period of time when I was working on, at Pandora, I did work on Moulin Rouge. Like that was like... I had some pretty... I would say like... Important projects that I worked on during that period of time. But then, it was about... Now it's been about nine months that I left a fit... Like left that job, and it just came to ahead. It was like, OK you know what, I've been thinking to myself for the past few years,, like if it comes to a point where I want to take that leap, like, I need to take it now. I need to do it while I'm young, I don't have kids, I don't have necessa... I'm able to take a risk. And I fully understand that, like, people do that at all ages. And, like, I don't want to hate on that. But knowing my personality at least, I'm like, I can justify it to myself when I, when I chose to leave. That I was like OK great. I've saved up enough money for the past few years. I've made enough of a name for myself in the community where I feel like I won't necessarily be wanting for gigs once I take this leap. And then also, I'm at a time period in my life where really the only person I've fend for is myself. Obviously I have, I have a partner and I, I have you know people that I care about in my life. But I don't need to be financially responsible for them, like, like I would be for a kid.

Cheeyang [00:20:19] Yeah I mean it's all... I mean I feel like these are all privileges that we have as like... We have first world problems and we have first world privileges.

Cynthia [00:20:26] Absolutely.

Cheeyang [00:20:27] For us to be able to do theater in itself, and be able to do any form of artistry within the theater community. It's a privilege because there are people who are, like, fighting for their next meal.

Cynthia [00:20:38] Yeah. Absolutely. And I, I recognize that and it's very, it's very, I feel very, like, lucky at least to be able to, to make that choice for myself.

From Moulin Rouge to Hadestown

Cheeyang [00:20:49] I'm very curious. So you've worked on a bunch of really high profile gigs right?

Cynthia [00:20:53] Yeah. It's been cool.

Cheeyang [00:20:54] You start. You did Hadestown. You did In The green. And you said you worked on Moulin Rouge. Did you work on the Broadway Moulin Rouge?

Cynthia [00:20:59] I didn't. No I just worked on it before it went to Boston.

Cheeyang [00:21:03] Great and how did you get... Like, how did you get connected? How did you start? What... Take us through that process.

Cynthia [00:21:09] I mean, and, it's always kind of who you know in some ways, or who has enough faith in you to recommend you. Right? I think that I'm really grateful to... There were just a few people that really kind of, like, started the chain reaction, you know, and in the case of Moulin Rouge. Actually in the case of both Moulin Rouge and Lempicka, it was, uh, and Hadestown it was the same person. I worked on this production, this workshop of a show called Lempicka.

Cheeyang [00:21:36] Yeah.

Cynthia [00:21:37] That's, you know, up and coming. And working with those people and, you know, Rachel was the same director as his Hadestown and stuff like that. It was kind of through that actually that I got recommended ultimately to, to both Moulin Rouge and Hadestown. So it really just feels like. Yeah. I mean, obviously, I... We've all done the thing where we cold email people. And I've done that. And I don't necessarily not recommend doing that, but that will most likely not be as important as.

Cheeyang [00:22:09] People knowing you?

Cynthia [00:22:10] Someone that the other person directly knows and trusts recommending you. And so, I'm, I am grateful for, like, those people in my life that did that and also I can, I can very clearly like trace that route for myself.

Cheeyang [00:22:21] LIke trace it back a little bit for me. So, like, you said, before you did Hadestown and Moulin Rouge, it was Lempicka. So how did you get to do Lempicka? And Lempicka is written by Matt Gould and.

Cynthia [00:22:33] And Carson Kreitzer. That's their last name.

Cheeyang [00:22:36] Great. Yeah. They've been working on that show for a while.

Cynthia [00:22:38] Yeah.

Cheeyang [00:22:38] And it's... I've only heard good things. I've not seen any iteration of it, but I'm sure.

Cynthia [00:22:43] It's amazing. I'm extremely biased but I... It's like my favorite show.

Cheeyang [00:22:47] Great. Great. And how did you get on that gig.

Cynthia [00:22:50] That was also a recommendation from someone else... Someone that I knew from school. Then that was kind of, like, a big...

Cheeyang [00:22:56] Like, a kick off point for you?

Cynthia [00:22:58] Yeah it was definitely, like, through those recommendations that I kind of... I don't know... Calling it leveling up is such a weird term.

Cheeyang [00:23:04] No! Like it, it's like making connections to get to where you need to go. Upgrading in your projects.

Cynthia [00:23:08] Yeah. I thought, I felt so grateful for that... Because it really felt like, you know, I don't know. It just felt like... Whenever someone recommends me for something, I just, like, I feel like that's really cool. Because they did think of you in that moment.

Cheeyang [00:23:21] Yea.

Cheeyang [00:23:22] So talk a little bit about your experience working on such high profile shows. Hadestown won eight Tony Awards. How is that process? Being in the room and assisting Anais Mitchell and the music team? How was all of that?

Cynthia [00:23:37] It was amazing. I mean, it was my first Broadway show. It was my Broadway debut, I guess you could say. And it was, like... I mean, it was amazing! I was just so happy to be there, like, the whole time. Like, day one, or day negative five, even, I was just like, Oh my God, like, this is so cool. I fell in love with the music when I was helping people, like, prepare for their auditions and stuff. That's how I actually found... I didn't. I knew that it existed. But I didn't listen to the music until that happened and then I was like, Oh my God, like, I need to, like, I have to work on this show. Our creative team was very heavily female and that was awesome. I have to say cool! I mean to have Rachel Chavkin at the helm of it leading it all, that was obviously super important but then like, just the way that everyone was communicating... And I thought it created this, like, excellent work atmosphere. And so... The relationship and rapport between Rachel and David, who is our choreographer, and then Liam, our music directo,r as well as of course Anai,s who was there throughout the whole process, that was just like... It felt like an open collaboration.

Cheeyang [00:24:42] Mhm.

Cynthia [00:24:42] And everyone was being listened to and heard. And to be on the music team specifically, I mean, it was really cool because it, it did feel like there was so much attention paid to, like, every little thing in the music. Whether it came to the orchestration, like our brilliant amazing orchestrators, and watching them, like, kind of just hone in, and try to, like, really fine tune a specific moment in the score. Like, that was just, like, a masterclass in, in collaboration. And then also working with Anais who, like, you know a lyric... That was a huge thing, is that the lyrics just, like, we would have these, like, all these like, little changes, like, throughout the process and it would be like, you know, changing a word here and there, and and seeing how that changed the whole meaning of a line. I was really impressed by that.

Cheeyang [00:25:28] Mhm.

Cynthia [00:25:28] As someone... As someone who kind of, like, I would say, thinks more macro instead of micro, that was really cool to like really hone in, because, because they had had you know Off-Broadway, they had Canada, and they also had London to, to work on the show. It really felt like in some ways, like, there was just a lot of like, like, little fine tuning moments for Broadway. Because...

Cheeyang [00:25:50] Like they already knew what the show was on the big picture.

Cynthia [00:25:53] Yeah, I think in general, you know, like a lot of the overall picture, like, I would say maybe remained the same between London and Broadway. But there were so many little details that got changed and I think that really made a huge difference too. And of course, there were some, there were some big changes. But, like, overall I think, I mean, looking between Off Broadway and Broadway, it, that's a huge difference and then between London and Broadway, obviously less of a difference.

Cheeyang [00:26:17] And you came on to the show for Broadway. And talk a little bit about, like, what your job scope was You know, being the music assistant. Yeah. What does that entail?

Cynthia [00:26:27] Music assistant. I mean it changes for each show but, for this show, you're basically keeping up with all the changes that are happening in the rehearsal process. So, that is like, day one obviously little juzhes here and there, and then once you get the band in, it's like, oh my gosh, like, here are all these changes, and our copyist was... We had a copyist as well but he was, like, doing remote work. So, it ended up being kind of a collaboration between me and him as well sometimes. And of course, the best part of the job is the printing! I kid... Because it was actually, like, terrifying how much paper we used unfortunately. I'm like, Oh my God.

Cheeyang [00:27:04] Yup. I totally understand. Changes every day.

Cynthia [00:27:04] I know. It's, like, unfortunate actually. I'm really, like, kind of, like, oh my gosh, when are we all gonna be on iPads? But anyways.

Cheeyang [00:27:10] I'm surprised that that's not part of the state management's duties.

Cynthia [00:27:13] I mean, you know, they have enough stuff to print. So for me that was like, It was only music stuff that I was printing.

Cheeyang [00:27:18] So like, the band stuff.

Cynthia [00:27:19] Band and like scores, you know. Because, because like, there would be, like, little things in previews, you know, like, in, like, stuff is still changing, like, lyrics. We would like. There was this one song where you just kept on, like, cutting a chorus... Half a chorus... And seeing if it worked. And then putting it back in and stuff. And it's so much an organisational job. Like that's really what it is. It requires you to have a good ear, and a good musical mind, and a good obviously musical knowledge.

Cheeyang [00:27:42] Mhm.

Cynthia [00:27:42] But. What differentiates, I would say, like, a good music assistant from like an maybe not as good one, would be the level of organization you're able to keep because that is like almost more important in some ways than, like, your musical mind. I mean, you also just have to be, like, generally very excited and willing to help. I think, you know, it's very tiring work because... you don't... First of all, you don't play. Which is... I think a lot of music assistants ultimately want to play.

Cheeyang [00:28:10] Mhm.

Cynthia [00:28:10] Myself included. Like that is my... Was and is, like, my goal. Is to have hands on keys and this is not that. This is, like, you are sitting behind a computer, which is ironic because that's what I used to do in my old job. So, you know, I will admit, like, it gets, it can become very tiresome, and like, it's... I don't think it's sustainable to do for the rest of your life. Because if you have, like, other aspirations then you really get pent up almost. You're like, oh my God. Ah!

Cheeyang [00:28:40] Yea but on the flip side, it's like you are in the room where it happens. Yeah right. Like you are watching...

Cynthia [00:28:45] That is why a lot of people do it.

Cheeyang [00:28:46] Yeah exactly all the magic that happens. Yeah. And there's a lot to learn from that.

Cynthia [00:28:50] Absolutely. And it is an amazing way to learn because, because you know, there's always something to learn. And I feel as someone who's, like young in my, in my career in this way, like, I can just... Like, being in the room with, like, other music directors is, like, an amazing experience and that was just to even observe it. Assistant work is, like, that is like the best way to get into the room.

From Broadway to Off-Broadway

Cheeyang [00:29:12] Yeah 100 percent. How was the process different for Hadestown and In The Green.

Cynthia [00:29:18] First of all, so many similarities. I mean, like, that's like really the crux of it... Is that the work is actually a lot the same, but that, you know, the difference is, there were kind of like... In the green, it was, they were like, way bigger changes in the sense that like... There would be, like, a new song, like, and that was intense. Like, to put that in the show the next day.

Cheeyang [00:29:38] So like you had to do all the transcription? You had to prepare all the scores for that?

Cynthia [00:29:42] Yeah. You know, there was actually one point where I was like, I was like on vacation with my, with my family in Disneyland. My sister graduated college.

Cheeyang [00:29:50] Yay sister!

Cynthia [00:29:50] Yeah. So this was like, you know, a conflict that I had cleared before. But, you know, I was like, I can do work remotely and stuff. And so there, they were putting a new song into the show...

Cheeyang [00:29:59] That's a lot, that's like, to do a song, to transcribe a song in the day, clean it, was there copyist or did you do...?

Cynthia [00:30:04] Oh no. It was the other way around. I would, I was in Disneyland during the day. I would come back at night, and then transcribe the song. I'll be like on Splash Mountain and be like, OK! Time to go back! I have to transcribe this song! Yeah, that was, that was somewhat stressful but it all got done.

Cheeyang [00:30:19] Yeah of course.

Cynthia [00:30:19] But yeah. The orchestrations were slightly different, like it was really a lot of orchestrating I think, like, on the spot. It felt like a lot was happening in the room. So then...

Cheeyang [00:30:30] Including working with the band?

Cynthia [00:30:32] Mhm. Yeah totally.

Cheeyang [00:30:33] Wow.

Cynthia [00:30:33] So it was a little bit less of, like, maybe the traditional orchestrator work, where the orchestrator takes it and does it, and then you print it, and you try it, and then you make more changes. It was... It felt very much like OK, like, what works here. Do this like. And they'd like scribble it into their parts and then I take it down and then, like, print a fresh copy. It was so cool to watch because it felt like, it felt more like...

Cheeyang [00:30:53] Organic?

Cynthia [00:30:54] A band. Yeah. And especially for that show that little, like this little Off-Broadway show, it was important to kind of, like, hear it [inaudible]. They were using some kind...

Cheeyang [00:31:04] Also. Yeah. Also they were experimenting with things that don't go with a band.

Cynthia [00:31:07] Yeah exactly. We had a Qanun, which is a Middle Middle Eastern type of zither instrument. So that alone was kind of, like, okay we had to hear how this sounds. Like, it's just hard to visualize and so that was important to be able to hear. And so they were doing a lot of experimentation like in the rehearsal room. And then like the job was to write it all down. And then, and then like print a fresh copy for the show that night or something.

Cheeyang [00:31:31] That's great. So much fun!

Cynthia [00:31:33] Yeah it's, it's fast. That's the thing. You just, I mean, the other thing is that you do have to have a good ear because you have to just, like, be able to, like, hear and be like, hey this is like what happens, like this is how it goes. Like, I can't just like spend time, like, plunking it out on the piano myself.

Cheeyang [00:31:46] Yeah.

From Full-Time to Freelance

Cynthia [00:31:46] You know it's only been my first year as a true freelancer.

Cheeyang [00:31:50] Yea! And you're thriving.

Cynthia [00:31:52] I feel very happy. I feel very blessed. I feel like... I mean, I don't know... Like, I'm not particularly religious in any way, but I felt like it was the right choice. And I will say this because I told this to a few people... Which is that when I was at my other job, like, I had these such distinct memories of talking with my manager, who was an amazing manager. Great person and we got along so well. And... But, I would just be like I don't want to be promoted. Like, please don't promote me. I don't want any more responsibility. I... Just let me code... Like be a little monkey like code. And then submit the code and... And I don't wanna make decisions. I don't want to be in charge of anything. Don't ever want to be a manager.

Cheeyang [00:32:30] Hmm.

Cynthia [00:32:30] And like, now I don't feel that way at all. I feel the opposite. I feel so hungry to... To do more. To, you know, help the people that I... You know, I trust their work, or the people whose work I'm passionate about. Like, help them and also, like, take on more responsibility, either on my own behalf or on behalf of them.

Cheeyang [00:32:52] Mhm.

Cynthia [00:32:52] And I think that is to me like the biggest sign that what I made... The choice that I made was the right choice. Because, like, I have ambition now. I feel like, I feel like I have drive and I have something that's kind of like keeping me hungry and excited for the future and that is something I didn't have before. I was very happy. I was content. I was pleased in the sense that, like, I had, you know, a salary and I had resources and things like that.

Cheeyang [00:33:24] Stability...

Cynthia [00:33:24] But it was, there was this other thing that was, like, missing. Which was the... This idea that I would progress in my career. You know, I didn't have that. And now, I have that. And that is something that I value so greatly. Ultimately, when I do get down on myself sometimes and be like, like, ugh if only I had just like, you know, out of school come here and just hustle from the beginning... It's like, well, no. I actually think for me, I needed to see what it was like. To do the other thing and not necessarily have that ambition. And then, like, compare that with how I feel now.

Cheeyang [00:34:00] And then you'll have. It's a different perspective.

Cynthia [00:34:02] Mm hmm.

From Race to Gender

Cheeyang [00:34:03] Yeah. A hundred percent and... This is something that I'm going to like do a little left turn, but also like very very relevant to everything that you're saying. Is that we don't. In our industry at least. It's starting to be more of a conversation topic, but... How has it been to be in the industry, in the theater industry, in New York as an Asian person and as a woman? Like we don't really see POC music directors who are female. Like, we see, we, we're starting to see the rise of female artists in power. Like, female producers, female directors. But we still don't see... Like, I can name maybe five very prominent female music directors. But they're all white females. Not to take that away from them because I think that's that's really wonderful.

Cynthia [00:34:53] Of course.

Cheeyang [00:34:54] But then, it's like you're one minority plus another minority. How... How does that come into play in this industry? And how does that affect you? And how you conquer what you wanna do?

Cynthia [00:35:05] Well yeah no I. You become very, I think, aware of it in those circumstances. Like for example, I did, I went to like a, I guess, I went to an audition, like, the other day, where I was playing piano. And I walked in the room and literally every person that was auditioning there was an older white man. And I knew some of them which was great. But it is like... I kind of forgot, almost forgot like, how it feels, like, to walk into a room and be like, "Oh my God. Like, I really feel like kind of the black sheep here." I've been really lucky to work on projects that, that actually had a huge female and person of color team.

Cheeyang [00:35:43] And I think that's, like, because that's the energy you draw and that's the people you attract as well.

Cynthia [00:35:46] Sure yeah. And maybe that's part of it. But yeah it's. And I think that I'm lucky in the sense that, I think, now, there seems to be at least a drive now for a lot of people to really diversify their teams. Whether or not they want to. But that's not really of my concern. It's like great. It's happening like because it needs to happen, right? And so...

Cheeyang [00:36:06] Because you get different viewpoints into the room. So it's not one homogeneous viewpoint.

Cynthia [00:36:10] Right. And I think that was partially what made Hadestown so successful was just like having all those different viewpoints. And whenever I see a show where I'm like, this it's just kind of weird, like this dialogue is written weirdly, or this, like, you know why, why did they write this character like this? And then I'm like, oh, like, the entire team is like dudes. Like, maybe they should have like even consulted a woman when they were writing this female character?

Cheeyang [00:36:32] 100 percent.

Cynthia [00:36:33] I don't know. But yeah, I think that in terms of like my identity coming into play, like, when, with my career... I would say that I feel like I'm able to communicate well with lots of different people and maybe that's just a facet of having grown up, like not necessarily as, the majority. I will also say, like, I've been approached... Or not approached, but like you know reached out to, by several like young Asian-American music directors, I guess, or music director types, or people who are interested in getting into this industry. And I, and I realize now like, that is... I feel very flattered by that. Like, that's so cool that someone, you know, has looked at me and been like, "Oh like that's cool. That, like, she does that. I want to do that too." Because, because it's true. I didn't have that and, and I wonder maybe if, if I would gotten into the industry like...

Cheeyang [00:37:29] Earlier...

Cynthia [00:37:30] ...If I had seen other people doing that. Because, you know, I mean growing up, like, I'm, you know, my mom would say, I don't wanna like out her, as saying this, but she'd be, like, you know, like, "Why do you like doing this kind of stuff? Like, there's always just going to be, like, some other, like, American person who's gonna, like, do the job, like, better. Or because they, like, you know, know more people or they just, it's like more, it's more part of their blood." At the time, it felt very much, like, "Dude, like... Don't ever forget, like, you will be thought of as an other." And that was probably how she did feel at the time, like, and maybe still in some ways, like, feels now is that, like, you know... You, you can try as much as you like, but you're always going to be... They'll never really see you as their own. And that was like... A bummer to hear at the time and I'm... I understand totally that that's probably like a result of a lot of different experiences that led her to say that. But. Yeah it's true. When you looked at, like, the stage, you never saw Asian people on the stage.

Cheeyang [00:38:39] Mhm.

Cynthia [00:38:39] I never did ever. So like. That was just enough to make, you know, people like my parents be like, "That's not for us. This, this art form is not for us." Classical piano on the other hand, is an art form for us, because there are so many of us. So that's the thing. It's just like, what you see is sometimes... It really does dictate how you feel as an impressionable person. Not even as an impressionable young person, but an impressionable older person. Like, when you, when you see like, you know, I don't, I don't want my kid to grow up feeling like the other in this community of people that are, like, all white and that they, like, this is, their parents are, like, happy to, like, send them to, like, musical theater camp and whatever. But, like, you know, my kid is, is not going to feel comfortable there because. Yeah. So all this to say basically, I feel so happy now that it feels like there is more visibility.

Cheeyang [00:39:34] Mhm.

Cynthia [00:39:34] You know... You and, and me, and we're part of this community that like... It feels, like, there is, like, a flourishing kind of, like, community of Asian and Asian-American performers and artists and I, and I feel so happy about that.

Cheeyang [00:39:50] And it's definitely growing and I think the whole point. I mean, as you were talking about that, I was like, that's a whole point of this podcast. Is to, like, put that visibility out there. People are doing these thing. And people are doing it well, you know, and, and people are thriving. So, it's a common thread and common theme with a lot of my guests. Are just like, we've never seen ourselves represented in the media in any way.

Cynthia [00:40:14] Yeah.

Cheeyang [00:40:14] Growing up. In American media at least.

Cynthia [00:40:17] Definitely not American media yea!

Cheeyang [00:40:18] And how does that affect you? And as a performer who's doing this now, how can you pave the way for the next generation of people who are desperately seeking that, right? And, and I wouldn't say that they're trying to search for validation, but I think, they're saying like, "Hey! Look at... This person can do it, so can I.".

Cynthia [00:40:36] Mm hmm.

Cheeyang [00:40:37] You know and I think that's beautiful.

Cynthia [00:40:38] I know it sounds... It sounds... Like, I hear that all the time. Like, it sounds almost like cheesy but it's like, that... But it is true. Like it is ultimately that, yeah. When I, when you see someone else doing it, you're like, oh, like, then you can visualize yourself in that place. That is important.

Cheeyang [00:40:54] Mm hmm.

Cynthia [00:40:55] Yeah.

Cheeyang [00:40:55] Yeah. We've talked a lot about your entire life and, and just so insightful, so exciting.

Cynthia [00:41:04] Oh thanks.

Closing Questions

Cheeyang [00:41:04] And I have a few questions before we, you know, close out. The very first one is, "If you could tell little Cynthia growing up... One thing. What would you tell her?".

Cynthia [00:41:17] It would be that. All those, like, hours that you spent, like, at the piano learning how to play by ear are going to be so helpful for you. Really! Like I think that that's important 'cause I think at the time, I was at least told by others that it was maybe a waste of time. All you have to do is read. You don't really have to learn to play ear like those, like, uncultured people. So I feel like very vindicated at least about that. No, just keep going. In fact you should've learned to play jazz earlier! So, maybe I would have told myself that. And also, and also that things get better. The relationships that you build with your parents is... Will change over time... For the better and for the worse... And things are, things always are in a state of change. So it is never just that way. It will never always be the way it is at that given moment. You always can expect it to change.

Cheeyang [00:42:12] I'm so curious. I mean this is not really part of the question but I'm so curious. How is your relationship with your parents and how is your relationship with your siblings?

Cynthia [00:42:20] Yeah. That's a good, it's a good question. And I am a little hesitant to put most of it on the air. But I will paraphrase and say that it was a strain for some time. We are very different people and there are some other factors that kind of led to that, outside of even like my career choices. But. Yeah. It was, it was tough. And now, it has really gone quite a bit better and I think...

Cheeyang [00:42:44] What do you think changed?

Cynthia [00:42:45] I think enough time, you know, time passing helps. You know, people just have time to think over things and I had time to think over things... And we had, we definitely had a lot of fights in the last few years that was, you know, it was unfortunate to go through. But the relationship is... Is good. I would say. And that is, I'm something, I'm very grateful for. Because I did not think it was going to be good. For a long time.

Cheeyang [00:43:12] Wow.

Cynthia [00:43:12] Yeah. So that, that's part of it. Like, you at the moment you're like, wow this is how it's gonna be forever. Like it's gonna be horrible forever. And then and then it just changes because time can do that. Which I'm happy to have learned I guess.

Cheeyang [00:43:27] Mhm. That's beautiful. How would you define success?

Cynthia [00:43:30] I'm still learning that for myself so I can only give you the answer that exists at this moment, which is, which is just that when you come out of whatever you are doing at that moment, like, an extended period of time, doing something... That you feel that no matter what you got out of it: monetarily, or physically, or things like that, or even, or even praise from your peers, or people who are important, that you feel fulfilled in that way. And that is... It's a hard thing to grasp. It's only something... You only really know it when you feel it. And then you're, like, oh this is what it feels like to like... First of all, I don't give a fuck what anyone else thinks about this particular thing that I just did. But I feel that I either worked hard or... That I worked hard for something and that I... That I either performed my best, or put out something that I am... I feel fulfilled by. So it's kind of a vague answer in that way, but it, but it's, it's a such a personal thing. And it's really just about not, like, other factors withstanding, you feeling like you are fulfilled.

Cheeyang [00:44:44] If you can ask me one question.

Cynthia [00:44:46] Yeah.

Cheeyang [00:44:47] And one question only. What would you like to find out?

Cynthia [00:44:49] Oh I have so many questions for you Cheeyang! How... First of all, is there musical theater in Singapore? And, like, and how is that scene, if any, like different than here.

Cheeyang [00:45:04] I was never involved in musical theater in Singapore. There actually is a growing musical theater.

Cynthia [00:45:11] Really?

Cheeyang [00:45:12] Kind of culture and all that in Singapore. But I was... 'Cause like when I was growing up in Singapore I had no exposure to the theater? The only media I was exposed to was television. So... And television was like the God, basically, like you're on TV... You were, like, you made it! You know... But people keep forgetting that fame is... There's this quote about Hasan Minhaj that, like, I'm like, that's a great quote. It's like, "Fame is like a rental car. You get in it. You drive it. And then you have to return it."

Cynthia [00:45:40] Okay...

Cheeyang [00:45:40] It's something that's fleeting. It's not something that you can have forever. It doesn't mean anything. So everyone was very obsessed with TV. And I was never... I was never exposed to theatre or other forms of art.

Cynthia [00:45:52] I see.

Cheeyang [00:45:54] Mainly because my parents don't know it. And as a kid, I'm not, like, actively looking out for all these things. I mean, I'm that old that the Internet, you know, was part of my life. But like, it was like the dial up, you know, like it...

Cynthia [00:46:07] I should've asked you how old you are. That's the question I should've asked. Now I'll never know... You're just so dewy and... Smooth skin.

Cheeyang [00:46:14] I don't know! You'll never know! Well anyway... But, I wish I was exposed to theatre way earlier. And I didn't, I, I saw my first musical on Broadway in 2010 because I was here on vacation and a callback in America. Like.

Cynthia [00:46:33] What?

Cheeyang [00:46:33] I know.

Cynthia [00:46:33] What was the show? Was it Wicked or?

Cheeyang [00:46:35] I... I saw my... well... The first Broadway ticket I bought was Wicked, but the first show I saw was Mary Poppins.

Cynthia [00:46:41] Okay. Right right right.

Cheeyang [00:46:42] But Wicked was completely life changing.

Cynthia [00:46:44] Yes.

Cheeyang [00:46:45] I can always remember, I was sitting on the aisle, orchestra left, my friend was sleeping, Elphaba was belting and I was crying. That image will never leave my mind. I don't know if that's actually, if that's true. I think it's true. I mean it's only been a few years, but like, that image will always remain in my mind. And I know that was like I want to do that.

(EAST SIDE STORY Theme Song Plays)


Cheeyang [00:47:08] Did you like that episode of East Side Story? If you did follow us on Instagram @eastsidestorypod and at @Cheeyangmusic. Go onto Apple podcasts, rate us, review us, and don't forget to subscribe. Or if you're a Spotify user, you can also click the follow button. Even better you can tell someone about the podcast. And the best part. They don't even have to be Asian. Thank you so much for your support. And I'll see you next week.

Cheeyang [00:47:38] This episode of East Side Story is presented in partnership with Listening Party. Follow the crew on Instagram @listeningpartypresents and @canalstreetmarket.