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Musical-composing Harvard student tries ‘Thumbelina’ on for size

Harvard junior Julia Riew has adapted Hans Christian Andersen's "Thumbelina" into a family musical.Courtesy A.R.T.

Julia Riew’s career is taking off — literally. The 20-year-old composer-lyricist’s first-ever attempt at writing a musical revolved around Amelia Earhart and her plane. Now, the Harvard junior is telling the story of a little fairy and the bird who carries her message beyond the confines of her garden.

Riew’s family musical adaptation of Hans Christian Andersen’s “Thumbelina,” which runs Dec. 20-31 at the Loeb Drama Center in Cambridge, reimagines the 3-inch, flower-born sprite as a courageous heroine.

“In the original story, she gets kidnapped and brought out of the garden,” Riew says. “In my version, she doesn’t even know there’s a world outside the garden that she’s grown up in, and when she discovers it, she decides to go out on her own adventure.”


What her mother intended as blissful ignorance has fermented into a longing for kinship. When Thumbelina sees pictures of beings her size in a book, she’s determined to find them. Aided by her friend Blue, a loyal blue jay, she pens a letter to the outside world.

“To whoever may read this,” she writes. “My name is Thumbelina, and I’m three inches tall. If you’re reading this and you know how I can get to the place where the little people with wings live, please, please let me know.”

Growing up in Missouri, Riew faced a similar dilemma.

“When I was in St. Louis, I just thought I was the only Asian person ever, because there weren’t really that many Asian people,” Riew says.

Now she’s the cofounder of Harvard’s Asian Student Arts Project, a group that provides resources and support for Pan-Asian artists of many disciplines on campus.

“I want these kids to be able to feel [represented] from a younger age, because I didn’t see anyone [who looked like me] in a Broadway musical like the ones I want to write until I was 20 — wait, that was this year!” Riew says.


Beyond their respective home turfs, Riew and Thumbelina encounter others like themselves. The latter not only survives her journey but also thrives under the pressures of her new home. Thumbelina’s ingenuity ultimately saves her friends and herself from a handful of disasters, both immediate and imminent.

Though Riew is several feet taller than her counterpart, she knows what it’s like to stand against a backdrop far bigger than she is. Thumbelina’s stature, Riew says, is something that transcends age or size to encapsulate the spirit of an underdog.

“There’s a line in one of the songs, ‘When you’re small, you’ve got the biggest dreams of all,’ ” she says. “When you’re a kid, you have the biggest dreams of all, but also maybe in a sense of a career or your place in the world. If you feel like you’re small or you’re not important, that’s when you aspire the most.”

At 5 feet 8½ inches, Janiah Lockett, the Harvard senior who plays Thumbelina, is often asked how she embodies her character. She’s found her height is actually a point of connection.

“The outside world makes us acutely aware of the way we take up space,” Lockett says.

The space Lockett occupies onstage has been designed to miniaturize her. Surrounded by tree-size flowers, she lounges on a book the size of a twin bed.

According to Emma Watt, the production’s director, the set design isn’t unlike the pages of a book in more ways than one.


“The show begins with an invitation to the audience to use their imagination to help tell the story,” Watt says. “It’s very important to us that we’re creating a space that they can fill in and imagine more and more.”

The show’s animal characters, which include a bird, a mole, and some toads, are clothed in human garb that captures their physicality.

“[We’re] thinking about what kinds of material and fabric and cuts of clothing move like a bird and give us that sense of flight, even if it’s not literal wings,” Watt says.

Riew hopes her work will make audience members seek out giant books of their own. The show, which runs about an hour, is recommended for ages 4 and up.

“Nowadays, it’s hard to be able to sit down and just read a book and remember to use your imagination because we always have stimulation,” Riew says. “For me, the real message of the show is to read more.”

Jenni Todd can be reached at jenni.t314@gmail.com.


At Loeb Drama Center, Cambridge. Tickets $15-$20, 617-547-8300, www.americanrepertorytheater.org/shows-events/thumbelina