Mounting the Nian

The Theatre Offensive unveils an award winner
By IRIS FANGER  |  April 10, 2007

If you’re 23 years old and about to premiere your first full-length musical, you probably don’t mind the climb up five steep flights of stairs to the rehearsal hall on the top floor of the Boston Center for the Arts. And it’s okay that you’re sweating through rewrites, not to mention filling in as rehearsal pianist while six actors run through the songs you’ve written about being a young, gay Chinese-American mindful of the disconnect between your heritage and the culture of your new land.

Meet Melissa Li, the composer, lyricist, and co-librettist of Surviving the Nian, the new musical being produced by the Theater Offensive. A charming mix of Asian and American influences, she was born in Hong Kong but came to the United States at age one month. “I grew up on Canto-pop, Cantonese sugary popular music, but it’s folk-songish. I also listened to a lot of American pop music on the radio. I’ve blended these ballads with traditional Chinese melodies.”

Li, who graduated from Boston Latin School and Boston University, met Theatre Offensive founding artistic director Abe Rybeck when she was 17 years old, and she joined TTO’s True Colors Out Youth Theater Troupe. She’s been working on Surviving the Nian for four years; she and Rybeck, who co-wrote the book, recently received a Jonathan Larson Performing Arts Foundation Award for it. “This production is a landmark for Theater Offensive in so many ways,” Rybeck says. “Melissa is an artist who developed through our programs, True Colors and Plays at Work. It’s a coming together of a lot of what makes Theater Offensive unique. We’ve expanded beyond gay audiences to explain what gay culture has to offer the world.”

The subject of the musical is Kaylin, a 24-year-old Chinese lesbian living in America who returns to her family in Hong Kong during the Chinese New Year. (Li: “We’re using Hong Kong as the setting because it’s an interesting blend of East and West.”) Kaylin brings two surprises, along with gifts for the clan: her African-American female lover and her decision to return to America. In turn, her mother announces that Kaylin must remain, alone, to help revive the failing family business.

And the musical’s title? Li explains, “The Nian is a mythical beast. The family must stay together to survive its attack. The reason there’s a New Year celebration is we’ve survived another year.”

Surviving the Nian | Theater Offensive | Calderwood Pavilion at BCA, 527 Tremont St, Boston | April 14–May 5 | $20 | 617.933.8600

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