One of the last Friday nights before midterms is in full swing, the last place you’d expect to find Harvard students is the admissions office. But tucked away in part of the building is the Agassiz Theater, where the Asian Student Arts Project rehearses daily for its pan-Asian production of âLegally Blonde,â which opened on October 28.
ASAP is an organization for Asian Harvard students who wish to celebrate their artistic passions in conjunction with their identities. âWe are constantly creating open spaces where Pan-Asian students can feel like they have a space to express themselves and elevate their art,â said ASAP Director and Co-Chair Karina L. Cowperthwaite ’23.
The club’s culture is rooted in its theatrical presence, although ASAP honors the arts in all their forms. Ian Chan ’22 â’23, one of the musical directors of the production and senior member of ASAP, saw his members enthusiastically rally around the fall show. âPeople are really excited to be a part of our Asian arts community because they’ve been a part of ‘Legally Blonde,'” Chan said, “and conversely, the people who are a part of ASAP are excited about “Legally Blonde” to be a part of our community. “
This semester’s musical, however, was unlike any other ASAP production featured in the past. All of ASAP’s past shows have been written with Asian identities in mind, Cowperthwaite said. âLegally Blondeâ is perhaps as far away from this trend as it gets. Very few contemporary Broadway musicals feature Asian American stories. âIt’s really tough when you’re a theater company,â Cowperthwaite said. âEspecially coming back from COVID, we really wanted to start with a big production. “
But faced with this challenge, Cowperthwaite came up with the idea to set up a traditionally white musical in an all-Asian space. âI think what’s been really exciting about it is seeing what this text looks like when it’s with people it wasn’t necessarily written for,â she said.
Tia A. KwanBock ’25, who played Vivian Kensington in the production, agreed and said she really appreciates being able to explore other themes besides her identity. âI’m excited for audiences to see a show with an all-pan-Asian cast where the plot isn’t all about being Asian,â she said.
With “Legally Blonde” in particular, the irony of this casting is quite powerful. Its plot is about a privileged white girl, who enters Harvard in no time in a quest for love. Although Elle’s race is not specified, whiteness is deeply rooted in most people’s perception of the character – originally played by Reese Witherspoon and later by Laura Bell Bundy. So a lot of things go into racial coding to fit a minority cast. âThere are narratives and a history between Asian Americans and Harvard admissions officers like the trial,â said Cowperthwaite, referring to Students for Fair Admissions v. Harvard College, âso all of a sudden this narrative gets a little politicized. “
But what does it really mean to turn this narrative into a Pan-Asian story? âIt means this Legally Blonde will be like no other,â Cowperthwaite said with a laugh. On the one hand, she worked with the designers of the production to incorporate signifiers of Asian identity into the characters they create. There are a lot of different details to consider and play around with: âWhat kind of TV shows does she watch? What kind of music does she listen to? What kind of candle-lit sushi restaurants do they go to? “
The actors were enthusiastic about the work and delighted to put on a show of this magnitude in such an Asian space. Julia H. Riew ’21 -’22, who plays Brooke and is one of the founders of ASAP, said she found the project energizing. âIt’s exciting to know that parts of my identity don’t need to be hidden to play this role,â said Riew. “In fact, they can actually be highlighted.”
With only a few weeks between auditions and performances, the rehearsal process had to move forward quickly. âIt’s been a fortnight since we had a first rehearsal and we learned 80% of the music, so we’re really speeding up here,â Chan said. “We were really fortunate to see an incredible pool of applicants, with absolutely incredible talent – and not just that, but incredible Asian talent.”
The actors’ commitment to their roles was clear, especially as their vocals filled the halls late into the night. Riew, playing Brooke in the famous skipping rope singing scene, admitted that she jumps every day to gain stamina. âAnd to do it with a mask,â she said. “It’s going to be really interesting.” But since this is her final year with ASAP, she is excited about how far her organization has come and thrilled with her approach to âLegally Blondeâ. âIt tells a really great story about a woman who goes to a place she would never have seen before and learns something about herself that she never thought she could,â said Riew. “I think it’s something that not only the people at ASAP but so many people at Harvard have experienced.”