【《We Chinese in AmericaMedia Editor Hugh Wang, January 6, 2023】This article has been published in the September 2023 issue of 《華人》Magazine.


The Story of the Musical "Romance of the Western Chamber" on Stage in San Diego

Hugh Wang (王惠豫)

Just after New Year's Day, a shining gem graced the stage in San Diego – the English-language musical "The Romance of the Western Chamber" performed at the Poway Center for the Performing Arts, presenting a New Year's gift to the San Diego audience.

The two performances were a complete success. This culturally blended musical received tremendous praise from the audience, with many expressing that the show exceeded their expectations. Non-Chinese audience members were immersed in the essence of classical Chinese culture, touched by the love story of Mr. Chang and Cui Yingying, the young couple challenging traditional customs. Chinese audience members familiar with the story of "The Romance of the Western Chamber" were also captivated by the innovative performance style. Many friends who were unable to attend the show lamented that it was only performed twice, leaving them unable to experience "The Romance of the Western Chamber" firsthand.

The Musical "The Romance of the Western Chamber": Author and Creative Process

The musical "Romance of the Western Chamber," also known as 《西厢记》 was created by a retired American doctor named Howard Rubenstein, whose Chinese name is 贺紅岩.

2 作者 贺华德

(Author: Howard Rubenstein)

Howard Rubenstein (贺红岩), was born in Chicago in 1931. He graduated in 1953 as a pre-med student from Carleton College and received the Noyes Prize for Excellence in Ancient Greek. In 1957, he graduated from Harvard Medical School. After completing an internal medicine internship at Los Angeles County General Hospital, he returned to Harvard University to study immunology. He became a research fellow at the National Institutes of Health and later became a prominent fellow and assistant professor at the Harvard School of Public Health and Medicine. In 1966, he was appointed as a physician and director of allergy at the Harvard University Health Services in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

In 1968, he married Judith Ann Selig, with whom he had four children. In 1984, he experienced hearing loss and balance issues. This led him to retire in 1989 and leave Boston to start a new career plan in San Diego.

According to Howard Rubenstein's widow, Judith Rubenstein, after retiring, he became a self-taught playwright. He wrote 10 plays, some of which were performed on local stages, and authored several books. The inspiration for his play "Romance of the Western Chamber" came from a trip to China.

In 1984, the Rubenstein couple received an invitation from the Chinese Medical Association to visit China for lectures and to explore traditional Chinese medicine. They were deeply impressed by China's culture, people, cuisine, and beautiful landscapes. Judith recalled the trip by saying, "We had a wonderful time. The beauty and culture of China, as well as the warmth of the Chinese people, left a profound impression on us." Howard Rubenstein was captivated by the story of the classical 13th-century Chinese play "Romance of the Western Chamber" and was determined to adapt it into an English-language musical to introduce Chinese culture to American audiences.

The musical's composer is Max Lee, a music professor who has composed nearly 100 concert works. "Romance of the Western Chamber" was his first complete musical theater piece. During the songwriting process, Rubenstein listened to a lot of Chinese music, found folk song fragments he liked, and collaborated with the composer through email to create music that would complement his lyrics. Judith Rubenstein recalled, "He picked out melodies that sounded very beautiful and that Western audiences would like, and built a song around those melodies."

"Romance of the Western Chamber" premiered globally on September 9, 2011, at the Dongpo Theatre in Hangzhou, China. It had its U.S. premiere at the TADA! Theater in New York City in 2017. Both performances were well-received by audiences and garnered praise from critics.

To Commemorate Dr. Rubenstein, the Musical "Romance of the Western Chamber" Was Brought to the Stage in San Diego

Dr. Rosa Ovshinsky (蔣廷儀), a retired scientist and a close friend of the Rubenstein couple, has been a strong supporter of bringing the musical "Romance of the Western Chamber" to the stage in San Diego, where Dr. Rubenstein lived for over 30 years. The original plan was to have the performance at the Don Powell Theatre at San Diego State University in July 2020, but it had to be postponed due to the pandemic. Unfortunately, Dr. Howard Rubenstein's health deteriorated due to cancer, and he passed away on September 20, 2020, at the age of 89.

To fulfill Dr. Rubenstein's wish, in 2022, after the pandemic situation improved, Dr. Rosa Ovshinsky collaborated with Dr. Lilly Cheng (刘丽容) , the director of the Chinese Cultural Center at San Diego State University, and Dr. Niyi Cocker, the director of the School of Theatre, Television, and Film at San Diego State University, and generously donated significant project funds. They restarted the performance plan. Mrs. Rubenstein also donated the copyright of the performance to San Diego State University, which served as the host. Thus, the project to stage the musical "Romance of the Western Chamber" in San Diego officially began.

3 刘丽容 蒋廷义 贺华德 朱迪斯

(From left: Lilly Cheng, Rosa Ovshinsky, Howard Rubenstein, Judith Rubenstein)

Executive Producers:Rosa Ovshinsky,Lilly Cheng,Niyi Coker and Judith Rubenstein.

Director:Peter James Cirino; Music Director/Vocal Coach: Lucy Lin (林秋美);Orchestral Director: Angela Yeung(杨炤婵).

4 三位执行制片人

(Three executive producers)

The Process of Assembling the Cast and the Intense Rehearsal Schedule

When the production plan was finalized in July of last year, there was only half a year left until the scheduled performance date. Recruiting actors and completing rehearsals for dozens of songs within this six-month timeframe posed the most challenging task for the music director.

Taking on the role of Music Director and Vocal Coach for "Romance of the Western Chamber" was the 82-year-old Ms. Lucy Lin. In her younger years, Ms. Lin studied vocal music and opera performance in Japan, Italy, and the UK. She participated in classical opera performances in Europe and later starred in the stage musical "The Sound of Music" in the United States. Over the past decade, she has been teaching vocal music in San Diego and established "The Bel Canto Performance Foundation," which organizes concerts and supports the growth of young musicians. Ms. Lin also serves as the Music Director and Conductor of the San Diego Chinese Choral Society (華聖合唱團), a choir with a thirty-three-year history. Despite her age, Ms. Lin took on this heavy responsibility with vigor.

Navigating the challenge of recruiting and training performers, and guiding them through the intricate musical journey of "Romance of the Western Chamber" in such a short span of time, was a testament to Lucy Lin's dedication, expertise, and passion for music and performance.

5 林秋美

Music Director/Vocal Coach Ms. Lucy Lin)

Since the recruitment advertisement for the musical "Romance of the Western Chamber" was posted on the 《華人》 magazine (We Chinese in US) website on July 11th, there has been a steady stream of applications. Ms. Lin personally conducted interviews and ultimately selected actors to play the main roles in the production:

Actor for Mr. Chang: Jordan Fan. Jordan comes from a musical family and has enjoyed singing since high school and college. His past experiences include being a soloist for the University of California, Santa Barbara Chamber Choir and playing the role of Enjolras in the school's production of "Les Misérables."

Actor for Cui Yingying: Lia Zheng (鄭天晨). Lia, a 17-year-old high school student at CCA, fell in love with singing at a young age. Her awards include the Classical Voice Grand Prize at the Los Angeles Music Center Spotlight Competition (2022), and two second-place finishes in the Harold Leonard Vocal Competition (2021 and 2022).

Actor for Hong Niang (matchmaker): Evelyn Olson. Evelyn is a trained professional actor, dancer, and singer. Her career began as a dancer on a weekly television show on the Seventh Channel in Manila, Philippines. After moving to the United States, she started dancing in musicals and then added acting and singing to her resume. Upon moving to Los Angeles, she received training in commercial and film acting, continuing her performing career.

Actor for Mrs. Cui (YingYing’s mother): Rebecca Ung (唐惠). Born and raised in San Diego, Rebecca graduated from UCLA with a Bachelor's degree in Music Education, focusing on vocal music. Since then, she has been involved in music education throughout San Diego, teaching at several elementary schools in the San Diego Unified School District and her private studio. As early as 2010, Rebecca had the opportunity to collaborate with Dr. Howard Rubenstein to record some excerpts from "Romance of the Western Chamber."

The selection of these actors and their dedication to bringing the characters to life on stage is a testament to their talent and commitment to the production of "Romance of the Western Chamber."

6 排练场景

(From left: Mr. Chang, YingYing, YingYing (B), Mrs. Cui, Hong Niang, Ms. Lin)

Actor for Superior Monk: James Fan (范健民). James Fan is a well-known emcee and host in Southern California. He is known for his classically trained voice and elegant, dignified performance style. He is also a respected physician and professor, known nationwide by his students and colleagues.

Here's a little secret for the readers: the actor playing the Superior Monk is actually the father of the actor playing Mr. Chang, creating a true "father and son" duo on stage.

7 父子兵

After the actors were selected, Ms. Lin held rehearsals every weekend, providing guidance on each line of the song for every actor. In the final weeks leading up to the performance, there were nightly stage rehearsals. Ms. Lin not only provided on-the-spot guidance but also personally played the piano accompaniment for rehearsals, which lasted for more than three hours each time. The dedication required for an octogenarian to do this is truly remarkable!

The story of "Romance of the Western Chamber" takes place in a monastery, and the play involves many monks chanting and singing. These roles were performed by the members of Tenor and Base of the San Diego Chinese Choral Society. Ms. Lin also provided rigorous training for them, using harmonies of different voice ranges to sing the chanting melodies.

8 诵经祈祷

(Led by Superior Monk , the monks pray for the well-being of Yingying's father)

In this performance of "Romance of the Western Chamber," ethnic dance performances were incorporated to enhance the storytelling. The dance performances were presented by the San Diego Blue Ming Chinese Dance Company (《青花瓷》舞蹈团). The choreography was led by Patricia Lippert, the founder of the Blue Ming Chinese Dance Company.

9 舞蹈场景

(Dance Scenes)

The Performance Was a Complete Success, And the Audience Response Was Enthusiastic

Through the collaborative efforts of the entire production team, the musical "Romance of the Western Chamber" was performed twice at the Poway Center for the Performing Arts on January 7th and 8th, 2023. It attracted over a thousand people from California who have a passion for Chinese culture and the arts. The brilliant performances by the actors deeply moved the audience.

This musical tells the love story from the famous Chinese classical drama "Romance of the Western Chamber" in the form of English songs and dialogues. The thematic music appears throughout the production, creating an unparalleled beauty that touches the soul. The moving melodies resonate deep within, bringing immense emotions and solace. It allows people to momentarily escape the pressures of the real world and immerse themselves in a realm of sensory delight. The wonderful music helps individuals experience the power of life's essence, touching every sense and revealing a beauty that words cannot express. It's no exaggeration to say that the original music in the play is truly beautiful, touching, and profoundly moving, serving as the heart and soul of the entire production, bringing tears to the eyes of many audience members.

10 击退强盗

(Defeat Gang)

11 毁婚约场景

(Scene of Breaking the Engagement)

Here are some excerpts from audience feedback received after the performance:

Ma Ping (馬平, Founder of 華人 Magazine): The English musical "Romance of the Western Chamber," which lasted for three hours, was performed twice on the evening of January 7th and the afternoon of January 8th, with a full house of spectators, mostly Americans. Due to its Broadway-style musical elements, it was a rare classic Chinese romantic comedy that triggered laughter and continuous applause, making it a resounding success. First, the English adaptation was quite interesting. A classic Chinese love story, after careful adaptation by American physician Howard Rubenstein (Chinese name 贺红岩), became a comedy style that Westerners enjoy, while retaining the original plot. Second, there were many Chinese elements, including several ethnic dances introduced in the play, making the whole production more smooth and elegant. Third, the actors in the play performed very well. The performance of the English musical "Romance of the Western Chamber" fulfilled the dream of the playwright Howard Rubenstein, who passed away in 2020 due to cancer. Unfortunately, he did not live to see his masterpiece performed on the stage in San Diego. Fortunately, his wife Judith, with the concerted efforts of renowned figures such as Professor Lilly Cheng, director of the State University of California, Chinese Culture Center, and Dr. Rosa Ovshinsky, finally brought Dr. Rubenstein 's posthumous work to the stage in San Diego after ten years of hard work, allowing many Western audiences to fully appreciate the charm of Chinese literary classics from more than 700 years ago.

12 幽会 2

(Secret Rendezvous)

Yang Sheng (揚聲, Conductor of the San Diego Chinese Youth Symphony): The musical "Romance of the Western Chamber" premiered successfully in San Diego, and it was an exceptionally high-quality performance! It was full of vigor and grandeur, on par with Hollywood blockbusters like "Mulan." Watching our own people perform a Chinese classical drama in English in the United States felt very appealing, and it added even more charm to Chinese theater. There was a significant number of local American audiences, and their cheers, responses, and praises filled the entire theater. It truly bridged the East and West and opened the eyes of the Americans. I strongly recommend and suggest the production team to tour major cities across the United States commercially; the impact is comparable to Liu Xiaoqing's worldwide tour "Unforgettable Charm."

13 拷红场景

(Scene of Questioning Hong Niang)

Linda Clark (American audience): “Romance of the Western Chamber” was an entertaining performance for the ears, eyes, and heart! A dramatic, comedic story of young love gradually unfolded with engaging actors, captivating music and vocals, and creative, exciting dance performances! The colorful lighting, rolling fog, and minimalistic sets were ideal. Just as the matchmaker successfully united the young couple, the Producers are matchmakers in bringing this beloved, traditional Chinese story to a wider audience. I could see it again. It's too bad it only played two times. They should find a place to continue show it!

14 大结局 2

(The Grand Finale)

We look forward to this excellent production returning to the stage in San Diego in the near future, allowing more audiences to enjoy its artistic charm.

(Thanks to Lilly Cheng and Hu Zhiwei (胡治緯) for their contributions to some of the content in this article)


"The romantic songs of the Western Chamber have captivated the San Diego stage, creating a perfect blend of Eastern and Western cultures."


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