Interview: Meet the Songwriting Team Behind New Musical, THE RISE AND FALL OF OTIS, Durra Leung & Sam Rosenblatt!

By: Jul. 11, 2020
Interview: Meet the Songwriting Team Behind New Musical, THE RISE AND FALL OF OTIS, Durra Leung & Sam Rosenblatt!

Meet Durra Leung and Sam Rosenblatt- a pair of young musical theatre makers on the rise. Both recent graduates of NYU Graduate Musical Theatre Program, the duo has already created a short rom-com musical, The Rise and Fall of Otis, which has received multiple live presentations, including Tisch Fringe Festival next Spring. As a songwriting team, Leung and Rosenblatt will also be joining forces to create a new Zoomsical for middle school students in the fall.

Additionally, the duo co-produces and co-hosts a free bi-monthly concert series TIN PAN ALLEY 2 at Dixon Place, with the mission of giving emerging musical theatre writers a platform to present their new works.

Below, Leung and Rosenblatt tell us all about their projects and how their cultural identity has influenced their work onstage and off.

What can you tell us about the new musical you're working on? Where/how can people listen/watch?

SR: The newest collaboration we are working on is a TYA (Theatre for Young Audiences) musical created to be performed entirely on Zoom. We are pairing up with 25 other writers to pull together a musical for 40 middle schoolers to perform in the fall. It takes place in a haunted house and features a wacky and wild cast of 40 characters, some human and many monsters!

DL: Our short musical "The Rise and Fall of Otis" is coming to Tisch Fringe Festival next Spring! Based on the nursery rhyme "Jack and Jill", "The Rise and Fall of Otis" takes the audience on a rom-com adventure in a stalled elevator. Featuring a six-person cast, "Otis" explores the cliché of love at first sight, office relationships, and how people handle stressful situations. We have done multiple live presentations, and made a studio recording which is available on our Soundcloud and YouTube.

How has your cultural identity impacted your art in general?

DL: I grew up in Guangzhou, China, listening to nothing but Chinese pop songs. I had spent years writing songs in Cantonese and Mandarin before starting to write in English. One prominent trait about Chinese music is that it prioritizes the melody over the harmony and the rhythm. And, because Chinese language is tonal (different tones have different meanings), music usually comes before the lyrics. It's the other way around for songwriting in English. Also, not all my friends and family members understand English, when I set music to existing English lyrics, I hope my music can stand on its own and satisfy those non-English speaking audiences. It's like an extra goal I want to achieve when I create.

SR: Growing up both Asian and Jewish in the United States, I am grateful that I've had the opportunity to experience both cultures. Craft-wise, I feel like my biggest goal is creating a story that can be understood by all, on multiple levels. I hope to create characters that appeal to all audiences and let the story speak for itself outside of the stereotypical characters normally seen onstage. I hope the storylines transcend just a theatrical experience and leave the audience asking questions. I think my background as someone from a culturally diverse household enables me to see different points of view and has created a great sense of empathy in me. I want my work to reflect this empathy, through characters and storylines.

You spotlight emerging writers regularly with Tin Pan Alley 2. Why do you think it's important that the public hear from new voices?

DL: We both went to NYU Tisch's Graduate Musical Theatre Writing Program, which is a community full of crazy talented musical theatre writers. Yet, we all are fighting to make our ways in the business. Emerging artists are not less talented than the established ones. They just deserve more opportunities. Tin Pan Alley 2 is a platform we created to bring those new voices to the public. We keep it all free and as accessible as we can.

SR: I was thrilled when Durra asked me to work with him on TPA2; I'm such a big believer at making space for people and I believe that TPA2 really allows artists to experiment and make room for themselves. We have been trying to include international voices, queer voices, women's voices- we want to provide that space for people.

Who are some new, promising artists that you think people should check out?

SR: In addition to all of our talented writers who have been featured through Tin Pan Alley 2, we were so privileged to have worked alongside a very talented group of people at the Graduate Musical Theatre Writing Program at NYU Tisch for the last two years; project decks for all 19 thesis projects to come out of our year can be found on the program's website. We've also been lucky enough to attend readings and events at the Musical Theatre Factory. The open mic nights at NYTW and MTF, as well as concerts created by Maestra are a great resource for finding emerging artists' work as well. Our classmates have also been hard at work on a webseries entitled "Is This Art Now?" which can be found on YouTube and a podcast entitled "The Latest Draft" which can be found on Apple Podcasts starting Friday, July 10th.

As an Asian theatre artist, have you seen or experienced racism in the industry that has made you feel marginalized and/or hindered your creative process?

DL: One time I was in a room full of theatre professionals. We were chatting about the musicals we liked. One person brought up Miss Saigon, and lightheartedly said, "Asian, am I right?" All I could think of was, "Please don't look at me." I got a feeling that I was expected to like this show, or at least have an opinion of it.

Asian audiences are expected to comment on shows that feature Asian characters. Asian writers are expected to write stories that represent Asian culture. One question I get all the time from my friends and family members in China is, "Do you put in Chinese elements in your works?" I would love to, of course. I want to create strong, complex Asian lead characters in my works. But it should not be a required item in the creative process. It's the expectation that gives me mixed feelings.

SR: I remember during the first week of my undergrad being told that I had been accepted "to fill the minority quota," a statement that has stuck with me for years now. It stung. I recognized myself as the only Asian student in my year and I think that was really the first time I felt like I had a target on my back. Looking back, however, I can also acknowledge how lucky I've been. I grew up in the United States, with a Jewish father and a Chinese mother. I have been gifted two diverse cultural backgrounds from my parents as well as my own up-bringing as a New Yorker to pull from. I feel like I have been given an incredible opportunity to create works for people of all backgrounds and encourage others to do the same.

To quote Legally Blonde (one of my favorite musicals), "With the chance I've been given, I'm going to be driven as hell." And I am. I want to see characters of diverse backgrounds playing roles outside of their stereotypes. I want to push the boundaries as to what musical theatre looks like and sounds like. I want to create complex characters that imitate and elevate real-life. And along the way, I want to create opportunities for my fellow artists. Theatre is about community for me and that community should reflect the world around us.

Durra Leung is an award-winning composer-lyricist and playwright born and raised in Guangzhou, China, and now calls NYC home. He has recently joined the New York City Center Encores! production of Thoroughly Modern Millie as the Cantonese lyricist. Durra has presented his works at Feinstein's/54 Below, Joe's Pub, The Duplex, The Laurie Beechman Theatre, Wild Project, The PIT, The West End Lounge, Dixon Place, and etc. One of his recent film-scoring works "Your Smile" (dir. Haochen Yang) has entered multiple international film festivals, including Cannes Film Festival. He is the producer and host for the concert series Tin Pan Alley 2. Graduate Musical Theatre Writing Program (Cycle 29) at NYU. Follow on Instagram and Soundcloud (both @alldurra).

Sam Rosenblatt is an Jewish-Asian-American theatre artist based in New York. She has a BS from NYU Steinhardt in Educational Theatre and an MFA from NYU Tisch in Musical Theatre Writing. She is a proud member of the Dramatists Guild and Maestra. Sam is a curator for Tin Pan Alley 2 and a programming manager for The Latest Draft podcast. She has worked professionally and educationally as a librettist, director, choreographer, stage manager, and performer. Follow her on Instagram @theatricallysam or visit her website,, for more information and updates.