It all started as a joke, which comes naturally to stand-up comic Aidan Park.
He happened to be talking to the right people – in this case, Lyric Hyperion’s Analisa Gutierrez – when he found out about an opportunity to sing at a music event in January: “Saturday With Sondheim.”
“Can I make it?” he asked her jokingly.
“Sure,” he remembers her words.
And so Park was reintroduced into musical theatre, something he had given up since 2013 because of the discrimination and lack of opportunities he faced as an Asian male. Months later, he’s now sporting a red cape and a painted goatee for the lead role of Doctor Strange in Lyric Hyperion’s The Streaming-Verse of Madness: An Unauthorized Musical Parody. The July 7th musical premiere means so much to Park, not only because he loves musical theater but because it shows a shift towards inclusion in the industry.
“I like to sing!” Park says casually, chuckling from the happy memories the statement stirs up.
Before discovering musical theater, Park was a 19-year-old homeless man with HIV and had no way of finding work because he was undocumented.
“Musical theater saved my life,” he says.
Park turned to community theater because he believed it was the only passion he could pursue as an undocumented immigrant. His friend heard his singing and referred him to Richard Nickol, a singing teacher who tried teaching Park while he was training in empowerment at Liberty Experience, a nonprofit that uses music to promote the social and economic inclusion of immigrants.
Park, who has since become a commoner, accepted his offer and devoted himself to musical theater for 15 years before turning to stand-up comedy because he felt artistically unfulfilled in the art form and had trouble finding roles that would suited him best.
“It was heartbreaking to leave musical theater because it was a great salvation for me,” he says.
Park said he gets racially typecast and gets stuck on productions of Miss Saigon: “I did nine of them because I’m an Asian guy who can sing.”
His looks are what came between him and his dream role, he says.
“I’ve been led to believe that if you don’t get the part it has to do with your talent and has nothing to do with your race. That was sold to me by some of my teachers.”
With his tall stature and athletic build, Park looks unlike the Asian caricature Hollywood wants, he says. He felt like an odd figure trying to fit into a mold two sizes too small with a potential too shy of what he knew he was capable of.
He auditioned for roles in musicals such as “Grease” and “Bye Bye Birdie” and was recalled for lead roles despite knowing that they would not cast him for the lead role due to his ethnicity.
“I could take the role as far as technically required, but ultimately I wouldn’t get those roles,” he says. “And it was discouraging.”
Park turned to stand-up comedy because his personality and background were appreciated.
“Stand-up comedy is a place where you’re celebrated for your experiences and uniqueness,” he says. “While I’m in the mood for musical theater, sometimes you just have to go along with their idea.”
He found success as a stand-up comic and has produced and performed for comedy clubs such as the Laugh Factory, Hollywood Improv, the Comedy Store and the Icehouse. And he appeared as a stand-up in an episode of Peacock’s Comedy InvAsian.
Things changed further in May when Park headed to New Jersey to do a comedy show with Music Mountain Theater. He once again joked about appearing in a musical with the company and this led to him being cast in the lead role of Leo Bloom in the theatrical production of The Producers.
He says the casting shocked him because it showed “that these people are now willing to cast Asians in a starring role.”
“It gives me a feeling that maybe we’ve made some progress,” says Park. “Maybe there’s a way for me to actually work in this industry rather than as a background.”
He notes that having an Asian actor in a leading role on stage is particularly important due to the history of Asian representation in the media.
“Asian men are totally asexualized in Hollywood,” he says.
Asian characters are often portrayed in the media as having no sexual abilities and are typically supporting characters who are there for comedic relief. A 2021 study by the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media, titled “I Am Not a Fetish or Model Minority,” found that about a third of Asian and Pacific Islanders were in the top 10 films from 2010 to 2019 fits at least one common API trope or stereotype. The study also found that more than half of the representation fit the “exemplary minority” trope, while almost half were expected to be laughed at by the audience.
Park explains that having an Asian character like Doctor Strange in a lead role is “super important”. Recent portrayals of Asian and Asian-American superheroes include the television series Ms. Marvel” and the film “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings”.
“I’ve been thinking, ‘Oh, well, nobody’s going to see me like this for so long. So I better just give up,’” he says. “To see that there is more inclusion in 2022 – at least in my experience – I feel like we are taking a step in the right direction and that I could be a part of this art form that I love.”
After hearing Park sing on “Saturday With Sondheim,” Brandon Wood and Kaela Green, co-owners of the Lyric Hyperion, encouraged him to keep singing.
“The lyric [Hyperion] People are so important to me because they’ve really sparked a new interest in me,” says Park.
The Streaming-Verse of Madness is the first LA show he has auditioned for since returning to musical theater. He initially went to audition for Wong, Doctor Strange’s Asian sidekick and valet, but was called back for the lead man and eventually cast.
“It’s really cool to be able to play a main character like that,” he says. “It’s kind of interesting because I never thought I’d be able to do that because I’m Asian.”
As he prepares to take the stage as a leading Marvel character, he also anticipates backlash from “purist” Marvel fans. When he was cast, he recalls thinking, “Wow, they’re really taking a risk.”
“It’s interesting to be able to step into the power of what I know I can be,” he says.
He recalls struggling with his emotions throughout his journey into art. “It turns out that the key is embracing negative emotions, embracing the message, and adjusting your life in a way that brings happiness,” he says.
Park’s journey back to the musical theater stage had its obstacles, many of which were beyond his control and reflected the art form’s exclusivity. In the upcoming musical, he takes on his superpowers and uses them with newfound strength and confidence in his talent as a performer.
“I studied acting for many years and I studied musical theater for many years, and I felt forbidden in my participation,” he says. “After those two things from Music Mountain Theater and the Lyric Hyperion, I feel encouraged that I could be a participant that goes beyond the scope of just being a cartoon.”
https://www.latimes.com/entertainment-arts/story/2022-07-06/aidan-park-theater-doctor-strange-in-the-streaming-verse-of-madness Aidan Park shines in Marvel musical as Asian superhero leading man