“Crush! Crush! Crush!,” an original musical written by Scarlett (Chenchen) Long ’23, was presented as a staged reading on Monday, May 8 at the Ring Family Performing Arts Hall. The musical, which is Long’s senior capstone project for the Theater Department, was advised by Visiting Artists-in-Residence in Theater Robert Baumgartner and Nathan Dame. Directed by April Schwartz ’24 and Sida Chu ’26 and with music by Ben Sulzinsky ’23, the musical explores crushes and experiences of one-sided romance, alongside a metatextual narrative surrounding Long’s own process of creating the show.
From the show’s opening moments, we are struck by its metatextual nature, as Ashley Tuen ’23 takes the stage as Scarlett, an up-and-coming playwright working on a musical about crushes. Long explained that they took inspiration from “A Strange Loop,” a similarly meta musical that adds an increasing number of layers to this premise, telling the story of a Black queer man writing a musical about a Black queer man writing a musical.
The early numbers of “Crush! Crush! Crush!” introduce us to a wide range of characters who share their own experiences with crushes, as Scarlett interviews people to gain insight into the topic for their own work-in-progress musical. The implication that the musical Scarlett is working on is not “Crush! Crush! Crush!” was interesting, but is not explored further, as none of the numbers are framed as being from this musical-in-a-musical.
“In the musical, Scarlett, the character, is interviewing people about their crushes,” Long said. “In real life, I was also interviewing people about their crushes. I’m not going to use the specifics of their stories, but I would say their stories constitute the spirit of this musical. There’s definitely no specific names and details and everything, but [in] most of the cases, I took some chunks of different people’s stories, and then kind of fictionalized it and put it together on one character.”
This manifests in several amusing numbers. In “Tell Me Your Gayest Secret,” Elliot (Leo Kaplan ’26) comically recounts a journey through gender and sexuality that resulted from a crush who came out as non-binary. The number includes interludes to ask Siri questions like “can you be non-binary and straight?” ultimately resolving in Elliot also realizing their own non-binary identity. A couple of numbers later, in “Sex Storybook,” Kelly (Victoria Cornejo ’25), shares unabashedly horny daydreams as the characters debate whether crushes are necessarily sexual in nature.
A second running narrative throughout “Crush! Crush! Crush!” is the difficulty of creating a musical. Scarlett faces an obnoxious panel of theater-world gatekeepers who want something more culturally expected from a Chinese immigrant artist—like a story about culture clashes, language barriers, or generational trauma—but also balk at the amount of Mandarin dialogue used in Scarlett’s show.
“As a white person who is working on the show, I don’t speak the Mandarin that’s in the show,” Schwartz said. “I think the whole point is that we can get everyone to work on something like this because the whole idea of having different languages in theater is that theater as an art can apply and have an impact on everyone. So, like, fuck it, [get] as many people as we can get in on that because there’s ways to work around [a language barrier].”
Chu also spoke about the effort required to recruit Mandarin-speaking students to work on the show, a difficulty that had also come up with a Spike Tape production of the Mandarin-language play “A Fable For Now,” which Long co-directed in April.
“Theater and arts are very far away from international students in general,” Chu said. “So I think we also want to show that it’s possible, it’s accessible [to them].”
It’s also in the second half of the show that “Crush! Crush! Crush!” becomes more experimental and expressionistic, as we follow Scarlett’s struggles to decide what their show should be. In “My (Love) Shot,” numerous voices speak up to say their piece, from a fictional K-pop boy band to a snobby New York Times critic to Scarlett’s grandmother to a humorously fictionalized version of the University’s most famous musical theater-related alum, Lin-Manuel Miranda ’02 (Aldrean Alogon ’23). While Miranda attempts to lend Scarlett some advice as a fellow creative of color whose work doesn’t fit into traditional expectations of Broadway, his advice—like setting the show in New York City—isn’t very useful to Scarlett. During this sequence, the music dynamically jumps between styles.
“It’s four pastiches in a row,” Sulzinsky said. “That was a lot of fun—to try to figure out how to imitate four genres. In order you have ‘Hamilton’ style, sort of 90s pop, say Fiona Apple, perhaps. Then C-pop and contemporary K-pop. That [number] was the most challenging of the bunch.”
Admittedly, I found myself somewhat confused at moments during the second half. A scene of Scarlett being injured in a car crash, while expressively rendered and, as Long explained, based on a real experience, feels extraneous to the show’s overall arc. Indeed, the show itself does not follow a traditional narrative structure, with many of Scarlett’s challenges remaining unresolved at the show’s conclusion. However, much of this is clearly intentional—the snobbish critics on stage even preempt me in making those last two points. As Long explained, “Crush! Crush! Crush!” is a concept musical, intended more as an exploration of ideas than as a traditionally plotted story. The show is also, by Long’s admission, intentionally a work in progress, and it’s easy to see the show flowing more smoothly in a later version.
At its conclusion, “Crush! Crush! Crush!” connects its two threads, as Scarlett realizes they have a crush on theater itself, but one that is intertwined with a crush on a specific person. Long explained that the dynamic of a crush on theater allows for a different dynamic than a love for it.
“I’ve definitely had moments where I think theater [doesn’t] love me back,” Long said. “I got in touch with theater quite late in my life. Also, I knew nothing about theater before college. So you could say it’s like an early stage of the relationship between me and theater, but I don’t think I would ever have a stable relationship with [it]. I wanted to stay in this stage [where] I have a crush on theater because it always keeps me on my toes. Even through all the frustrations, all the fears, I want to keep that aliveness in [the] relationship.”
Despite some awkward moments due to the show’s admittedly work-in-progress nature, “Crush! Crush! Crush!” is an entertaining, heartfelt, and refreshingly original piece of theater. The show is driven by dynamic music, humorously self-referential writing, and a standout lead performance by Tuen, who puts both sensitive acting and sharp vocals on display. I couldn’t help but wonder what even greater heights it could take in a fully staged version, and am looking forward to following Long’s work going forward.
Sida Chu is an Assistant News Editor at The Argus.
Oscar Kim Bauman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.