Preview- John & Jen- Western District


By: Thomas Chan


Fans of Western District have heard them play classical music and reinvent it for the popular crowd over the past few years. Now, they're taking on their next project with the Asian premiere of the chamber musical, John & Jen, this weekend at the Fringe Club!


John & Jen originally premiered Off-Broadway in 1995 and a revival played in the U.S last year. Lead singer, Sarah Martin, suggested that Western District give the musical a shot. "It was definitely a new idea for us," says Monica Johnston, "but once it was planted, we just couldn't stop it from growing!"



John & Jen was a great choice for Western District. It's the perfect musical for a tiny cast and a small orchestra. For those of you unfamiliar with with the show; it's a chamber musical, composed by Andrew Lippa, with lyrics by Tom Greenwald. Tony nominee Kate Baldwin starred in the Off-Broadway revival in 2015.


The musical is set against the background of America between the 50's and the 90's. This is the story of Jen and her relationships with the two Johns in her life - her younger brother and his namesake, her son, who is trying to find his way in a confusing world. With a cast of only two people, John & Jen is a great piece that takes Jen and John from childhood through adolescence and beyond. John & Jen is an intimate story about connections and the healing of the human heart.


Western District has been causing a stir with their classical renditions of pop songs and for their "chamber music for the masses" philosophy. Western District was founded by Sophia Yan and Monica Johnston. These ladies know how to make classical music rock! 


"We firmly believe that anyone can enjoy classical music, and you don't have to go to a concert hall to do it! A core part of our mission is to re-define what people think of as classical, so we’ve performed everything from Bach to Lady Gaga, and have collaborated with dancers and visual artists," says Sophia and Monica. 


Hong Kong's version of John & Jen is headlined by two local stars, Sarah Martin and Nathan Koval. The show will also feature the original instrumentation, performed by Sophia Yan on piano, Sandra Lozano on cello and Tim Chan on percussion.


Sarah is a classically trained musician with experience on the opera stage and with singing other genres. Sarah has been singing with Western District since 2015.


Originally from Portland, Nathan graduated from Emerson College with a major in Musical Theatre, and has toured with Missoula Children's Theatre. He has also performed in a number of Hong Kong productions, including How To Succeed in Business Without Really Trying. This is his first performance with Western District.


The cast and crew are very excited to share the show with Hong Kong audiences and think they will love the intimate and powerful experience of John & Jen. There are many other artists involved in project, other than the singers and musicians. There is also the theatrical team; including director, Ben Margalith and Matthew Norman, who is providing the lighting design for the production.


"The audience will really enjoy the musical and find it heart-warming. It's a beautiful story about connections, commitments, and the healing of the human heart," says Nathan. 


The band, Nathan, and Sarah have been rehearsing for the production for months. Because of the staging and live music aspect of the show, finding rehearsal spaces large enough for the actors and the musicians to practice in was a challenge. They spent many nights rehearsing on Sarah's roof, sometimes with hilarious events happening.



"One time we were rehearsing on my roof with our director, Ben Margalith, when all of a sudden, a parrot perched itself up on the building next to us and wouldn’t stop shouting while Nathan was singing,” says Sarah.


"For me, rehearsing has been both the most difficult and my favorite part!" says Sophia, "I really feel the pianist is the glue – it’s my job is to keep the ensemble together, making sure the music matches up with the singing, acting, costume changes, and any other things that might happen unexpectedly in live performance! It’s a mix of music directing and performing, and feels like a marathon, as I’m basically playing straight through the show. We also have to wear lots of different hats.... Definitely not an easy task for an 'orchestra' of just three musicians, but I love it, because the music is fantastic!"


Hong Kong's burgeoning music and art scene has great potential and artists, like Western District, who are passionate about creating original experiences for their audience. But the arts and music community in Hong Kong could always use a little more love and support!


"So many students take music lessons. But there are a lot of challenges for local musicians who want to explore and create. Renting rehearsal space can be very expensive here, and they’re often not in a convenient location," says Monica.  


“Furthermore, it is really frustrating that musicians with cellos or other large instruments aren’t welcome on public transit, and could be fined for bringing oversized baggage on the train. If a simple commute is difficult for artists, what does that say about how society values musicians and artists?”


If you want to do your part to support local musicians, one of the best things you can do is buy a ticket for their upcoming shows. Tickets for John & Jen are reasonably priced at 280HKD. There are concession prices of 250HKD for students, seniors, Fringe Club members, and persons with disabilities. Western District is also raffling off a pair of tickets for Friday's show.You can enter the competition by liking their Facebook page. The winners will be announced by Wednesday, so act fast!


Performances of John & Jen run this weekend at the Fringe Club from April 21st to the 23rd at 7:30pm. Although the show does not contain anything overtly graphic, Western District is recommending it for audiences sixteen and up. Tickets are currently available online at, the Fringe Club box office and at any HKTicketing location. Don't miss out on an opportunity to miss this stellar musical!


For more information on John & Jen, click here.



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