Is There A Singapore Musical Theatre?
by Kenneth Lyen
Are Singapore musicals a 'copy' of Broadway/West End musicals?
Yes, there is a very strong Broadway/West End influence in Singapore musicals in English. Most of our musicals are fashioned after the Western model. Is this desirable? No, not in the long run. We need to find our own voice, our unique identity.
Do you see any distinct difference in local and foreign musical productions?
Yes, it is still fairly easy to differentiate a foreign from a local. Foreign musicals are usually slicker, more self-assertive, better marketed, and tend to have higher ticket prices. Singaporeans, in general, hold a higher opinion of overseas productions compared to local ones.
With a few exceptions, most locally produced musicals are not as polished or as lavish as foreign productions. The more conspicuous foreign productions that have come to Singapore, like Phantom of the Opera, Les Misérables, Cats, etc., cost millions of US dollars. In contrast, most local productions are way under one million Sing dollars. With a budget of millions, one can attract world class singers, directors, designers, beautiful costumes, stunning sets, etc.
Of course a high budget does not guarantee quality. But a high budget usually results in better production values, and more effective marketing. Unfortunately it is a vicious cycle. Local shows are strapped for finances. As a result corners are cut, compromises made, resulting in most performances lacking the pizzazz and the wow factor. Audiences come home disappointed, and their opinion of local shows being of inferior quality becomes increasingly ingrained in their psyche.
Singapore musicals are still in their infancy. Do you agree?
Musicals in the West have been evolving over the course of 100 years, whereas Singapore's first musicals were staged in 1988, only 21 years ago. We have on average had about 2 to 4 original musicals publicly performed annually in these 21 years. This is in contrast to the 40 or more musicals produced annually in Broadway and West End, of which in good years, some 10-20 are newly written musicals.
What is lacking and what are the strengths of Singapore musicals?
Because of the relative poverty of musicals staged by local theatre companies, it has been a struggle to sustain a thriving musical theatre industry. There are too few opportunities for writers and composers to have their works staged. This results in directors not getting the opportunity to direct, performers getting the opportunity to perform, and technical crew getting the opportunity to develop their expertise. Furthermore, this affects the quality of musicals because we do not have a strong base of outstanding directors and performers. When the public watches a Singapore musical, they are often disappointed, and they may not return to watch another made-in-Singapore musical. Hence the audience base for local musicals is very small.
On the other hand, we do have our own Singapore stories to tell. We are situated in Southeast Asia and we are influenced by many Asian musical and theatre styles. Our ability to fuse eastern and western styles may prove advantageous. Hence our potential for creating a genuine Singapore musical fashion is not only possible, but given time, is very likely.
Has the local arts scene developed in any way as compared to previous years?
The arts scene has improved dramatically (sorry for the lame choice of word) over the past few decades. Before 1988 there were no locally written musicals. Nowadays we can look forward to a few new made-in-Singapore musicals each year. Overall, production values have improved, with better singers, actors, dancers, sets, sound, and lighting. Audience size has expanded, and there is a larger core group of supporters. There are more venues for staging shows, but the price of rental has remained high.
Why aren't we developing our own brand of musicals?
We are strongly influenced by Western musicals, and the big mega musicals like Phantom of the Opera, Les Misérables and Cats, have made their mark in Singapore. Audiences like to watch these large scale spectacular musicals, and they in turn influence the style of musicals written.
Furthermore, producing musicals is relatively expensive compared to straight plays and concerts. We do not have sufficient financial support from either government or private companies. Few production companies are prepared to take the risk of staging new local musicals.
Writers and composers therefore have scarce opportunities to see their works staged, and many are discouraged from writing. Without a flurry of new works, our prospects of evolving our own brand of musicals is dimmed.
What is the solution? The answer is if you want to create a brand of musical unique to Singapore, there must be more concerted and pro-active support by the National Arts Council together with the private sector.
What does it take to make our own world-class musicals?
We need to tell our own special Singapore stories in a way that engages our audience. To be world-class the quality of the musicals must be of the highest level, with world-class performers and staging. This requires a leap of faith and courage to write ground-breaking original musicals coupled with the best production values. It is only through writing and staging many more musicals that will enable us to push our standards up to an international level.
What elements would go into it?
We should be more willing to explore Asian music and theatre. On the one hand we can explore the fusion of Western and Eastern styles, and on the other, we should write about ourselves, and let our imagination soar. We need to explore developing our musicals with film, television, puppetry, multimedia, animation, and computer games. There is considerable creative synergism when different media meet.
In general, we need to continue writing and to stage more original musicals, at ticket prices that people can afford, so we can develop a new audience base.
What about turning local stories into huge stage musicals?
Indeed, we have a wealth of local stories, myths, and folk tales. This is a huge reservoir of untapped stories, to be told in our own incomparable way. Huge stage musicals are expensive and the risk of failure is high.
Therefore, to start off, we should do small-to-medium-scale musicals, until we are confident in producing quality musicals.
Do you think we can export our musicals around the world?
Yes, I believe there is a hunger for new musicals worldwide. A local Singapore story with universal themes can be exported internationally. We need to concentrate on creating a large number of original works because it is unpredictable which ones can be exported.
What stories or material are worth turning into stage musicals?
Personal stories, historical stories, myths, and folk tales are eminently suitable for turning into stage musicals. But in essence, we are only limited by our own imagination. It used to be said that horror, action, and extremely sad stories are not suitable for musical theatre. However, this is being disproven, as musicals in these genres are being produced and gaining popularity. In short, the sky's the limit!
Singapore has seen a rise in the staging of local musical like Beauty World, Forbidden City, Man of Letters, Sleepless Town, etc. In your opinion, what could have contributed to this? (i.e. larger audience? Esplanade’s drawing power?)
Local musicals can tell stories and touch Singaporeans in ways that imported foreign shows may fail to do. The audience is there. But there are not enough local musicals being written and staged.
Every production of a new musical is important. It sparks the creative process, it helps discover new talent, and it widens the audience base. Furthermore, for the creators of new musicals, each time one is staged, something will be learnt, new experiences gained. This is absolutely essential for the evolution of musical theater, and in time, we will find our own unique Singapore artistic voice.
The Esplanade has been actively encouraging the incubation of new works, and they should be applauded for this. Our audience size is expanding, but it is still relatively small. Local shows can barely last more than a couple of months at best. We could market our shows better both locally and to the region. Perhaps the Singapore Tourist Promotion Board could be more active in tapping on the tourist market.
What are your views on the local market for musicals: Is Singapore ready? Do we have to stick to certain formulas e.g. commercial mass appeal? Or should we merely import Broadway scripts to succeed?
The best time to develop and market our musicals is now. We need a multi-pronged approach. There is value in producing well-known musicals, like Cabaret and Little Shop of Horrors. We get to see what the international standard is, and this allows us to benchmark ourselves.
However, we must develop our own Singapore musical. While considerable latitude should be given to the writing-composing teams, this does not mean there is a free-for-all. Sadly, some artists tend to forget there is an audience, and become a little too self-indulgent. The result is that their works may either be incomprehensible or somewhat boring. Hence the need for intelligent reviews, especially by the critics writing for the mass media.
The problem of nurturing our own creative works is made more difficult by the relative lack of support by our institutions. For example, there have been no Singapore musicals in the main program of the Singapore Festival of Arts for the past 10 years.
With large productions being staged here, can Singapore be the 'Broadway of the East'? Hollywood for musical performance? Or do we have a long way to go?
Yes, Singapore can indeed be the Broadway of the East. We have several unique attributes. Firstly, there is a wealth of stories waiting to be told in the genre of musical theater. We also have a fascinating variety of Asian music, with different rhythms and different instruments. Our talent pool is immense, and largely untapped. We have not reached the stage where musical theater prohibitively expensive to stage.
We have a long way to go. Funding Singapore shows is immensely difficult, and attracting large audiences to watch our local shows is an uphill struggle. Our talent is still not quite world-class in ability, but we are reaching international standards very rapidly. We are at a critical level of development, for we have the creative talents, but limited opportunities to stage the musicals that have been written. If we are truly to become a major tourist attraction, integrated resorts notwithstanding, we need to have a more vibrant arts scene, and our institutions should take a more proactive role.
What do you think is the formula for success for theater productions in Singapore? i.e. adopt Broadway productions, scripts, engage world class directors, train local talents, etc.
Musical theater is a collaborative art form. Every element must work for a show to be successful. The corollary is that failure in any one of its components can result in failure of the entire show. Thus, the main elements of success are:
a) Teamwork: collaborative creativity is one of the most difficult and yet the most vital skill that we must learn in Singapore. Choosing the right team is critical for success.
b) Attention to detail: it is said that a musical is not written, but rewritten. One needs to adopt a perfectionist attitude. The book, the lyrics, the music, the choreography, arrangement, performance, etc., needs to be close to perfect. This can only be achieved by paying attention to detail, and polishing until the performance sparkles.
c) Training: we should learn from the best, and therefore going overseas for training in musical theater is important. Inviting foreign directors, choreographers, are part of the learning process, but it is important that there is transfer of technology. It is sometimes far too easy to invite a famous overseas person for the sake of selling a show, but if there is no attempt to have the person give workshops, tutorials, master classes, it is an effort that goes to waste.
d) Flexible mind set: we should not have any rigid mind set about musical theater. Often I encounter people who tell me that they do not support musicals because it is too expensive, too old-fashioned, too plebeian, too superficial, and too western. Of course, musical theater can be all of the above, and also, none of the above. It is up to us to create our own unique and distinct art form. Thus, we should all keep our minds open and flexible.
Having said all this, I don't anybody really knows what the formula for success is!
Why do kids seem to love musicals, and how can we foster and turn them into a loyal audience base?
Musical theatre is telling a story through a combination of acting, singing, and dancing. It is a very entertaining art form, and with the aid of music, can be very powerful emotionally. Provided we produce quality musicals that can speak and touch our audiences, we will find a very large and loyal audience. Families love musicals, and children are often enthralled by the experience. It is good to start young, and introduce musicals into schools.
Where will Singapore go in the next ten years?
Development in the arts needs to expand in all directions. At the high end, we need to create high quality shows that can travel internationally. This can only be done if attention is given to the developmental process. Incubation of new works is a high priority in this regard, and funding should be given for this. Training singers, actors, dancers, directors, choreographers, and technical staff, etc., need to be enhanced. More courses should be made available, and subsidies given to allow more people to attend these classes.
Production costs for world-class musicals is high, and therefore a system of selecting the best for financial support should be set up. At the community, schools and tertiary educational institution level, encouragement should be given, not only for the writing of new works, but also in having more opportunities to showcase the works and talents. This is where young and promising talent can be spotted and nurtured. Also, those who have been involved in musical theater productions, then to be the most ardent supporters. Therefore, schools, tertiary institutions, and community centers need to have an active program that is focused on the promotion of musical theater.
You have been known to advocate musical theater in Singapore, being the brain child of Five Foot Broadway, a program that staged 5 locally produced musicals. Why the initiative and how has it helped?
Actually we have already staged over 30 new Singapore musicals under this initiative, and we are continuing our successful incubation program. Content is king, and we are focusing our efforts in creating new Singapore musicals. We have discovered that Singapore has a large pool of tremendously talented individuals in the creative as well as in the performance side. All these people need are encouragement and opportunities to showcase their works.
The spinoffs are important and wide-ranging. These include the creation of a wide range of new musicals. Collaboration with filmmakers, animation and games creators, television, puppetry, and the music industry, is already under way, and it underscores the centrality of musical theater in media and entertainment. Musical theater is an important art form in its own right, and there is cross-fertilization with other creative industries.
In these difficult economic times we believe that more support is critical in ensuring that this art form continues to grow and evolve. Our National Arts Council needs to play a more pro-active role in this regard.