Sunday, July 27, 2008

Interview by The Edge

The Sound of Music

The Edge, Singapore 30 May 2005

The Musical Theatre Society talks to Lai Ee Na about growing the art form in Singapore.

interview with the edge singapore

What do a lawyer, a gift-shop creative director, a postgraduate student, a paediatrician, a boss of a multimedia production company and an engineer have in common? A passion for musical theatre.

As committee members of the Musical Theatre Society (MTS), they want to see the art form vibrantly and professionally showcased in Singapore. To MTS president, Grace Ng (a legal assistant), and its committee member Desmond Moey (executive director at Seagate Technology), the local musical theatre scene has a long way to go. The others on the committee are Sean Wong, creative director at Ig’s Heaven; Gavin Low, literature undergraduate at National University of Singapore; and Philip Sim, managing director of Gecko Media.

Moey, 46, says “Singapore’s culture in musical theatre is not as rooted as in the US and the UK, where the client base is large enough to support the industry. The language medium there is English.

“With our multicultural background, it limits the audience size. The financial returns in investing in musical theatre are low. It costs at least $200,000 per show and that figure is already at the low end.” Moey has composed more than 200 published songs, including musical theatre, gospel numbers, and pieces for the 1997 National Day Parade.

Ng, 26, says “You always see the same actors on stage. Maybe the directors are comfortable working with the same people.

“In the US and the UK, there are individuals who can act, sing and dance, the triple threat. In Singapore, you’ll be lucky to find an actor who can sing, let along [do the] triple threat. To even touch Broadway level will take 20 to 30 years more.”

Supporting original works

In its effort to develop its members’ skills in songwriting, scriptwriting, lyric writing, acting, singing and dancing, this year, MTS has lined up courses on composition using software, writing a musical and singing in musical theatre. Classes will be conducted by practitioners.

“We help the amateur performer better their skills and gain confidence through performances. In 10 years, we might get a critical mass of skilled performers,” Ng says. Evidently, she knows the value of training. She is adept at playing the piano, and took dance and singing classes as an undergraduate before forming MTS in 2003.

Between 2003 and last year, she produced and performed in revues that wove songs by Rodgers and Hammerstein and Stephen Sondheim into new story lines. The free shows were staged at the YMCA Orchard, Toa Payoh Ampitheatre and Lot 1 Shoppers’ Mall.

Even Mozart’s popular compositions were not spared. In Operation Opera presented at the Esplanade, Ng wanted to prove how similar opera is to musical theatre.

“Operation Opera was full house, with the Singapore Lyric Opera coming to watch us. At Lot 1, one retailer said [our show] was better than the foreign ones that had performed previously,” says Ng.

With new committee members on board, MTS plans to stage new works that can be readily packaged at market rates for corporations, schools or country clubs. Corporations might want to consider sponsoring shows. “Sponsoring musicals is a good opportunity to raise a corporation’s profile,” says Ng.

MTS is developing a full-scale jazz musical with the Tanglin Community Club, where it is based. The show will be staged early next year. In addition, Five Foot Broadway, a festival of new musicals, is being planned for this year.

The society’s main thrust is to support original works. Under its inaugural incubations programme (Five Foot Broadway), works by local writers will be showcased. Performers and writers will not be paid market rates as this enables the volunteer scheme to cut costs.

Should corporations, schools or country clubs decide to commission or buy the shows, MTS will have the funds to pay the cast and crew. Remaining funds will go toward administration and running the courses, say Moey.

MTS’s offering under the incubations programme can be sampled in Five Foot Broadway, which is sponsored and produced by United Artistes Network and the Next Stage Performing Arts Academy. It is a Singapore Festival of Arts fringe event as well.

New works by composer and arranger Bang Wenfu and playwrights Stella Kon (Emily of Emerald Hill) and Ng Swee San will be staged at The Arts House from June 24-26. A cast of 20 will be performing five abridged musicals over the three days. Moey says the society would mount full versions of the Five Foot Broadway show when there is financial backing.

Ng and Moey are aware that the pool of skilled theatre practitioners and amateurs from the Association of Singapore Actors (ASA) can be tapped into for the society’s shows.

However, Moey stresses that MTS members will be given priority to audition for the society’s shows. Membership is free this year, but it will cost $10 per person next year. “The interests of subscription paying members have to be taken care of,” he says, adding that if a role cannot be filled by any MTS member, the audition will be open to all.

Another privilege for MTS members is discounted tickets for shows produced by the society.

Apart from composers, playwrights, choreographers, actors, dancers, set designers and lighting designers, the society would also like to see marketers, public relations practitioners, journalists, caterers, and IT professionals among its target of 50 members this year.

A few barriers

MTS’s vision for the local musical theatre scene, though passionate, faces a few barriers. First, although talents can get jobs in shows here, they receive low fees, says Ng. Second the arts are not seen as a contributor to the economy. “Until the mind set changes, you can’t have a vibrant local theatre scene,” Ng says.

Still, MTS urges the uninitiated to watch videos of well-known shows like The Sound of Music or Lion King, and encourages lovers of the art form to go beyond Andrew Lloyd Webber’s compositions to Stephen Sondheim’s or Cole Porter’s.

Another hurdle is the mentality that foreign acts are of better quality than local ones.

Ng says, “I hate Mamma Mia! because it’s too commercial. It proves the point that local audiences are suckers for marketing. I wish for once they would go for locally produced shows such as Madama Butterfly, which was very good. The foreign shows are usually staged by the touring companies whose cast is worse than the permanently located ones.”

Although Five Foot Broadway has received little funding, volunteers have given the project a boost. Dr Kenneth Lyen, MTS’s committee member, says, “We wrote to a number of people and organisations, including the National Arts Council. We got nothing. Only two individuals gave a small amount, barely enough to cover the rental of the theatre. However, we believe that if we wait until funds arrive, we will never to anything worthwhile.

“Therefore, all we have is passion and faith. When we explained this to everyone, I was amazed by so many Singaporeans had the same vision that we have, and readily volunteered their time and talent! This is what makes me so optimistic that musical theatre is not dead in Singapore, and has a very hopeful future.”

Lai Ee Na is a freelance writer whose works have appeared in local and foreign publications.

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