Sunday, July 27, 2008

Interview by JI Hae Gu

Interview by JI Hae Gu

21 June 2007

1. How and when did Singapore musical industry start?

Until 1988 there were no Singapore musicals written. Then in that year, two original musicals were staged, Makan Place and Beauty World.

2. The latest production of Beauty World is amazing. Can you recall the first production of Beauty World? What is the difference between the first production and new production, if any?

I did not watch the first production of Beauty World, only the second production, which I understand is very similar to the first. The current production differs in the following ways:

a) The production values are much higher, with a more elaborate set, costumes, and a large band placed on stage

b) More songs are written

c) The singing and dancing are better

Despite all these improvements, I prefer the older version because there was a rawness which was more authentic to Singapore of the 1950s. While the lead, Elena Wang, is an excellent singer, she does not have the innocence and vulnerability that the role requires (compare Lea Salonga and her portrayal of Kim in Miss Saigon); furthermore she has a trace of an Australian accent, which makes her portrayal as a girl from Batu Pahat quite unbelievable. Daren Tan is miscast as Ah Hock... the role requires a more naive, more bumbling character... more brawn than brains.

3. There is some significance of the first local musical, Makan place. Can you tell me about Makan place?

Makan Place is a light-hearted piece set in a hawker center, with relatively simple bouncing music.

4. What are the average age and gender of the audience in Singapore? How do Singapore audiences define a good musical?

I do not have this information, but my impression is that the crowd is relatively young, in their 20s to 30s, and evenly balanced male and female.

There are at least three types of audiences. The first group looks for good acting: this type of audience usually likes to have a good story; in other words they are the more intellectual. The second category of audience goes for songs with hummable melodies; they are usually more musically inclined. The third category goes for dance, and they look for a lot of movement, and are less critical about the plot.

There have been three Stephen Sondheim variety shows staged in Singapore, all of whom have been commercial failures: audience support was minimal. Cleverness and intellectual prowess is therefore not in the Singapore audience’s definition of a good musical.

5. So far, which of the Western musicals had performed in Singapore and what was the most successful production?


By far the most commercially successful musicals performed in Singapore are the Andrew Lloyd Webber musicals, especially Phantom of the Opera (which has come twice), Cats, Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, and Evita. Schonberg and Boublil’s Les Miserables (has also come twice) and Miss Saigon have also been very successful. Larson’s Rent, Lerner and Loewe’s My Fair Lady, Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Sound of Music, The King and I, South Pacific, Kander and Ebb’s Cabaret and Chicago, Kleban and Hamlisch’s A Chorus Line (come twice), Cole Porter’s Anything Goes, Bernstein and Sondheim’s West Side Story, Singin’ in the Rain, Fame, 42nd Street, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, Oliver, Rocky Horror Picture Show, Grease, Snow Wolf Lake (I know this last musical is not a Western production in the strict definition of Western, but it is a lavish Hong Kong import).


There have been productions produced and staged by a Singapore cast, and these include Fiddler on the Roof, Guys and Dolls, Honk, Godspell, Little Shop of Horrors, Children’s Letters to God.


If you include student productions, they are quite adventurous and have staged shows like I Love You You’re Perfect Now Change, Urinetown, Chess, Sweeney Todd, Bugsy Malone, and many others.

In short, there is quite a good exposure to a wide variety of Western musicals in Singapore.

6. What is the difference between Singapore musicals and musicals from other countries? What is the average budget of each production?

There is a world of difference between Singapore musicals, both the Western musicals produced and performed by Singaporeans, as well as original Singapore musicals, and musicals imported (touring) from other countries where the cast is predominantly non-Singaporean. Every aspect is better in the overseas non-Singaporean production: better performers, better staging, higher production values... in other words, a standard approaching that of Broadway and the West End. Local productions are generally less satisfactory, especially in the quality of the singers and actors. I do not know the budget of imported overseas productions, but I am pretty sure they are several times more expensive than local shows. For local Singapore shows written by Singaporeans, the budget for a professional production is in the order of Singapore $500,000 to $800,000.

7. How many musical theater company, choreographer, composers, writers and actors etc… work in Singapore musical industry? Who are the main players in the field?

Sing Avenue Productions is the only theater company that only produces musicals. However, it is a new company, barely one year old. Dim Sum Dollies do mostly musical cabarets and revues, but they have also put on Little Shop of Horrors. Nearly all the other theater companies do predominantly non-musicals plays, and only occasionally put on a musical. Probably the theater company with the most consistently high standard is Singapore Repertory Theatre.

The number of Singapore composers writing for musical theater is under 20. The main composers are Dick Lee, Ken Low, Iskandar Ismail, and yours truly. As for bookwriters and lyricists, there are even less 20. Prominent writers include Michael Chiang, Ming Wong, Stella Kon. Actors cannot survive doing musical theater alone. Professional actors involved in musical theatre are less than 50.

8. What are some of the challenges in getting musicals produced in Singapore?


The quality of most original Singapore musicals is not up to international standards. The musicals have not had enough time devoted to developing the product, having it workshopped and critiqued until it reaches a professional standard. For example, the current version of Beauty World is worse than the previous version because there are far too many ballads following one after another. This mistake could easily have been rectified if it was workshopped. Substandard quality musicals garner bad reviews, and this equates with poor attendance, and results in commercial failures. It is very difficult to persuade theater companies to put on Singapore musicals, because they realize that the product is not up to par.


While the cost of production in Singapore (Sing$500,000 to $800,000) is relatively low compared to Broadway and West End, because of the small audience size, it is almost impossible to recoup one’s production cost. Virtually all Singapore musicals lose money, or barely break even.


There is a dearth of good performers in Singapore. This often means that one has to select average performers, and this will affect the quality of the show. Fortunately we can import good performers from Malaysia, the Philippines, and Australia.


Singaporeans tend not to support Singapore musicals. It is the “Prophet-not-recognized-in-own-country Syndrome”. The often pitiful audience size guarantees that a Singapore musical will lose money.


The Singapore Government has traditionally given minimal monetary support for the arts. Unfortunately even big companies are also not very supportive.

9. Why does Singapore musical could not be staged for more than 2 or 3 weeks?

Singaporeans are not supportive of Singaporean shows. The quality of the shows is not up to international standards. The performers are generally not very good, and one often sees the same performers in every musical. Lack of Government and big business support leads to increasing ticket prices. The average ticket price for watching a musical is Sing$40, with top ticket prices around $150. Compare this with a cinema ticket of about $10, and most Singaporeans will prefer to watch a movie. Most musicals in Singapore are staged for under 2 weeks.

10. What sort of training is needed for musical theater in Singapore?

Most performers that audition for roles in musical theater are untrained. There is only one tertiary institution in Singapore, LaSalle College of the Arts, that has a program for musical theater. Some of the performers are trained overseas, but they are the exceptions.

11. How are Singapore musicals received abroad?

We really do not have a good gauge, because Singapore shows that have gone overseas usually only have a few performances. The reviews that the production companies inform us, are generally good. As for overseas visitors who happen to be Singapore and watch a Singapore show, we are not sure how impartial their comments are.

12. What are the challenges for touring musicals abroad?

It is very difficult to organize an overseas tour for a Singapore musical. Until we have made connections with overseas production groups, everything has to be done from scratch. To date, only Beauty World and Chang and Eng have had performances overseas.

13. Why are there no local musicals being produced in DVD? Why are O.S.T not commonly marketed or available in music stores?

Singaporeans do not support Singapore art. For example, DVDs of Singapore films lose money as they remain unsold in shops. Nobody is prepared to invest in a money-losing venture.

14. I saw an impressionist painting in art museum. In this painting, artist draws himself the life in Singapore is like a life in the cage. What do you think about Singaporean censorship of politics and culture? How does censorship affect the popular art especially musical theater?

Singapore censorship is very heavy and distorts the art form. For example, political shows, shows that deal with religious issues, are banned. If a musical is to be aired or advertised on television, it will be denied broadcasting if it dealt with homosexual themes, or if it criticizes the government. Hence, the musicals that are written are generally very bland, politically correct, and lacking in any controversy.

15. What is the Singaporean identity? And how does local musical represent Singaporean identity?

The typical Singaporean is a pragmatic apolitical uncritical person, who tries to please everyone, afraid to rock the boat, and is prepared to compromise principles so as to maintain peace and harmony. The Singapore musical reflects this blandness very well.

16. Can you tell us about your Five Foot Broadway musical showcase and its purpose?

I started Five Foot Broadway in the hope that I can persuade Singaporeans to be more adventurous, more provocative, more daring. I goad them to write musicals that are controversial, thought-provoking, and intelligent. Slowly this is happening, but it is an uphill struggle. What I am pleased is that there is great diversity in the musicals being written. Some of the new works are very good. It is my objective to help the creative team develop and workshop these musicals, and to give them a no-frills demo production. This allows them to see exactly what they have written, and therefore they can gauge whether or not they have succeeded in achieving what they had intended.

17. What do you think about the prospect of Singapore musical?

I am an optimist. The prospects are extremely favorable. We have come a very long way since 1988. The quality of our shows has improved considerably. There are far more people trained in musical theater than two decades ago. The audience size continues to grow, and we are cultivating a loyal following. Government and big corporations are starting to give a little bit more financial support. I think in the next two decades, we will make it to the international stage!

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