Sunday, July 27, 2008

Interview by Overseas Singaporean

Interview by Overseas Singaporean

November 2006

1. We know writing musicals has been your hobby and passion. With your profession as a Consultant Pediatrician, have you faced any problems/ issues in pursuing this interest? i.e. lack of time/ support etc.

If you really enjoy what you do, you find time for it. I become very efficient in time management, and learn how to delegate effectively. Thus, pursuing my career and musical theater jointly has not been a problem for me. As a creative person, I find that having financial independence extremely valuable. Many artists either starve, literally, or succumb to commercial pressures, and compromise their art. As I do not depend on my art to earn a living, I think I can be true to my artistic integrity.

2. How many years have you been involved in the local theater scene?

I wrote my first musical, Big Bang! in 1992, and that was staged at the Kallang Theatre in 1995. Since then I have composed the music and staged over a dozen musicals in Singapore. Thus, altogether I have been actively involved in musical theater for over 12 years.

3. 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 better marketed, and tend to have higher ticket prices. Singaporeans, in general, generally have 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 Miserables, 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 pizzaz and wow factor. Audiences come home disappointed, and their opinion of local shows being of inferior quality becomes increasingly ingrained in their psyche.

4. How has the local Singapore arts scene developed over the past few years?

The arts scene has improved dramatically (sorry for the lame choice of word) over the past few decades. Before the mid 1988 there were no locally written musicals. Nowadays we can look forward to several 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 is still too high.

5. 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.

6. Singapore has seen a rise in the staging of local musical plays like Beauty World, Dim Sum Dollies, Forbidden City, Man of Letters etc. In your opinion, what could have contributed to this? (i.e. more appreciate audience? Esplanade?)

Every production of a new musical is important. It encourages the creative process, it helps discover new talent, and it widens the audience base. Also, for the creators of new musicals, each time one is staged, something is learnt. 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 to the region, and tap on the tourist market. Our Singapore Tourist Promotion Board could be more active in this.

7. Your views on the local theatre scene/ market for musicals: Is Singapore ready or do we have to stick to certain formulas i.e. stick to mass appeal, adopt 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.

8. 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 Asia. 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.

9. 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 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, masterclasses, 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, 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.

10. 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 17 new Singapore musicals under this initiative, and next year we are incubating another 20. 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.

It deserves greater support from our institutions, than is currently available. My hope is that this will come in the near future.

Kenneth Lyen

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