Sunday, July 27, 2008

Musical Theatre and the Creative Industries

Musical Theatre and the Creative Industries

by Kenneth Lyen

A major impact of globalization on Singapore is that we can no longer survive economically on manufacturing and services alone, industries which used to serve us so well in the past. Countries like India and China are siphoning business away from us, because they are competing aggressively through lower prices. Thus, we have to find alternative strategies to withstand this onslaught of global competition.

One promising gold mine for us to explore is the innovation-driven economy. Already the global economic landscape is shifting toward one where imagination, creativity and knowledge are gaining dominance. Creativity in all its manifestations, whether it is in the arts, entrepreneurship, technological innovation, and business, is becoming the new currency of success.

Therefore, the architects of creativity are the new celebrities of this new epoch. The creative individual is a wunderkind, a highly regarded asset, perhaps even more valuable than owning a gold mine. They are the Steve Jobs, the Steven Spielbergs, and the Stephen Sondheims of today, to mention just three contemporary Steves.

But in this day and age, innovators rarely work in isolation. More often than not, they work together in small groups. The success of their projects depends on the ability of creative people to work together as a team, each member stimulating their colleague into even greater heights of originality.

What is blocking us? The main problems threatening to kill our enterprise is that for the past few decades, our culture, our educational system, our institutions, have not been conducive to creativity. In the recent past, parents deterred their children from choosing a career in the arts. Our schoolteachers, reinforced by the old exam system, far preferred to teach convergent thinking with one correct answer, rather than entertain divergent thinking with a slew of answers that are neither right nor wrong. Our employers would much rather have an obedient unquestioning workforce, rather than have their authority challenged by smart aleck employees making dangerous insufferable suggestions.

That is why the arts, entrepreneurship, and research have not flourished in the past. Few people seemed willing to take risks. Most theatre groups could barely survive. The soil where the sporadic seeds of originality were planted, was infertile, and many potentially good ideas never germinated. Shows were met with half-empty theatres, and once-bitten-twice-shy investors refused to invest again in the performing arts.

But fortunately this is changing. Jolted by the flight of jobs and industries to other countries, our authorities have suddenly realized that our very economic survival is imperiled. Without natural resources, we have to turn to our human resources for a solution. The answer has been staring us in the face all the time. We need to innovate, to invent, to create. And this has to be done urgently. It also requires a paradigm shift in our thinking and our education.

Of course we can try shortcuts. One quick solution is to import innovators, inventors and researchers from overseas. For example, in the field of biotechnology, specifically stem cell research, we were given a boost by the American government's reluctance to fund their own research. Many researchers came to Singapore, lured by brand-new facilities, and by a red carpet welcome.

The other solution is to look for creative industries that have a striking chance of success. Musical theatre is one such industry. However, it is an arena where team creativity is absolutely vital. For a musical to succeed, every element must work optimally. This includes having an inspiring book, intelligent lyrics, memorable songs, captivating choreography, great direction, singing, acting, dancing, all enhanced by beautiful sets and costumes. The team is very large. Fostering musical theatre can nurture the spirit of team creativity.

Can musical theatre in Singapore be a viable business venture? The answer is a qualified "yes." We have a population of over four million, and annually nearly 10 million tourists visit us. Plus in a few years' time, we will have two Integrated Resorts. Hence the demand for entertainment in general, and musical theatre in particular, is very great. Add to that the increasing interest shown by schools and corporations in staging musicals, means that there is a growing call for musical theatre.

Our attempts to generate more original musicals, to refine and improve the quality of the musicals through an incubation process, might hopefully add to Singapore's creative industries. All that remains is for us to discover and develop our creative talents. Well, that plus shaping a business model that keeps one in the black.

I used to dream that our musicals will reach Broadway, some day. That is still my dream. But perhaps we need to take it one step at a time. First, will Singapore become the Broadway of the East? I hope so... please allow me this interim dream!

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