Prescription for the Development of Musical Theatre in Singapore
by Kenneth Lyen
“What drives the economy today is human creativity.”
- Richard Florida author of The Rise of the Creative Class
Musical theatre in Singapore is still relatively undeveloped compared to Broadway or the West End. Since the staging of the first Singapore musicals in 1988, there has been some progress over the past 21 years. However, development has been uneven, and the better “Singapore” shows are actually written at least in part by non-Singaporeans e.g. the book and lyrics for Forbidden City is written by Stephen Clark, and for A Twist of Fate, the lyrics are written by Anthony Drewe, and the book by Stephen Dexter and Tony Petito.
While it is expedient to get higher quality bookwriters and lyricists from abroad, this is definitely not the way to go in the long run. Indeed it has often been commented that Forbidden City and A Twist of Fate do not feel like musicals with a Singapore sentiment. Indeed they are really quite un-Singaporean, and they do not represent Singapore artistically or spiritually.
To put us back on the right track in creating Singapore musicals, I believe the Government should play a key role. It needs to focus specifically on musical theatre, and to draw up a coherent long-term strategy.
Why musical theatre? Because this is the centrepiece of the performing arts, embracing all its major elements, including acting, music, dance, and multimedia. Musical theatre can complement the related entertainment industry, including television, film, animation, advertising, and design. As an added bonus, musical theatre has the potential to a revenue generator in its own right, supporting the tourist industry, and becoming a major player when the integrated resorts become established. Finally, musical theatre plays an important role in encouraging social cohesion, and through its stories, music and dance, it will help us find our own unique creative and artistic heart.
What is the current state of musical theatre in Singapore? Let us look at the development of Singapore’s musical theatre from different perspectives. One can examine the state of musical theatre from a developmental standpoint, seeing where we have been in the past, and where we are going in the future. Are we going to follow the West, or are we going to develop our own unique voice? One can look at musicals from a bird’s eye view, seeing where it stands in relation to the overall state of Singapore entertainment, and how it will fit in with the integrated resorts and tourist industry. One can also examine musical theatre from an economic perspective, how it will enhance Singapore as a creative city, and how it can help attract and keep creative people in Singapore.
This last point is worth emphasizing. The increasing importance of the creative industries in our economy, the need to attract and retain creative people, and the necessity of anchoring people to its social fabric and cultural roots, make musical theatre an ideal vehicle for enhancing creativity and social cohesion.
Why? The reason is that a musical is a collaborative art form par excellence. The members of musical theatre’s creative team are of equal or near-equal importance, and this makes it one of the best training grounds for developing group creativity.
Musical theatre is at the crossroads of several art forms. It combines bookwriting, lyric writing, music composition, and choreography. It requires the performers to act, sing, and dance. Set designers, sound designers, and lighting designers, work together to create the appropriate atmosphere essential for theatre. All this is done in real-time, and therefore allows for immediate review, and changes can be made on the spot.
Musical theatre is also at the junction between live theatre, and the film industry. Royston Tan’s film, “881" and “Lotus 12” are two good examples where musical theatre (getai) can touch the nerve of the nation, generate some revenue at the same time. This film musical is also exportable, and by being shown overseas, it will enhance Singapore’s reputation.
Unfortunately, Singapore’s musical theatre industry is lagging behind, despite being around for 21 years. This is attributable, to a significant extent, to its neglect by the Singapore Government. There are grants given to playwriting and screenwriting, but none for the writing of, music composition and choreography of new musicals. The performance and technical complexities of staging a musical compared to a straight play means that more time is needed for mounting a production. However, no help is given to cover the increased staging costs.
The National Arts Council has advised musical theatre creators to write small-scale “chamber” musicals, and to volunteer for the neighborhood arts festivals. This has led to the writing of small-scale and cheap-to-stage musicals. While this is good for the short-term, I have some reservations about the implications of this advice. Currently, Singaporeans are directing their energies into writing and performing low-cost small musicals. These are unlikely to generate much revenue, are less likely to be exportable, and tend to be mired in the realm of amateur or community theatre. To date the National Arts Council has given relatively little financial support to content development for musical theatre.
I believe there should be no restrictions on creativity. Some musicals are small-scale, and others are large-scale. We should not exclude the development of mega-musicals.
To redress the problems faced by the entertainment industry in general, and musical theatre in particular, there needs to be greater Government and corporate involvement. I would like to make the following practical recommendations. I am aware that there are some grants already available (eg scholarships for individuals in the performing arts). As for musical theatre creative writing grants, the eligibility criteria may be too stringent so that organizations that need this support are not receiving it.
A. CREATIVE WRITERS, COMPOSERS, CHOREOGRAPHERS
1. Annual grants for writing new musicals.
2. Annual scholarships or bursaries for talented writers, composers and choreographers to go overseas to study the writing/ composing/ choreographing for musical theatre.
B. DEVELOPMENTAL WORKSHOPS AND STAGING
1. Annual grants for development and workshopping new musicals.
2. Grants to invite prominent overseas writers/composers/choreographers to come to Singapore to conduct workshops and give keynote addresses.
3. Annual grants for Singapore artists in residence (creative) to write and teach.
4. Annual grants for workshop no-frills staging of the newly developed musicals.
C. STAGING AND FILMING
1. Annual grants to stage the best musical at the Singapore Festival of the Arts or an equivalent festival.
2. Annual grant to bring a Singapore musical overseas.
3. Travel bursaries for directors, performers, technical personnel, and the creative team, to accompany and perform in the Singapore musical overseas.
4. Assistance in advertising and marketing Singapore musicals both in Singapore and overseas.
5. Grants for filming musicals for television and for feature films.
D. AUDIENCE DEVELOPMENT
1. Encourage schools to perform musicals, especially musicals written by Singaporeans for Singapore schools.
2. Allow the use of Edusave or other similar funds to encourage school children to attend musicals.
3. Encourage corporations, community groups, retirees, disabled people, to have musicals specially written for them, and wherever possible, to have community groups retirees, and disabled people perform these musicals.
E. FUTURE DEVELOPMENTS
1. To research and develop new forms of musicals, and to help bridge musicals with other media, e.g. internet, multimedia, animation, film, puppetry, “Cirque du Soleil” style of performance, etc.
2. To foster links of musical theatre with all the other art groups in Singapore.
3. To consider the development of an annual Asian Festival of Musicals, similar to the annual New York Musical Theatre Festival http://www.nymf.org/ . Already Korea, Japan and Malaysia are writing and staging new musicals, and shortly China will follow suit. We need to take the initiative and prepare for such an Asian festival of musicals.
The role of musical theatre and its role in the shaping of Singapore’s future will depend on the steps taken today. We are at a critical junction. Judicious and wise policies established now will have a profound impact for the future.
It is the creative individual that the future of Singapore will depend.