Do You hear the People sing?

Published on 3 August 2015

Homegrown Chinese musicals are fast gaining popularity. Here’s why.

BY JO TAN

There was a time when almost all musicals staged in Singapore were Western imports. In recent years, however, we’ve not only been treated to uniquely Singaporean musical works staged in English, but also Mandarin song-and-dance productions — supremely successful ones at that. If There’re Seasons, a jukebox musical about a young Singaporean man trying to find a new life in America, was a proper blockbuster, with almost completely sold-out runs for all three of its editions.

“As opposed to English musicals, homegrown Mandarin musicals can provide something very relatable to many Singaporeans, especially Chinese-speaking Singaporeans, with their cultural references,” says Goh Boon Teck, artistic director of Toy Factory. Goh has worked on dozens of local musicals including December Rains, about a couple weathering Singapore’s tumultuous 1950s, and 881 the Musical, a stage adaptation of Royston Tan’s movie on the getai scene.

“People find familiar tunes and stories in our Mandarin musicals, so they don’t need to be wowed by spectacle or effects,” points out Goh, a Young Artist Award recipient. “They are watching something intimate they can call their own. This is especially so, as, comparing the musicals I’ve been involved in, the English musicals are geared to present more dramatic issues while the Mandarin ones showcase love and relationships.”

Adds Kuo Jian Hong, artistic director of The Theatre Practice and director of musicals like If There’re Seasons and Liao Zhai Rocks (based on Chinese supernatural legends), “The music in Mandarin musicals is more subtle. In a way, the songs are harder to write since Mandarin is a tonal language so the lyrics have to fit the music in particular speech-like ways.”

LANGUAGE SWITCH

Yet, there was a time when people were sceptical about Mandarin musicals. “The level of proficiency in Mandarin went down after the change in education policy in the late 1970s which established English as the primary teaching language in schools. That affected audience numbers as well as the pool of theatre practitioners,” explains Kuo.

Thankfully, Kuo feels things have since changed. “While I can’t say whether Mandarin standards have gone up, we have been able to attract non-Chinese-language theatre audiences too. Even though musicals originated as a Western genre, Mandarin musicals have demonstrated that they too can be quality productions worth watching, even if one is not so familiar with the language.”

Greater availability of training, coupled with theatre companies’ increased experience in experimenting with Mandarin musicals, has lead to a rise in collective musical-making expertise. “In the past, it took us more time to prepare musical CD recordings. Our team, the creatives and singers are all so well trained now, all recordings for December Rains were done so efficiently this time,” grins Goh.

MOTHER TONGUE  The Mandarin musical scene has been attracting non-traditional talents such as the English-proficient Life! Theatre Awards winner Seong Hui Xuan, who stars in Nanyang, the Musical.

MASTERING MANDARIN

Of course, Kuo doesn’t take the increasing talent for granted. “It’s my policy to groom Mandarin musical talent. While it’s not the path of least resistance, I intentionally offer a lot of opportunities to actors outside the Chinese theatre scene, or even non-actors like singers and dancers, then put in time and resources to train them. Some actors I know used to write hanyu pinyin even on their audition texts. The first time you try the language, there is a lot of insecurity, but the next time is less intimidating and you pick things up faster.

“Musical director Julian Wong is a wonderful example. When he first worked with us in 2008 on The Soldier & His Virtuous Wife, he couldn’t read or say many Chinese words. Now he can type Mandarin lyrics into his scores. We’ve used actors like Lim Kay Siu and even Erwin Shah Ismail, we pushed them hard, and I’d say the general language capability has gone up.”

Goh, who also often employs people outside the Mandarin muscial genre, adds, “Because this crossover of talents and disciplines is so frequent now, habits and practices are exchanged consistently, so differences between English and Mandarin musicals are getting fewer.”

A case in point is this month’s Nanyang, the Musical, written and directed by Alec Tok, and inspired by the struggles of early Singapore artists like Georgette Chen and Liu Kang. The treatment differs significantly from the general repertoire of family-friendly Singapore Mandarin musicals as some parts involve the characters’ exploration of sexuality in art.

The production, part of the 2015 Singapore International Festival of Arts, also boasts a lead cast member who has till now, spoken mainly English onstage. “We have several LASALLE College of the Arts alumni in our show, the most illustrious being Life! Theatre Awards winner Seong Hui Xuan. She annotated every word of her audition script in hanyu pinyin, but now her work on our production has been exemplary. I’m so glad she has taken the plunge into Mandarin theatre. I can tell you, this will not be the last time.”

STAR APPEAL

Of course, it’s not only talents that have to be developed, but audiences too. “We do collaborate with selected pop or TV personalities to expand audience numbers,” says Goh, referring to the star-studded line-up of the upcoming December Rains edition, boasting MediaCorp star Andie Chen and pop princess Chriz Tong in lead roles. “Developing new audiences is the priority. These celebrities have stronger mass appeal and attract more media attention.”

Meanwhile, Kuo has been developing Mandarin musicals for children over the past few years, notably The Wee Question Mark and the Adventurer as part of the recent M1 Chinese Theatre Festival. “You have to find ways to reach out to kids. Who knows if this will grow Mandarin theatre audiences in the future?”

If it does, future audiences will find increasingly diverse Mandarin musical offerings. “A comedy musical, dark horror musical, very sexy adult musical,” lists Goh. “These ideas for original musicals are always playing in my crazy mind.” He shares that work on Innamorati 2, the follow-up to Innamorati, a musical played by and based on the real struggles of local Mandopop musicians, has started. He adds, “We plan to allow more time to create, the process might take more than a year.”

LANGUAGE GROWTH The Wee Question Mark and the Adventurer is an original Mandarin musical created specifically for young audiences.
LEGENDARY ROCKERS Mandarin musicals can be surprising in approach — Liao Zhai Rocks is a rock musical based on Chinese supernatural classics.

Nanyang, the Musical plays at the Drama Centre Theatre 6-8 August. December Rains is on 28 August-6 September at Esplanade Theatre. Liao Zhai Rocks will be restaged early next year.

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