Disney’s new Mulan movie will have to get in line: Singapore will see no fewer than three musicals about legendary Chinese heroines this year.
BY JO TAN
Hit home-grown musicals usually tell very Singaporean stories: December Rains, The LKY Musical and Beauty World are cases in point. This year though, at least three major musicals playing here are set in historical China.
Mulan the Musical (no affiliation to the Disney movie), which runs till February, is an acclaimed, cheeky Taiwanese import that adds distinctly contemporary twists to the tale of the eponymous woman-warrior. Meanwhile, The Great Wall: One Woman’s Journey is a new work by Singapore doyenne Jean Tay (of Boom and Everything But the Brain fame) about mythical maiden Meng Jiang Nu, who reportedly brought down part of the Great Wall of China with her tears alone. It premieres mid-July, just weeks before the fourth staging of Singapore’s most successfully produced musical to date, Forbidden City: Portrait of an Empress — about Empress Dowager Tzu Hsi.
EAST, WEST, EVERYWHERE
Other than their heroine’s nationality, what the shows have in common is (perhaps, surprisingly) a focus on the stories’ international relevance. While Khoo Shao Tze, vice president for Resort Sales and Entertainment, Resorts World Sentosa, mentions that Mulan the Musical was brought in partly because of the dearth of Mandarin theatrical productions, the show’s cast and creatives comprise stars from varying nations in the diaspora. This includes Taiwanese director Lu Po-Shen, Golden Horse Winner Li Chien-Na, and specially for this Singapore run, which incorporates our nation’s colloquialisms and humour, Channel 8 celebrities Pierre Png and Ann Kok. The show has been lauded for its fusion of modern Taiwanese sensibilities with American musical stylings.
Says The Great Wall producer and conceptualizer, Grace Low, “While I was initially inspired by the story of Meng Jiang Nu when I was in Nanyang Girls’ High School (during extra periods in Chinese history and culture), I believe what she stands for goes beyond that. I deliberately got an Australian director Darren Yap and British composer David Shrubsole to work with our playwright Jean and dramaturg Kok Heng Leun, who has incredible knowledge of Eastern and Western theatre techniques and philosophies, to create an international product.” Yap and Shrubsole boast numerous credits on London’s West End as well as the opening of the National Gallery Singapore.
Yap elaborates, “The creative team all took away very universal things from Meng Jiang Nu’s story, including its feminist strand: one woman journeying across China to save a captured lover, oppose an emperor and then bring the wall down? That’s an amazing tale whether you’re Singaporean, Australian or British.
“It’s actually more relevant than ever: we’ve constantly discussed the various different metaphorical meanings of ‘bringing down the wall’. With the current possibility of Donald Trump’s proposed wall, the phrase has taken on a more pressing significance.” The Great Wall premieres this year after six years in development. It stars Nathan Hartono, George Chan and Korean-Dutch actress Na-Young Jeon, who has played Fantine in Les Miserables on the West End, among other high-profile engagements.
Likewise, Singapore Repertory Theatre’s Forbidden City has a stellar cross-cultural creative team comprising West End director Steven Dexter (who also directed The LKY Musical here), the late Olivier-award-winning lyricist Stephen Clark, and Dick Lee. The musical itself is inherently intercultural, telling the Empress’ tale from the point of view of Kate Carl, an American artist invited to paint her.
Says Charlotte Nors, executive director of the Singapore Repertory Theatre, “A lot of research went into the musical. We feel it not only does justice to the material chosen, but debunks some of the existing myths about the Empress Dowager.” Audiences follow the Empress’ evolution from young concubine to disillusioned matriarch, with this run seeing her role shared by three different actresses of different ages, including Kit Chan, who will also serve as mentor to the younger performer.
SPINNING THE TALE
Naturally, retelling well-loved tales comes with cons: when a story’s been around for decades — even millennia — how can it continue to excite? Says Nors, “Artistically, you can take some level of liberties when working in the musical theatre space, but you still have to serve the events and people you portray respectfully.” Accordingly, something both Forbidden City and The Great Wall do is fill in the emotional blanks in the canon, speculating on possible relationships between characters, as well as examining their private dreams and fears. Forbidden City explores a possible romance between Carl and travelling journalist, George Morrison, which becomes pivotal to the plot.
Meanwhile, The Great Wall delves into the psyche of feared emperor and wall-builder, Qin Shi Huang. Says Low, “We present a fairly balanced view about the first Emperor of China, though the norm can be to portray him as a tyrant. He had greatness — in unifying China, imposing a single weights and measures system — and also a very vulnerable human side, which we endeavour to show.”
Then you have Mulan the Musical, which gets audaciously creative with the Mulan legend, giving her a fabulous brother, a flirtatious sister, far less enthusiasm in joining the army than previously reported, and not one, but two distracting love interests when she finally enlists. Says Khoo of the rambunctious production, “It’s military pandemonium and romantic hysteria in a gender-bending comedy of errors. Audiences expecting the conventional Mulan storyline should brace themselves for an unexpected ride.”
Mulan the Musical (Advisory 16) is on till 5 Feb at Resorts World Theatre. Visit here for ticketing details.