We often think of theatre as high-culture and cabarets or nightclubs as dodgy at best. Yet this month sees two lush theatre productions set in and inspired by Singapore nightspots.
BY JO TAN
Published on 26 March 2017
BY JO TAN
Think classic Singapore theatre and you might think Beauty World, the iconic cabaret-set musical by Dick Lee and Michael Chiang. Yet is it surprising that something so supposedly seedy has become a symbol of culture in purportedly prim and proper Singapore?
Says Chiang, “Yes, Beauty World featured a heightened idea of a cabaret, inspired by Hong Kong movies and very removed from Singapore in its daylight hours, with feuds and vixens, sirens and some sleaze. But I think the inspiration was also mixed in equal parts with my experiences in the much more high-end glamour of real-life local clubs like Tropicana or the Neptune [Theatre Restaurant].”
Indeed, two other Singaporean musicals have drawn inspiration from Singapore’s cabarets: Tropicana the Musical and La Cage Aux Folles (an adaptation of the musical transplanting the famous French nightclub into the heart of Tanjong Pagar). Contrary to Beauty World, Tropicana the Musical revolves around none other than the eponymous Singapore nightclub of yore which was the last word in class.
Says Tropicana producer Tan Kheng Hua, “There was nothing at all sleazy about Tropicana Theatre Restaurant and Niteclub. It boasted star performers like nowhere else in Southeast Asia, and was the spot of many lavish events, like beauty pageants or high-flying corporate functions. They were well-known for excellent food and their shows, which — topless or not — had beautiful choreography, costumes, and wonderful performers displaying great pride and skill. My family took me there from a young age with nobody seeing anything untoward about it; though by today’s standards, I might have been considered underage.”
Glen Goei, director of La Cage, echoes Tan’s sentiments. “Everything was done in the most tasteful fashion in these cabarets, and with no such thing as MDA [Media Development Authority] classifications in the ’60s and ’70s, my family was taking me to shows at the Tropicana and the Neptune since the age of nine, even if some just happened to be topless.”
Indeed, Goei has a long and happy history of attending less-than-conservative cabaret acts all over the world. “At the age of 10, my family and I went to London, and in a lavish cabaret on the West End, I was dazzled by Danny La Rue, a famous drag performer in the style of Liberace, who wasn’t just a lip-sync artist but sang and bantered with the greatest wit. Later in the ’80s, while I was studying overseas, whenever I came back I would go to the Boom Boom Room, which itself harked back to the ’60s and ’70s where performers entertained you with beautiful, glamorous costumes. There were wonderful drag artists and pioneering Singapore stand-up comedians.”
Goei doesn’t find the cabaret world against family values — quite the opposite. “Before the advent of television and many of our modern devices, we had amusement centres like New World and all the cabarets within and without. My parents took me there for weekend entertainment, and getting together, getting dressed and going out became a family ritual. When watching the performances, we shared laughs not just with each other, but with the other members of the audience, and also the performers with their diverse acts. It was about celebrating different points of view and ways of life. I think my version of La Cage is inspired by those good old days of communal entertainment and existence, before we all became stuck to our devices and became more and more isolationist. It’s important to recall that era.”
Tan agrees the clubs brought people together. “Establishments like Tropicana are confluences of so many different types of people — the very rich who set them up or come as audiences, the government institutions behind the scenes like the Singapore Tourism Board or the police force, international stars like Johnny Mathis and Frank Sinatra, and the waiters, barmen, security guards, as well as the local musicians and performers wanting so much to somehow get in and perform there because it just had so much cred.
“They are reservoirs for complex situations and relationships, set against song and dance and fabulous costumes. No wonder we theatre-makers continue to see these clubs as great platforms for telling stories.”
Tropicana the Musical plays 13-30 Apr. La Cage Aux Folles is on from 19 Apr-13 May. See www.sistic.com.sg for ticketing details.
AMUSEMENT PARK 1929-1964
This entertainment hotspot featured the glitzy Flamingo Nite-Club, which hosted many acts including Rose Chan — dubbed Queen of Striptease — as well as Eastern and Western theatre acts. Its sheen inspired the 2010 Kelvin Tong movie It’s a Great, Great World and the 2015 stage performance Great World Cabaret.
THEATRE RESTAURANT 1972-2006
Famous for both its dim sum and topless revues, Neptune also had its own resident dance troupe (the Neptune Dancers) who performed both Parisian and Asian-influenced routines. It also boasted a revolving stage graced by Teresa Teng, Engelbert Humperdinck, Tom Jones, Julio Iglesias, Anita Sarawak and more.
AMUSEMENT PARK CABARET 1923-1987
The first of Singapore’s three large amusement parks boasted various entertainment options, including the first air-conditioned cabaret in Singapore. It was the launching pad for various famous acts including the Fong Fong Revue (Singapore’s first public striptease act), a Hungarian wrestler known as ‘King Kong’, strongman Mat Tarzan, and so on.
In the mid-1960s, the Singapore Tourist Promotion Board (now known as the Singapore Tourism Board), noting the lack of a sophisticated theatre-restaurant and nightclub in Singapore’s entertainment scene, approached property developer Shaw Sung Ching, who drew inspiration from nightclubs and cabarets in Tokyo, Paris and Las Vegas to build Tropicana. Billed a ‘Theatre Restaurant & Niteclub’, Tropicana enjoyed a full house each night for its first three years. Its internationally sourced shows included French revues, flamenco dance, circus acts, as well as concerts by the likes of Johnny Mathis and Duke Ellington.