What does it take to bring in a blockbuster musical, and why do producers bother?
BY JO TAN
Published on 22 May 2016
BY JO TAN
In the coming months, a slew of accolade-sweeping, big-budget Broadway blockbusters are coming to Singapore. Expect Shrek the Musical, Annie and even Wicked to cannonade our island this year, snapping at the heels of Cameron Mackintosh’s Les Misérables, which opens this week. This production of the iconic musical based on Victor Hugo’s grim novel was specially recreated five years ago to celebrate the show’s 25th anniversary.
What brings these high-profile, heavyweight shows all the way here? Actually, we — the audience — do. According to the various locally-based show presenters, it’s the audiences who help decide which musicals make the cut.
Says Milan Rokic, ex-executive vice president of Base Entertainment Asia (Base) — which brought The Lion King, Ghost the Musical and the upcoming Shrek and Annie — and now chief executive officer (CEO) and founder of Sliding Doors Entertainment, one of the companies bringing Wicked to Singapore: “We’ve conducted extensive research with ticket buyers about how much they would be willing to pay for a ticket, and what shows they hoped to see. The answers were always the more famous names like Les Misérables or Cirque du Soleil. If we venture beyond these titles, we try to bring in shows that the audience is at least more ‘aware’ of, such as Dirty Dancing or Grease, which people know from movies or pop culture. But with lesser-known brands, it’s always a bit of a gamble.”
ANNIE MOMENT NOW After the standard four-year hiatus for touring musicals, Annie is ready to return to Singapore to meet new audiences and loyal fans.
It’s a gamble with very much to lose if audiences don’t bite, considering the scale, budgets and stringent requirements of these imported spectaculars. “There are always numerous technical requirements, but perhaps the most challenging show I’ve encountered was Cavalia,” Rokic recalls. “We had to bring in — among other things — 44 horses, containers of equipment, and deal with quarantine issues and meetings with government agencies.” For those who missed the show’s Singapore run in 2014, Cavalia is a production that integrates acrobatics, dance, aerial stunts, multimedia and live music with equestrian arts.
Kelvin Goh, director of Red Spade Entertainment, agrees. “Often, these big spectacles require very specific things which can’t be found here, and that we have to freight in,” he says. “My nightmare was when one of these freights of equipment was stuck in customs due to bad weather. We had planned for the equipment to come in 10 days before the show for preparation purposes, but they arrived after midnight on the day the show was supposed to open. Everybody just had to work without sleep.”
The difficulty of bringing in international spectaculars is even more daunting when you consider the relatively minute size of the Singapore audience-base that companies count on to help them break even.
Says Chantal Prud’homme, the CEO (Asia) of Base, “You can’t park a musical here for a year — it would never work. Seasons are shorter here than in New York or London, simply for the fact that the country is small. Generally, a show can run here for the maximum of a month before you start running out of audiences.”
NO REST FOR THE WICKED The musical Wicked is one Broadway hit that audiences across the world are always keen to revisit. PHOTOS Base Entertainment Asia
Neither can shows depend on tourists to make up the audience numbers — unlike Broadway, which is a musical Mecca for theatre-lovers the world over. Foreign visitors here only account for a maximum of about 15 per cent of Base’s audience.
Strictly speaking, this means that barely any of the massive productions brought to Singapore could break even at all. However, companies have ways to make sure our nation still gets its Broadway fix, says Rokic.
“Sliding Doors is going to be a company that does fewer productions per year, but will have regional reach,” he explains. “We’re bringing the Blue Man Group to audiences in Macau as well as Singapore. We’re also working with Cirque du Soleil to present their shows regionally. Also, companies like Base and Sliding Doors look at shows that are already doing international tours, and since we have connections with various producers of different shows, we try to get these shows to swing out to our part of the world.”
Prud’homme adds that shows can also sometimes count on repeat audiences, provided there are a few years between showings. “The life cycle is about four to five years. You can bring Phantom of the Opera to Singapore now, and bring it again four years later, and the same fans will bring new people, or come to revisit the show after they’ve grown up a bit,” she says, explaining why Wicked is returning now after its last visit in 2012.
Surprisingly, our relatively small population might mean we have more types of shows to choose from, rather than fewer. “Rather than killing everybody over pieces of the same pie, the different companies talk to each other so we don’t cannibalise each other with similar content. Our line-up for these few months — Madagascar Live, Shrek the Musical, Annie — is very family-friendly. This decision was intentional, because there’s Les Misérables going on around the same period, so we wanted to bring in something very different from that. You could bring your children to see Annie after going to see Les Misérables with your spouse,” says Prud’homme.
She adds that the offerings are set to get even more diverse. “Besides Broadway, one of Base’s foci is to bring more made-in-Asia content, or collaborations between Asia and the West, to Singapore. We will have an Asian season coming up, where we are bringing the likes of Shaolin monks, and a Malaysian orchestra here. It’s important to pay tribute to where we are, and be able to offer the stage to the Asian and local productions.”
While this means that languages other than our first language of English might be involved, Goh has a solution. “Red Spade focuses on Asian content. Our shows are often non-verbal, like with our two productions from Korea this period, Nanta (Cookin’) and The Painters: Hero,” he says of two spectaculars. Nanta (Cookin’) is an internationally-acclaimed Master Chef-meets-Stomp experience, while The Painters: Hero is a combination of ‘live’ drawing with visual effects, mime, dance and comedy.
“There is a percentage of people who think productions from the West are more ‘high-class’, but most Singaporeans just want a good time with a good show that perhaps generates a lot of hype, whether from East or West. Also, while kids might not be able to understand Broadway musicals, the whole family can enjoy shows like Nanta. In future, I also hope to bring musicals from Japan… there are many good works being created there.”
FAMILY-FRIENDLY FAIRY TALE Theatre fans seeking light-hearted fare can take their tots to see the ogres, princesses and dragons of Shrek the Musical.
Certain theatre companies here are also presenting their own Broadway shows, but with an almost wholly local cast. “There are many wonderful pieces that get on Broadway because they are strong, award-winning scripts, and Pangdemonium wants to do these as well, because they will challenge us, while also having relevance in Singapore,” says Tracie Pang, co-artistic director and resident director of Pangdemonium Theatre Company, known for staging lauded works from the United States or United Kingdom.
They will be staging a brand-new version of the blockbuster rock musical Rent later this year. “The way we work — on all our productions — is to really focus on getting local collaborators first,” she says. “Not only do we want to challenge ourselves, we want to have a space where the actors and the artists are also challenged, and to have those opportunities that they would not necessarily get elsewhere.
“And there’s an audience in Singapore that really likes to see their own people onstage, because when they do, they connect more to the show, and even get inspired, because they’re watching somebody who resembles them and has a similar background. And I think it’s the same around the world.
“It’s only when we can’t fill the roles with locals, that we look overseas,” she adds. “For example, for Rent, we cast exhaustively in Singapore for about eight months, and there were some roles we couldn’t fill locally. We have to accept that while Singapore has performers that are absolutely good enough to take many parts, at the same time, we are a very small country with a smaller performer pool. By being willing to work with people all over the world, locals get to work with foreigners and we’re constantly seeing how they learn from each other, which is exciting.”
Also, unlike the imported shows, Pangdemonium productions are always different from their Broadway originals. “Sometimes I direct productions of shows I have never seen before, as with our first-ever production, The Full Monty, and we develop those from scratch,” reveals Pang. “Whereas for those that I have seen before and liked, like Spring Awakening, I always try to take certain elements from the original that worked very well, so the audience can feel an attachment to it.
STAGE STUNTS Pangdemonium presented the Singapore premiere of Spring Awakening with an almost completely local cast, challenging the young actors to feats not usually seen on the Singapore theatre stage. PHOTO Pangdemonium Theatre Company
CLASS ACTS Red Spade Entertainment brings in productions from Korea such as The Painters: Hero, which features ‘live’ drawing, mime and comedy. PHOTO Red Spade Entertainment
FUSION FUN The future of stage spectaculars in Singapore looks set to be a tasty East-West mix, what with Korean blockbuster Nanta as well as the musical adaptation of French epic Les Misérables coming to town. PHOTO Red Spade Entertainment
“When you do big-name musicals, audiences come in with many expectations. But at the same time, I want them to go for something that’s interesting, that’s a different take. I don’t want to make a carbon copy, because that’s not an artistic process for me. For Rent, I’ve been talking with our set designer about iconic things that the audience might want to keep on seeing, while also thinking, ‘How can we develop these and make them our own?’ I want people who have seen it half a dozen times to say, ‘it was worth paying to see it again because they gave me something different’.
Pang clarifies that she appreciates the imported productions that are duplicates of what you would see on Broadway, and goes to see many herself. “There are many people who would love to see some of these musicals but can’t afford to fly to Broadway, and this gives them that opportunity to have the same experience. I loved watching Wicked, and it’s not a production that I feel could be produced locally, because it costs millions to stage and there is no way you could recoup that with a four-week run — the longest that could practically be done in Singapore. I suppose it’s only when a show can be produced locally and people still insist on bringing in a foreign cast, or put a value on something simply because it’s non-Singaporean, that you step on people’s toes.”
Thankfully, it seems that attitude is less and less common; even show importers are considering producing works created here. Says Prud’homme, “I’ve been living in Asia for 15 years and I’ve seen tremendous growth when it comes to art and entertainment in Singapore and the region. The large productions we bring in are not cheap anyway, so in future, I would like to take things to the next step and produce and create original content here. We have the talent — whether it comes to crew, creatives or performers. The country is ready.”
Les Misérables opens 31 May at Esplanade Theatre. Nanta (Cookin’) 2016 is on from 3-5 June at Resorts World Theatre. Shrek the Musical opens 8 June at the Grand Theatre, Marina Bay Sands.