Award-winning playwrights Haresh Sharma and Chong Tze Chien are both writing their first musicals ever. They tell us why and how.
BY JO TAN
Published on 26 February 2017
BY JO TAN
Some people don’t like musicals. Seeing protagonists break into ballads after getting fatally shot, or how the starkest subject matter can morph into a sequin-studded song and dance, can sometimes prove too much for those who prefer simply told tales.
Haresh Sharma, Cultural Medallion recipient and resident playwright at The Necessary Stage (TNS), and Chong Tze Chien, multi-award-winning playwright/director/company director of The Finger Players (TFP), are poster boys for telling sincere stories, mostly to small audiences in black-box theatres. Yet surprisingly, they are also fans of musicals, and this year marks a first in their decades-long playwriting history as they each pen a large-scale musical production.
Chong’s Itsy — The Musical is a puppetry/live-action fusion depiction of a grandfather’s quest to find his grandson lost in a dark world of nursery rhymes. Sharma’s Tropicana the Musical examines Singapore’s music and entertainment scene in the 1960s and ’70s with legendary topless cabaret — Tropicana Nightclub — as the central character and motif.
“I love musicals. My lack of involvement in writing them came from an insecurity linked to my childhood,” explains Sharma, whose family members were not into music or singing. “Whenever there was a musical film on TV, my family members would change the channel. I would be mocked at home if they thought I had ever watched The Sound of Music to completion. It took many years before I was confident enough to work on something like Tropicana.”
Chong, a Young Artist Award recipient, has simply been waiting for the right reason to write a musical. “I’m open to all forms and genres: I joined TFP in 2004 because I wanted to explore the form of puppetry. But even though I enjoy watching musicals, I needed to know why I would write a story in that form. Then I witnessed my nephew grow up with nursery rhymes, and how, when he woke up crying, my father would always reassure him with his own refrain, ‘Don’t worry, it’s just a nightmare’. I was inspired by this very special bond between a grandchild and grandfather, and wanted to write a story around that, based on nursery-rhyme characters. Since songs would be an essential part of these characters’ world, it made more sense to write a musical.”
For their first forays, Chong and Sharma don’t want to create a play where songs are an irrelevant bonus, especially since both themes and storylines are so inextricably linked with music, and are collaborating with their composers accordingly. “I wanted to write Tropicana the way I write my other plays,” says Sharma, referencing the TNS devising process, which requires input from various collaborators at each stage of script development. “I worked closely with [composer] Julian Wong, which was an amazing experience. We spent many hours discussing the storyline, trying out music, deciding when dialogue ends and singing begins, and so on.”
This collaboration is not altogether new to Sharma, who has always allowed music to influence his words. “Music is always important in my plays, which are not just about words but also rhythm, pacing and structure.”
Says Chong, “I’ve been working with composer Darren Ng for 20 years, but usually he watches my finished scripts and responds accordingly. For Itsy, I had a skeleton of the plot in mind, wrote some lyrics which I gave to Darren, and only committed to writing the dialogue and characters after he finished composing the first song. I wanted his take to influence the world I was creating. It actually felt like a holiday, that constant inspiring of each other, because it’s usually just me and my computer, which can be a lonely process.”
Of course, new genres also come with new challenges. Chong elaborates, “In musicals, characters belt out songs in which they articulate their subtext, their inner thoughts. That’s something I tend to avoid in a play: you don’t write subtext, you write around it, hint at it. It’s actually quite cathartic to articulate everything the character is feeling in the lyrics, but it has to be well done, and fit into the melody and rhythm. That’s another reason for the extensive cross-referencing with Darren, to understand how best to phrase something to fit the melody.”
Another hurdle is timing. Both musicals fall in a year where at least 12 other mega-musicals are being staged in Singapore, all potentially competing for the audience dollar. Yet the writers are unfazed.
Says Sharma, “I’m quite excited, actually, especially for the original Singapore musicals. I hope there will be enough of an audience base for all the shows to do well. Musicals are a huge investment, especially financially, and I think most artists don’t stage them to make money, but to present our work to a supportive audience and impact their lives in some small way.”
Adds Chong, “The perception of musicals is that they get bums on seats because of greater mass appeal. That, for me, is less important than what TFP is about. Celebrating our 15th anniversary three years ago, we wanted to open a new chapter, try new things. So we’ve been working with new collaborators, and last year, we staged an opera — The Flying Dutchman. Now, we have Itsy, where we’re also getting to work with many artists we’ve never worked with before. While you can only cast a limited number of roles in plays, for musicals, it’s the more the merrier. Itsy has a cast of 20.”
While new explorations abound, certain core values remain. “When discussing the venue for the show, I told [producer Tan Kheng Hua]: ‘I still want it to be intimate,’ ” recalls Sharma. “For me, the relationship between the performers and the audience is paramount. Even though it’s a musical, and the glitz and glamour will be off the charts, there will also be quiet scenes, where the vulnerability of characters need to strike a chord with the audience.”
Chong agrees. “Ultimately, it’s about telling a story in the best way possible.”