Who’s Man Enough for the Role?

Published on 23 December 2014

Three major productions inspired by the life and times of our first Prime Minister get an airing in 2015

BY jo tan
Leading Man Lim Kay Tong will play Mr Lee Kuan Yew in the movie 1965, with the help of some makeup, costuming and his director Randy Ang (right).

“In high school, we had to write about someone we look up to and I chose Lee Kuan Yew. I’ve always respected him,” confesses an earnest Alvin Tan, founder of new theatre company Metropolitan Productions. The latter, set to stage the musical LKY in 2015, boasts Dick Lee as its composer and the West End’s Steven Dexter as director.

“Young people nowadays may be more cynical and critical of authority, but nobody can deny Lee Kuan Yew’s contributions as a founding father. His story needs to be told.”

And told it shall be, with at least two other upcoming projects inspired by Mr Lee’s life and times. Other than Tan’s production, there’s producer Daniel Yun’s feature film 1965, which began as a Lee Kuan Yew biopic before evolving into a tale of racial conflict in ’60s Singapore. One production isn’t even staged by Singaporeans. Singapura: the Musical, the opening act for the new Capitol Theatre, will be presented by the Philippines’ 4th Wall Theatre Company.

“I have always identified with the past struggles of older Singaporeans, as my parents also grew up in the ’40s during World War II,” shares genial Ed Gatchalian, composer, arranger and musical director for Singapura. “Having heard [broadcasts] when Mr Lee Kuan Yew shared his experience and challenges of guiding Singapore from a third-world country to the modern city of today, I was inspired by his words and Singapore’s achievements.” Yet, while our ex-Prime Minister’s speeches about nation-building might have seemed a complicated subject matter, his struggles were relatable enough to strike a chord with Gatchalian. “I realised the challenges we face as human beings are universal and my objective in developing Singapura is to focus on the human stories behind historical events.”

Indeed, showing the human side of historical heroes seems a priority for all three productions. “I’ve always thought of Mr Lee as the political leader with the iron will. It was only recently, reading about him for the musical, that I saw his softer side,” says Tan. “I saw it in the dilemmas he had to face leading up to Singapore’s independence and the wonderful things he said about his wife who recently passed away. I don’t think many people know much about that human side, and we want to highlight that in the musical.”

Foreign Fan Filipino composer Ed Gatchalian is living proof that you don’t have to be Singaporean to admire our first Prime Minister’s legacy.

The lead actors tasked with showing that very human side of Singapore’s living legend know they’ve got their work cut out. Lim Kay Tong, who takes on the daunting task for 1965, initially refused the role “because it’s a real-life person and it’s Lee Kuan Yew!”

Adds Tan, “While we haven’t confirmed any of our cast yet, much less the lead, our playwright Tony Petito has tried to write the script so that almost every line in there by Mr Lee is something the actual man has been quoted saying in real life! He’s been looking into the national archives and finding everything he can on YouTube while working with writer Meira Chand, who spent seven years researching Singapore’s history for her book, A Different Sky.

“Mr Lee Kuan Yew gave so much for Singapore that his tale is practically a legacy project. We take so much for granted nowadays, but it’s important to know this story. So we’re going to make sure we get it right.”

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