Emily Of Emerald Hill gets musical

The character of Emily will be played at different stages by (from left) Karen Lim, Melissa Hecker and April Kong,
The character of Emily will be played at different stages by (from left) Karen Lim, Melissa Hecker and April Kong,PHOTO: ALICIA CHAN FOR THE STRAITS TIMES

The well-known one-character play has also been transformed by playwright Stella Kon to feature multiple characters

Next month, the iron-willed, kebaya-clad Emily of Emerald Hill - the most iconic dame to rule the Singapore stage - will be reborn like never before: in a flurry of song and dance.

It has taken playwright Stella Kon about eight years to transform her famous 1982 play, which rests on the shoulders of a single actor, into a full-length musical jam-packed with characters.

She first started writing scripts for musical theatre in 2002, and in 2008 took a stab at setting the play on the iron-willed Emily Gan to music.

"When I started writing musicals, I became very in love with the medium. It's very rich, very colourful. That puts it at the opposite extreme from Emily," says Kon, who at 72, is as sprightly and eloquent as ever.

"After a while, you begin to see Emily as a small, detail-fine, monochrome portrait: one person conveying a host of characters.

"And a musical, we usually think of as being on the other end: It's rich, sensuous, fleshing out all the many characters. So it became very interesting and challenging to cast it as a musical."

  • BOOK IT/EMILY THE MUSICAL

  • WHERE: Studio Theatre, School of the Arts

    WHEN: May 20 to 22, 8pm (Friday), 3 & 8pm (Saturday and Sunday)

    ADMISSION: $48 to $168 from Sistic (call 6348-5555 or go to www.sistic.com.sg)

The play is presented by Musical Theatre Limited, an arts charity that focuses on creating original musicals, and is directed by Sonny Lim with songs by Desmond Moey, who has composed music for both stage and television.

"It will be quite a spectacle. Of course, the choreography won't be the razzmatazz, Hairspray-type," says Moey, 57, referring to the high-octane Broadway musical. "It will be gentle, almost traditional. It's telling the story with dignity."

For Kon, one of the challenges of retelling Emily as a musical was figuring out which part of her story to focus on.

"We finally decided that the main core story for the musical is Emily's search for love - which is a slight twist from the play, which you could see as a search for financial security or a search for power over people."

Love, she said, was a concept that translated easily into music and which could also be used to flesh out the motivations of the characters around Emily, such as her unfaithful husband Kheong, who turns away from his commanding wife in his quest for love.

The cast of characters - which includes Emily's son Richard, who is later driven to suicide, and her rival for her husband's affections, Diana - is made up mostly of newcomers who turned up for open auditions.

In this incarnation, Emily, who has been played by veteran actors such as Margaret Chan and Ivan Heng, will be played by three actresses as she ages in the musical.

Temasek Primary School pupil Melissa Wei-En Hecker, 11, will be Little Emily. Meanwhile, Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts student April Kong, 28, will be Young Emily, while actress and arts educator Karen Lim will be Old Emily.

When asked whether turning Emily - seen by most audiences as the haunting tale of a domineering matriarch who loses it all - into a musical would mean a shift in tone, Kon says: "The play is not necessarily a tragedy. I've seen a production of Emily in which they had her smiling. A happy old lady who has lived her life and enjoyed every bit of it. That's one take.

"But since this is a musical, of course, we had to have a somewhat upbeat ending. But you could also look at the musical and say, ah I see what you've done, but looking back at everything that's happened in the course of the show, can we really call it a happy ending?"

Three decades after she first burst onto the Singapore stage, Emily of Emerald Hill has not lost her shine. Just last year, Karen Tan slipped into the iconic role as part of the Esplanade's The Studios: fifty programme to celebrate Singapore's Golden Jubilee.

Though Emily the monodrama looks set to stay, Kon hopes the musical will appeal to a new generation who may not be familiar with the original play.

"I've heard somebody saying, 'I've seen the original play with Margaret Chan. I don't want to see a musical.' And we do anticipate that a good many people coming with the play firmly in mind will say, 'We don't like the musical'.

"So we have to say, this is a new production. Don't compare apples with oranges. That was a play carried by one woman. This is a musical that will tell the stories of all the characters you've heard about but never seen. And maybe that will work and maybe it won't. We'll accept either response."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 25, 2016, with the headline 'Emerald Hill's Emily sings'. Print Edition | Subscribe