Romeo And Juliet with songs

This story was first published in The Straits Times on Feb 4, 2014.

Director Nell Ng is planning to "bring the sexy back into Shakespeare" with theatre group Toy Factory's latest production of Romeo And Juliet.

To do this, she has relied on composer Elaine Chan to create 18 original songs, including four instrumental numbers, that set Shakespeare's prose to pop, ballad, R&B and rap music.

Playing Romeo, Benjamin Kheng, 23, will serenade his Juliet, played by Ethel Yap, 25, with the ballad It Is My Lady as he approaches her in the famous balcony scene.

Yap has replaced Theresa Wee-Yenko as Juliet due to "better creative energies", said Ng.

Mercutio, played by Timothy Wan, will take on a hip-hop number in This Is She, as he hallucinates about Queen Mag after drinking at the Capulets' ball.

Ng hopes that the musical will "awaken the senses" of the audience who may otherwise find Shakespearean language too archaic. She is keen to use music to show that "Shakespeare is still relevant and can be fit to very cool music; it doesn't need to be boring or traditional".

She adds that the personality of each character was a primary consideration in deciding the tone of the music. For example, Romeo and Juliet sing mainly pop-style ballads; Mercutio, Romeo's young and wild best friend, will rap; and The Nurse will sing in an operatic style to reflect her age.

Chan, 42, who has written music for the Dim Sum Dollies and music- directed the popular revue Broadway Beng, says that setting Shakespeare to music was a challenge.

She says: "I was bound by the language because there were a lot of run-on lines and it was difficult to break the lines to fit the modern song structure."

To overcome this problem, she picked out important phrases in each monologue and repeated them in the songs to create more structure.

She adds that the music conjures up imagery and sets the mood for scenes, "taking off where words leave dry".

She also wrote the first and last songs, Death-marked Love and This Letter, before the other songs to set the overall tone of the play. Both songs have a haunting quality to reflect the tragic nature of the play.

Though the songs are mostly solos based on monologues, there will be a few ensemble pieces as well. There will be a ballad duet, Wilt Thou Be Gone, performed by Kheng and Yap, highlighting the reluctance of the lovers to leave each other.

The operatic O Woeful Day, featuring the Capulets and The Nurse, aims to heighten the sense of grief felt at Juliet's death, while Friar Lawrence's Love Give Thee Strength foreshadows Juliet's tragic death.

Ng says: "Directing a musical is more difficult than directing a play since you have to coordinate musically, there are more elements involved and more puzzle pieces to join together."

This is not her first time directing a musical.

She previously helmed Cabaret and The Producers for Pan Productions, for which she is the artistic director. Ng acted in Toy Factory's production The Crabflower Club in 2009 and was approached by the theatre group's artistic director Goh Boon Teck to direct Romeo And Juliet.

In addition to turning the classic love story into a musical, Ng has set it on a yacht, "with elements of the sea like the ever-changing winds which continuously force the lovers to change course".