Bringing music legend Anita Mui back to life

Actress Margaret Cheung immersed herself in preparing for the role of the late Anita Mui and became a fan

She plays music legend Anita Mui in the forthcoming A Mui Live! Musical, but actress Margaret Cheung was not a fan growing up.

This was not because she was immune to Mui's catchy brand of pop and her outre fashion statements, but because she was far removed from the the centre of Cantopop during the peak of the singer's popularity, in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

Cheung, 31, was born in Hong Kong, but emigrated to Australia when she was "very young". She later returned to the territory to study at the Hong Kong Academy for Performing Arts and graduated from its Drama School in 2008.

Speaking over the telephone from Hong Kong, she says with a noticeable Australian accent: "She was a distant impression to me. But after getting this role and preparing for it, I became a fan. Because it's hard not to."

The musical will be performed in Singapore on June 18 and 19. The show is produced, written and directed by veteran Hong Kong film-maker Clifton Ko and is a presentation of Mui's life featuring 34 of her hits, from Dream Partner to Bad Girl as well as a tribute to various music divas from Zhou Xuan to Billie Holiday.

The musical premiered in 2008 with actress Alice Lau in the role and Cheung is the third performer to play Mui.


Margaret Cheung was “frightened and excited” when she landed the role to play Anita Mui in A Mui Live! Musical.
PHOTO: SPRING TIME EXPERIMENTAL THEATRE (HK)

What Cheung did was to immerse herself in Mui's life, watching her films, interviews and music videos and listening to her a lot. The star died in 2003 at the age of 40 from cervical cancer.

"I just switched on an obsessive button."

She adds: "I'm not doing an Elvis impersonation at all. I'm doing this as an actress taking on a role."

Playing a legend is a huge responsibility and she was "frightened and excited" when she got the part. Then there was the fact that Lau - who had performed in Singapore in 2014 in the stage classic I Have A Date With Spring - was Cheung's predecessor in the role.

"She had the vocal timbre and the presence and everything. She's my senior and that added a lot of pressure."

But Cheung has since come into her own.

At a performance of the show in 2013, during a scene in which she is telling the audience she has to move on, she heard sobbing voices crying out "don't go" from the front row.

  • BOOK IT / A MUI LIVE! MUSICAL

  • WHERE: Kreta Ayer People's Theatre, 30A Kreta Ayer Road

    WHEN: June 18, 8pm and June 19, 2.30pm

    ADMISSION: $28 to $58 from Kreta Ayer People's Theatre's ticketing office (noon to 6pm) or www.kapt.com.sg via MyTicket

"Then I found out they were from the fan club and I'm very glad they didn't tell me before, because I'd be freaked out."

To her, the essence of Mui's appeal was the spirit she embodied.

"Anybody could make it if you worked hard enough and you believed in yourself. She also stood up for the people around her and looked after the people who came after her, such as Grasshopper and Andy Hui," she says, referring to Mui's proteges.

"The reason why I keep doing this show is because the life she lived still inspires people."

One part of Mui's life she is not looking to emulate is her love life, as romantic love eluded the star.

Sounding wistful when she says that life as a freelance performer in Hong Kong can get tiring and lonely, Cheung says: "For me, for now, I want that boyfriend or husband."

Perhaps drawing strength from Mui's life, she also adds: "It's a tough life but I'm thankful for it because I do what I'm interested in."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 25, 2016, with the headline 'Bringing music legend Anita Mui back to life'. Print Edition | Subscribe