Former MediaCorp actress and host Sharon Au says she is nothing like Madam Kwa Geok Choo, the late Cambridge-educated lawyer wife of Mr Lee Kuan Yew.
Au, 40, faces one of her biggest challenges yet, taking on the larger-than-life role in Metropolitan Productions' upcoming The LKY Musical, which opens at Marina Bay Sands' MasterCard Theatres on July 21.
Calling it the "role of a lifetime", she acknowledges that she is one of the least experienced members of a cast which includes veteran actor Adrian Pang as the late founding prime minister and comedian Sebastian Tan as a rickshaw puller, an everyman named Koh Teong Koo.
Au, who auditioned for the part, said yesterday at the first major press conference for the musical: "It was extremely humbling to be accepted to play Madam Kwa. It would have been sufficient for me if I could just play a rickshaw puller... I just wanted to be part of this project. I wanted to volunteer as a wardrobe mistress or someone to carry Adrian's bag."
The casting of Madam Kwa and that of another major real-life figure - Mr Lee's late political rival Lim Chin Siong - was revealed at the press conference, held yesterday morning at the top floor of the OUE Bayfront building.
Newcomer Benjamin Chow, 25, an acting graduate from Lasalle College of the Arts and last seen in The Little Company's The Three Billy Goats Gruff, will play Mr Lim. The casting of Pang was revealed last month.
Against a backdrop of floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking a skyline which Mr Lee and his team of Old Guard leaders helped build, Metropolitan Productions director Tan Choon Hiong spoke of the motivation behind the multi-million-dollar venture. Referencing Andrew Lloyd Webber's well-known 1978 musical, he said: "We have world-class musicals such as Evita, which is about the life of Eva Peron, an Argentinian politician, but why is there no world-class musical about the Singapore story?"
The 2 1/2-hour-long The LKY Musical hopes to fill that void and is one of three stage and film productions this year which feature or reference Mr Lee.
The musical traces his life story over a period of about 20 years, from his early days in Raffles College to Singapore's independence in 1965.
In addition to a stellar cast, the musical also boasts an experienced production team.
On stage at the press conference were Dick Lee, veteran composer and musician, and Meira Chand, an established London-born author who will be writing the story for the musical.
While actors Pang, Tan and Chow were also present, all eyes were on Au, who teamed an elegant ankle-length emerald dress with bright red lipstick.
Even though she has taken a step back from the limelight since completing her studies at Waseda University in Japan 2011 and assuming an executive position at MediaCorp, the only female cast member still cut a stylish, sassy presence.
In response to a question about similarities between her and Mrs Lee, she was quick to answer: "There are no similarities at all between me and the icon. To me, she was, and she is, the perfect Asian wife and the perfect Asian woman."
Though better known for her acting and hosting stints on TV, Au is no stranger to the stage. In 1998, she was the lead in a remake of a Dick Lee musical, Beauty World, playing cabaret girl Lulu.
Industry insiders and theatregoers had mixed reactions to her casting.
Civil servant Chris Li, 30, said: "I think Sharon is a good choice, even though she does not look like Madam Kwa. She is an experienced actress who has grounding in theatre. I think she and Adrian Pang look good together and will have solid chemistry."
Mr Daniel Yun, executive producer and co-director of the upcoming film 1965 in which Mr Lee features as a character, agreed that Au was a good choice. "Pang and Au had chemistry when I worked with them on I Do I Do (2005) and I can see them on stage as a couple.
"I'm not sure how much singing there will be, but I'm sure they were cast because they're up to it."
Less enthusiastic is human resources manager Irene Lim, 35, a regular theatregoer. "Sharon is nine years Adrian's junior, while Madam Kwa was 2 1/2 years older than the late Mr Lee. I also feel Sharon lacks the air of remarkable intellect and quiet poise that Mrs Lee had.
"For me, someone more suited to portray Madam Kwa would be actress Claire Wong, in terms of her age, career, image and overall demeanour."
While work on the musical began over three years ago, the death of Mr Lee last month has cast a sombre pall over the proceedings. While no changes have been made to the music or story, Pang, 49, says his death has given the musical "all sorts of added significance and poignancy".
"I supposed as a team, we're trying to embrace that and see that as so much more material to draw on now, more so than there would have been."
Since Mr Lee's death on March 23 at age 91, there has been an outpouring of tributes and articles, both in Singapore and around the world. For many, what struck a chord was his devotion to his wife, who died in 2010 at age 89 after a long illness. The couple, who married in secret in Stratford-upon-Avon during their university days, were best friends and confidants.
At her funeral, Mr Lee had said that "without her, I would be a different man, with a different life".
As the subject matter of the musical is not exactly lighthearted fare, composer Lee, 58, said he was worried about how he could make it work as a musical. "It's quite a serious story. I couldn't see that there were going to be a lot of fun, big production numbers where he's dancing at the rally or something."
Nonetheless, he called his effort his "best score to date". He adds: "The songwriting became very nuanced, quite deep and, from a technical point of view, I used a lot of chord progressions that I haven't used for a long time."
Additional reporting by Lee Jian Xuan
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