Singaporean and Filipino stars for Singapura musical

The musical’s creative team, (from left) musical director Ed Gatchalian, director Greg Ganakas, performer Jonathan Lim and librettist Joel Trinidad. -- ST PHOTO: TIFFANY GOH
The musical’s creative team, (from left) musical director Ed Gatchalian, director Greg Ganakas, performer Jonathan Lim and librettist Joel Trinidad. -- ST PHOTO: TIFFANY GOH

Musical on the nation's history from 1955 to 1965 has set its sight on Broadway

Singaporean actor-director Jonathan Lim has a starring role in Singapura: The Musical, which is set to be the opening act at the newly refurbished Capitol Theatre on May 19.

The local funnyman, known for his popular parody show Chestnuts, will also act as dramaturg for what promises to be a lavish take on 10 pivotal years of Singapore history: 1955 to 1965, when Singapore became independent.

Produced by 4th Wall Theatre Company Singapore, the US$2-million (S$2.72-million) musical has set its sights on Broadway, with Filipino composer and musical director Ed Gatchalian - the company's co-founder - at the helm. Tickets go on sale on Feb 17.

Gatchalian, 72, was inspired to create this musical three years ago, when he was approached by two Singaporean businessmen in the audience of one of his other musicals, the university basketball drama Rivalry. They suggested that he do a musical on former prime minister Lee Kuan Yew.

Gatchalian said at a press conference on Wednesday: "I read the memoirs of Lee Kuan Yew, which were really dramatic... I realised that there were other interesting stories that were never written, names that were never spoken of.

"These were your parents, your grandparents, who lived those years from 1955 to 1965."

Curious about these stories, he set out to interview dozens of Singaporeans and Singapore residents who had witnessed that decade, travelling from Singapore to Kuala Lumpur, Tokyo and Hong Kong to speak to these members of the pioneer generation.

The stories he gleaned from them eventually formed the backbone of the musical, in a libretto written by seasoned Filipino theatre practitioner Joel Trinidad.

The production follows a Singaporean family over 10 years. The main character, a bus driver and family man, is devastated by the deaths that occur in a violent incident and is tempted to move to another country.

But his daughter, who goes from feisty teenager to law school student, wants to strive for a better life. She also has a romantic relationship with a British man.

From Singapore, Lim has been cast as the bus driver and Selly Marina plays his wife.

They will alternate their performances with their Filipino counterparts, actors Julien Mendoza and Maybel Bangayan Ty respectively, with Marian Santiago playing their spirited daughter.

The number of cast members stands at 42, mostly from Singapore and the Philippines.

Lim, 40, cited Dick Lee's musical Forbidden City (2002), about China's Empress Dowager Cixi, and Ken Low's Chang & Eng (1997) as examples of musicals that Singaporeans had written about other cultures.

He said: "I realised one thing: Singaporeans are very good at telling our stories to one another. I've been doing it for more than 25 years and that's all we do... We're very good at talking to one another.

"But we're 50 years old now. Let's turn and talk to the world. Let's believe that our story is international, is universal, is human - it's not some Singaporean secret, you can understand that only in Singlish.

"We need an outside view, we need partners, we need friends, we need people from foreign countries who have gone through stuff like that to help tell the story... We need these friends and we've got them."

Gatchalian says this musical was not a commission by Capitol Theatre or part of the Golden Jubilee celebrations (they did not receive government funding), but that "the timing was perfect".

He did a lot of research into Singapore history and some of the milestones captured in the musical include the Hock Lee bus riots of 1955, the race riots of 1964, the MacDonald House bombing in 1965, and Singapore's merger and subsequent separation from Malaysia.

Trinidad, 46, added: "You can't change history, so we were very careful to keep certain landmarks for historical accuracy. Because this is the history of Singapore, this is very, very important.

"Although the characters are fictional, the stuff they go through is very, very real."

He later emphasised to Life! that they had "no political agenda".

Gatchalian added: "We stayed away from those grey areas. I looked at what was real and what no one could deny."

He was pleased to add that the authorities had pointed out only one small inaccuracy that they have since corrected - to say "Federation of Malaysia" instead of "Federated States of Malaysia".

"Everything else, according to the MDA (the Media Development Authority), is historically accurate."

Some of the ensemble cast performed excerpts of songs from the musical at the press conference.

The song Another Day In Singapore combines Chinese pentatonic scales and the shimmer of gongs. Another love ballad had soaring melodic arcs reminiscent of musicals such as The Phantom Of The Opera.

Award-winning American director Greg Ganakas, who is behind the production, believes it can find an international audience, saying it brings to mind other successful musicals set against the sweep of history, such as Les Miserables during the 1832 June Rebellion in Paris and Miss Saigon during the Vietnam war.

Trinidad hopes Singaporean audiences will be moved: "No matter who's writing this or creating it, as long as Singaporeans watch it and feel a kinship with it, they feel they can relate to it and that it's their story, then they will forget where it's from.

"It doesn't matter where it's from, it's part of the human experience. We're striving towards that."

corriet@sph.com.sg