Singapura: The Musical to open at newly-refurbished Capitol Theatre in May

Singapura: The Musical, which promises to be a lavish take on 10 pivotal years of Singapore history, will be the opening act at the refurbished Capitol Theatre on May 19.

Produced by 4th Wall Theatre Company Singapore, the US$2-million (S$2.72-million) production 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 first 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 a period of 10 years. The main character, a bus driver and family man, is devastated by the deaths that occur in a violent bus 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, Jonathan Lim of the popular parody show Chestnuts 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 currently stands at 42, mostly from Singapore and the Philippines.

Lim, 40, who will also act as dramaturg for the production, cited Dick Lee's musical Forbidden City (2002), about China's Empress Dowager Cixi, and Ken Low's Chang & Eng (1997) as musicals that Singaporeans had written about other cultures.

He said: "I realised one thing: Singaporeans are very good at telling our stories to each other. I've been doing it for over 25 years, and that's all we do... We're very good at talking to each other. 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, that only in Singlish you can understand.

"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 that this musical was not a commission by Capitol Theatre, nor part of the Golden Jubilee celebrations (they did not receive funding from the Singapore government), 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 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 The Straits Times 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 only pointed out one small inaccuracy that they have since corrected - to say "Federation of Malaysia" instead of "Federated States of Malaysia": "Everything else, according to MDA, 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.

The song Consequences, which mulls over Singapore's merger with Malaysia, has the following lyrics, sung in all seriousness:

Singapore will need Malaya's backing

We cannot afford to be alone

Far too many things we're sorely lacking

Truly you won't leave us on our own?

Something should be done!

These territories are better integrated into one.

Something should be done!

This is an important situation

We must take our time to stop and think

In this new Malaysian Federation

Singapore will be the weakest link

Trinidad hopes that Singaporean audiences will be moved by this production: "No matter who's writing this, or creating it, as long as Singaporeans watch it and feel a kinship with it, they feel that 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

book it

SINGAPURA: THE MUSICAL

Where: Capitol Theatre

When: May 19 to June 28

Admission: $65 to $175 from EventClique. Tickets go on sale from Feb 17. Go to singapurathemusical.eventclique.com or call 6602-9900

Info: www.singapurathemusical.com