SINGAPORE - What is a quintessentially Singaporean musical?
When this question was put to theatre practitioner Mario Chan three years ago, what came to his mind was an auntie selling tissue paper.
Thus was born Tissue Aunty The Musical, which Chan set up his company Caricapture Theatre to stage.
The musical follows Zac, whose love for his mother takes him to the streets of Bedok to sell tissue paper. There, he meets three tissue aunties.
The production is full of uniquely Singaporean details, such as sugarcane juice with extra lemon and the East Coast Plan, a reference to Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat's Nomination Day speech for the East Coast Group Representation Constituency during the 2020 General Election.
Tissue Aunty The Musical is one of 16 productions featured in Musical Theatre Fringe Fest by home-grown company Sing'theatre, which runs from July 22 to Aug 7. Dedicated to promoting musical theatre, it is the first of its kind in Singapore.
Besides two headliner musicals by industry professionals and 14 smaller shows, it also includes seven workshops - ranging from dance to improvisation classes - and 10 other events such as open mics and musical reads.
Festival artistic director T.J. Taylor, 29, says: "We are giving a space to not only the professionals in theatre, but also the amateurs, as well as everything in between."
When one thinks of musicals, one usually thinks of blockbuster Broadway shows such as Les Miserables or The Phantom Of The Opera, or even major local productions like The LKY Musical.
Taylor says, however, that the festival showcases fringe works such as [title of show], which involves just four actors and a piano.
He will be starring in this headliner production, a one-act musical written by Hunter Bell and composed by Jeff Bowen, both American. The metafictional show follows two struggling writers named Hunter and Jeff as they write a musical about writing a musical.
Taylor, a Briton who moved to Singapore in 2013, joined Sing'theatre in 2017 and became the company's associate artistic director the year after that. He has directed musicals such as A Spoonful Of Sherman (2019) by Sing'theatre and served as the vocal coach for the likes of Urinetown (2019) by Pangdemonium.
He says the festival is not meant to reach millions of people, but rather a small and passionate community. Referring to Nine People's Favourite Thing, one of the numbers in [title of show], he adds: "It basically says, 'I'd rather be nine people's favourite thing than 100 people's ninth favourite thing', and I think that, in many ways, is what the festival is about."
The other headliner show is In Pieces by 7/8 Musical Collective, with music by American Joey Contreras. It is set in New York City and reflects the romantic journeys of eight characters.
In Pieces actress Seong Hui Xuan - who is in her 30s and choreographs for both headliner shows - says it has been a rocky road bringing the musical to the stage. In Pieces was supposed to have another director who had to back out due to health problems. Though this meant last-minute changes and reschedules, they were able to find another director, Eleanor Tan.
In Pieces will be the first professional musical experience for Lasalle College of the Arts graduate Nurul Hassan, 29, who previously worked with 7/8 Musical Collective on performances such as its annual Christmas elf show at the Esplanade.
She says: "I just love how singing brings so much colour and nuance to the emotions that your character goes through. It's like a peek into the innermost self that they might not feel comfortable showing in speech alone."
Joanne Ho, music director for both headliner shows, says: "When we think of mainstream musicals, we think of something flashy and spectacular.
"But the interesting thing about musicals in a fringe setting is that it takes away the spectacle, and you get to enjoy the storytelling through music without the shebang that usually comes with it."
Book it/ [title of show]
Book it/Tissue Aunty The Musical
Book it/In Pieces
Correction note: This article has been edited for accuracy.