Overseas musicals with local slant could resonate more with audiences here

Overseas musicals with a local slant could resonate more with audiences here

When the Jets and the Sharks appeared on stage at the Mastercard Theatres at Marina Bay Sands, I was thrilled to see characters I had known from my childhood on stage.

I had only ever seen the 1961 film adaptation of West Side Story and was thankful this version by director-choreographer Joey McKneely preserved the original choreography by award-winning choreographer Jerome Robbins.

The tension-filled finger snapping as the gangs sussed out each other, the athletic lunges and jumps as they taunted each other and the skirt twirling as the women sang about America, all came back to me.

It was enjoyable and nostalgic, but there was something missing.

A show with themes of love, racism, exclusion and sacrifice should resonate with any audience anywhere in the world. But for some reason, I left the theatre unmoved.

When asked what I thought, I said: "Great dancing."

Foreign musicals come to Singapore all the time. Besides West Side Story, which ended its run last month, there will be The Sound Of Music and The Addams Family coming to Singapore next month.

There is a place for the locally produced version of a musical, which, when well selected and executed, allows one to reflect on one's life and question one's prejudices.

But are these shows relevant to a Singapore audience? Would some level of adaptation make it resonate more?

In the past fortnight, I watched two other musicals: Pangdemonium's Fun Home and Sing'theatre's Forever Young, which brought me a little closer to answering those questions.

Fun Home, which won five Tony Awards in 2015, including Best Musical, is a coming-of-age tale based on a graphic memoir by Alison Bechdel. We follow Alison on a journey of self-discovery as she comes to terms with her sexuality and get a glimpse into her deeply dysfunctional family.

I had watched the original production on Broadway - it was thoroughly impressive from the staging in the round to the charming young actors who were authentic - and wondered how I would react to this version by a Singapore company.

Pangdemonium's production was, unfortunately, not staged in the round, but it was still a heartfelt and thought-provoking performance.

I watched Chloe Choo as the young Alison, singing about her attraction to a woman who had walked into a diner and it truly struck a chord.

It was an American setting, she had an American accent, her singing style and phrasing were so close to the original. Yet, just watching an Asian girl in the role made it hit closer to home.

In fact, a friend who watched the show with me shared how the musical made her think of her own daughter and the unknown challenges she would face as she grew up.

In an earlier interview with The Straits Times, director Tracie Pang said: "While this story is of a particular dysfunctional family undone by secrets and lies, we are sure that many people will see their own family mirrored in the various characters."

Pang, who is also co-artistic director of the company, added that she wanted to explore the themes of homosexuality and identity among others and wanted to provide "much more than just 'easy' entertainment".

She achieved her goal.

Compared with the New York show, there was an added closeness of the characters, something that made them more relatable.

Besides seeing Asian faces on stage, perhaps it made a difference sitting in an audience with Asian sensibilities - for example, the audience gasped and squirmed when Alison's father made suggestive moves on young men.

Whatever it was, a foreign musical - granted a more contemporary one than West Side Story - had come to Singapore and it made an impression, on me, at least.

Then, there was Sing'theatre, which not only produced a foreign show, but also adapted it for a Singapore audience - a difficult task that does not always work.

Hossan Leong, who directs and acts in Forever Young, admits in the programme booklet that the play, written by Swiss playwright Erik Gedeon, was "difficult to digest at first read".

"The original script was convoluted and some of the songs, I felt nothing for… we ploughed through the script and adapted it with songs and local reference as best we could," he said, adding that he was glad he had done so.

Adapted by local blogger Benjamin "Mr Miyagi" Lee, the show chronicled a day in the lives of a group of retired actors living in a nursing home in the year 2067.

Different races - Malay, Indian and Chinese - were represented among the home's residents and common swear words in Chinese dialect and Malay peppered the dialogue.

The local expressions got a number of laughs, but did nothing more for the production as a whole.

Relatively current pop songs, such as Uptown Funk and We Are Young, were woven together by a loose narrative. This could be a metaphor for the occasional lucidity of the characters experiencing cognitive decline, but that would be a convenient excuse for what seemed like a lack of structure in the original script, which the local team just could not fix.

There were, however, moments when I thought about friends, growing old together and singing songs from one's youth and that warmed the heart - something Leong had set out to do.

Three foreign shows, each given a different treatment, yielded very different responses.

Granted the same show adapted to different degrees would make for a more scientific comparison, but we are not talking about science, after all.

Of the three, I think West Side Story was the least relatable.

Don't get me wrong. I don't have anything against foreign musicals in general. In fact, I think they function as a gateway to theatre.

I remember as a child watching Cats and The Phantom Of The Opera when the productions came to town. I fell in love with musical theatre, tried to find the scores to my favourite tunes and huddled with friends over photocopied lyrics as we belted out show tunes during recess.

Familiar overseas titles draw people in and, once they get sucked in by the slick production value and sheer talent of the cast, they inevitably end up as theatre junkies - hooked forever.

So, there is a place for foreign musicals as they are.

But there is also a place for the locally produced version of a musical, which, when well selected and executed, allows one to reflect on one's life, question one's prejudices and feel empathy for others.

Completely original work notwithstanding, more of this is needed here for a maturing audience.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 17, 2017, with the headline 'Make foreign shows hit closer to home'. Print Edition | Subscribe