SRT founder Tony Petito dies at 68

He's hailed as visionary who played immense role in shaping Singapore's cultural landscape

SRT founder Tony Petito, who co-wrote its 2015 blockbuster show The LKY Musical, died last week in New Jersey after a prolonged illness.
SRT founder Tony Petito, who co-wrote its 2015 blockbuster show The LKY Musical, died last week in New Jersey after a prolonged illness.ST FILE PHOTO

American director Tony Petito, who founded the Singapore Repertory Theatre (SRT) and co-wrote its 2015 blockbuster show The LKY Musical, died last week in New Jersey after a prolonged illness, his colleagues in Singapore have confirmed. He was 68.

Petito is survived by his wife Donne, daughters Nora and Gianna, and two grandchildren.

Among the first to hear the news here was Gaurav Kripalani, who heads the SRT and is festival director of the Singapore International Festival of Arts.

Petito returned to the United States in 2001, where he led an arts training centre in New Jersey but he still maintained ties with Singapore theatre. With novelist Meira Chand, he co-wrote the book for The LKY Musical, a tribute to Singapore's founding prime minister Lee Kuan Yew. It won three awards at the 2016 Life Theatre Awards, including the Reader's Choice award for Production of the Year.

Before he fell ill two months ago, Petito had been corresponding with Kripalani regarding another SRT musical in the works, Mu-Lan. Kripalani received an e-mail last Friday saying Petito had died the previous day.

"I'm absolutely gutted," said Kripalani, calling Petito his "mentor" and "champion". "Tony was a visionary who played an immense role in shaping the cultural landscape of Singapore. Many of us who work in theatre here today owe Tony a huge debt of gratitude."

According to the obituary published in US newspapers, Petito was born in 1950 in Trenton, New Jersey. He studied at Catholic University in Washington DC, and had a master's of fine arts in directing from the Goodman School of Drama of the Art Institute of Chicago. He later became a business consultant working with companies in South-east Asia. He came to Singapore in the 1980s after building a human resources consulting business.

Here, he led an amateur theatrical company, Stars, turning it into the professional SRT in 1993, to ensure that actors here would be paid professional rates. Its first production was the musical Godspell. Petito ran SRT from 1992 to 1998, and again after his chosen successor Ivan Heng left in 1999, eventually founding his own company Wild Rice. Kripalani took over SRT in 2001.

Under Petito, SRT's early productions brought in Broadway stars such as Lea Salonga and Rob Narita while also promoting Singaporean talent including performer Adrian Pang as well as actor-directors Heng, Glen Goei and Sebastian Tan.

SRT's introduction 25 years ago of a standard wage for local actors - $500 a week for principals - was groundbreaking, said Heng. "Tony made an indelible contribution in wanting to professionalise our nascent arts industry. He also raised the international profile of Singapore by casting locals in leading roles opposite international stars."

Petito also felt it was important that SRT produce work from the Singapore perspective. In 1996, SRT adapted Singapore writer Ho Minfong's 1975 novella Sing To The Dawn into a musical. It was the first local production to open the Singapore Arts Festival. Dick Lee wrote the music and Petito contributed to the book. Petito also co-wrote the musical whodunnit A Twist Of Fate, commissioned by the Raffles Hotel for its 110th birthday in 1997.

Kripalani said of him: "I don't think many people know how much the arts scene owes him. He played an immense role and didn't take enough credit for it."

SRT will organise a memorial for Petito in Singapore, he added. Details will be confirmed later.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on July 29, 2018, with the headline 'SRT founder Tony Petito dies at 68'. Subscribe