Tony Petito, founder of Singapore Repertory Theatre, dies at 68

American director Tony Petito (pictured) ran SRT from 1992 to 1998, and again after his chosen successor Ivan Heng left in 1999.
American director Tony Petito (pictured) ran SRT from 1992 to 1998, and again after his chosen successor Ivan Heng left in 1999.PHOTO: TONY PETITO

SINGAPORE - American director Tony Petito, who founded the Singapore Repertory Theatre (SRT) and co-wrote its 2015 blockbuster show The LKY Musical, died earlier this week in New Jersey, his colleagues in Singapore confirm. He was 68 this year.

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

Among the first to hear the news here was theatre-maker Gaurav Kripalani, who helms SRT now but is on hiatus to serve as festival director of the Singapore International Festival of Arts. Petito returned to the US in 2001, where he helmed an arts training centre in New Jersey but he still maintained close ties with the theatre scene in Singapore.

With novelist Meira Chand, he co-wrote the book for the 2015 blockbuster, The LKY Musical, a tribute to Singapore's founding prime minister. It won the Reader's Choice award for Production of the Year at the annual Life Theatre awards in 2016, as well as a best actor award for Adrian Pang as Lee Kuan Yew, and best supporting actor for Benjamin Chow as political rival Lim Chin Siong.

Kripalani and Petito had been corresponding regarding another SRT musical in the works, Mu-Lan, but in the past two months, the latter fell suddenly ill and had to be hospitalised. He died before this weekend.

"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," he added. "Many of us who work in theatre here today owe Tony a huge debt of gratitude.

"I met him recently and he was immensely proud of Singapore Repertory Theatre celebrating its 25th anniversary and how much it had grown."

According to the obituary published in US newspapers, Petito was born in 1950 in Trenton, New Jersey, to a family of plumbers. He studied in 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 around South-east Asia and came to Singapore in the 1980s after building up a human-resources consultancy of his own.

Here he led an amateur theatrical company, Stars, turning it into the professional SRT in 1993, out of a stated desire 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 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 Pang as well as actor-directors Glen Goei, Heng and Sebastian Tan.

In 1996, SRT adapted Singapore writer Ho Minfong's 1975 novella Sing To The Dawn into a musical of the same name. It was the first local production to open the Singapore Arts Festival. Dick Lee wrote the music and Petito contributed to the book.

In 1997, Petito and Lee collaborated again on musical whodunit A Twist Of Fate, commissioned by the Raffles Hotel for its 110th birthday.

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

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