SINGAPORE - The first rehearsal for the National Day Parade (NDP) show with all the different groups of performers was a mini-disaster that nearly went up in flames, said its creative director Adrian Pang.
Things that were not supposed to catch fire did, he said.
"I was horrified. Watching that first rehearsal was a big kick in the gut and slap in the face," he added.
"But really, I think the first time you see it, it has to horrify you, just for you to know how much work you need to do to fix things."
Directing the show for the first time, he wanted to throw a "birthday bash" for the nation, by tying "millions of different stories into one thread", but soon found that he could not give voice to all Singaporeans, or please everyone.
When he was approached last year to direct the NDP show, Mr Pang was "very amused".
"I was persuaded that I had to at least try it out once," he said.
But he soon changed his mind as he cast about for ideas and hit upon a dark period in his life.
Mr Pang got emotional during the interview as he recounted how his family had helped him get through a months-long deep depression at the start of the coronavirus pandemic.
"It was a really, really tough time. I really didn't see it coming. My family saw me through it, they lifted me up and kept my head above water.
"And I know I had it easy, compared to many, many other people. I still had a home to be safe and I had a loving family. I was able to keep Pangdemonium (his theatre company) intact somehow.
"I know many, many people, many of my colleagues who had to resort to quite desperate measures just to get by. People's lives have been changed, irrevocably."
That inspired him to put together a show about gratitude.
The Story Of Us kicked off with a portrait of Singaporeans living in stability and safety before their lives are upended by Covid-19.
More than 2,000 performers rehearsed for months for the spectacle.
It also was not easy for the theatre veteran, who is used to full creative control in Pangdemonium, to have to think about pleasing everyone in the 25,000-strong audience at the Marina Bay floating platform, and millions more watching in their homes.
Along the way, he had to "kill his babies" and make some parts more "palatable" to the audience while trying to stay true to his vision.
It was a challenge having so many cooks serving up a nine-course meal - five live chapters and four film episode, he added.
The year-long process of preparing for the show started from July last year.
"I was under a lot of pressure. You have voices in your head. As the months wear on, the voices get louder and louder, and about three months from the day (of the show), they really start screaming in your ear."
He is grateful for the team of creatives - film, multimedia, lighting, music, sound - whom he worked with to put the show together.
He was also moved by how Singaporeans had volunteered their time to be audience motivators, ushers or performers.
"It made me think about the times where I was churlish enough to watch any parade and criticise or complain, or just be cynical about it," he said.
"I think it was quite an interesting challenge to keep my cynicism quiet for a little while, and to make sure, while trying to imbue the show with a lot of heart, that it didn't tip over into 'cringe-worthiness'."
Highlighting the song You Will Be Found from American musical Dear Evan Hansen, performed by singer Aisyah Aziz, Mr Pang said: "The whole symbol and the image of this phoenix rising from the flames was something that I was insisting on injecting into the song, into the last chapter, into little pockets of the storytelling.
"If life tries to burn you down, you rise from the flames and become a new version of yourself.
"I also wanted to express gratitude to the people all around us who, even in spite of their own difficult circumstances, stepped up to take care of the rest of us."