The first Broadway musical to tell Singapore’s story, Singapura: The Musical was every bit of a mistake from beginning to end.
Singapore may be a small maritime nation with a relatively short history, but her rich and tumultuous past leading to independence makes for a good musical. Sadly, Singapura: The Musical isn’t it. The musical which runs from 19 May to 21 June was composed and written by 4th Wall Theatre Company’s composer-creator Ed Gatchalian and scriptwriter Joel Trinidad both hailing from the Philippines. Seeking to tell ‘Singapore’s untold stories’ and even staging the musical in its country of origins, the theatre company was undertaking a colossal project which they unfortunately failed to deliver.
Sitting through Singapura: The Musical was like taking a Skinkansen (Japan’s bullet train) through Singapore’s history. The Hock Lee Bus Riot, Singapore and Malaysia’s merger and separation, everything was touch and go. The musical’s pacing was so rushed, it did not give audiences any breathing space to think and absorb in what it was like to live through what was to be some of the most important milestone in Singapore’s history between 1955 to 1965.
All of a sudden, we are being fed with information that a boy was shot and killed. All of a sudden, the protagonist’s family wants to leave for Melaka. All of a sudden, the man in white (presumably Mr Lee) was petitioning for the country’s merger. All of a sudden, the musical’s protagonist falls in love with an ‘ang-moh’ (Caucasian). The musical simply could not decide their focal point as to which and what Singapore story to tell.
I may understand that the relationship of protagonist Lee May (played by Marian Santiago) and her British officer boyfriend is a metaphor of Singapore’s relationship with her coloniser – if it was ever their intention – but really? Is this necessary to tackle interracial marriage in a musical that sought to tell Singapore’s story?
In their second song item, they performed ‘Kopitiam’, a song that depicts everyday life at Singaporeans’ favourite hangout place. I cringed everytime they sang out the word ‘Kopitiam’. The actors could also certainly sing, but the lyrics and tune were terrible. Forgettable, cringe-worthy tunes mixed in with lyrics that were badly written, I could barely stay on my seat, only sitting through the entire musical as a form of respect to the actors. The cast which were mostly Filipino sang really well, but their attempts to speak Singlish evidently showed that they were far from ready to convince the Singaporean crowd that they are indeed Singaporeans.
There were moments in the musical which showed some promise (and gave me hope that they can salvage the show so that I can applaud for them at the end). One such scene was when the man in white climbed and stood at the top of a two storey ladder. But a few words, some unimpressive singing, and that was it. One of the only few interesting scenes, it was haphazardly portrayed. Their avoidance in tackling political scenes by its horns was also their undoing (they couldn’t explicitly portray Mr Lee since they couldn’t get the rights and permission). My beef is, if you can’t get permission, meaning you also can’t portray the statesman in a way that will do him justice, why bring him into the picture at all?
Archival footage of the late Mr Lee and Tunku Abdul Rahman were screened midway to provide exposition and to give the audiences some bearing of the sentiments during the separation period. But for the musical who’s clearly unclear about their direction, screening those footage did not compliment the two hour long musical. Instead, it made the creative team look extremely lazy for using the footage instead of reenacting their own scenes.
For all the publicity generated on the print and digital media, the musical was a complete letdown and utter disappointment. Maybe you could say that I’m being biased since I am a Singaporean, but for a musical that sought to tell the Singapore story, Singapura: The Musical has missed the mark by more than a mile.
Singapura: The Musical is a titanic scaled production, grossly under-delivering for all that it has promised. But they played theirs cards right to premier in Singapore during her jubilee year. The sales will come, people will flock in by the hundreds to catch the performance. I can only hope that the shows’ creator and composer do some soul-searching, intensify their research into those historical moments and seriously rework the script, before bringing this to the international stage. The Singapore story is not as you have told. RW
Singapura: The Musical
Capitol Theatre (New theatre along Stamford Rd stretch)
Opens 19 May to 28 June 2015
Ticket Pricing: $65 – $175
Web Link: Singapura: The Musical