Exclusive: Interview with Adrian Pang

Reuelwrites interviews theatre extraordinaire Adrian Pang on life after MediaCorp, his role as LKY, and his new play about autism.

Turning 50 last January, Adrian Pang is unstoppable. Nailing his biggest role as the [late] Mr Lee Kuan Yew in The LKY Musical and starring in Hollywood film Blackhat just last year, Pang seems to be doing everything right.

But there were moments of doubts and struggles even for undoubtedly one of Singapore’s most recognisable and talented actor. Reuelwrites interviews Pang on life after MediaCorp and his new play, FALLING.

Directed by Pang and his wife Tracie, Pangdemonium’s FALLING tackles the taboo topic of Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) with brutal honesty, challenging its audience to immerse themselves and empathise with a family dynamic dictated by autism. For more info, visit the link hereRW

RW: Hi Adrian, thank you so much for accepting this interview! I’m a big fan of your work in theatre. You’ve been very busy in 2015, isn’t it? From directing and acting in theatre (Circle Mirror Transformation, Tribes, Chinglish, The LKY Musical) to starring in films (The Faith of Anna Waters, Blackhat), how do you manage [such a busy] schedule like this [and still find time for your family]?

AP: My life is all about work and family. They are my two obsessions, and they keep me sane and make me feel alive. I have actually very little time and energy for anything else. And it works out well because my work with Pangdemonium is a shared thing with my wife Tracie, and my two boys Zack and Xander also both love the theatre, so as a family we are individually and collectively invested in it in every way. 

RW: In 2010, you made an announcement that surprised many – that you would leave MediaCorp and start your own drama company. Was it a big risk on your part then? In hindsight, what did you learn from the past six years of running Pangdemonium? If given a choice, would you have walked down the same path again?

AP: After working as a freelance actor in the UK for nine years, coming back to Singapore to become a full-time employee of a TV station was itself a big risk. And after the next nine years working for the TV station, it was an even bigger and scarier risk to say goodbye to a regular income, to start a new business that was not just any regular business, but a theatre company of all things. In Singapore.

In the middle of a global financial crisis. Six years down this very bumpy, winding, pot-holey road, I’m happier now as an actor, as a husband, as a father, and as a person than I’ve ever been. I’m lucky to be doing what I love and loving what I do, and in spite of all the challenges big and small that we face, I love this life and I every day I am filled with gratitude. If I could do it all again, I would have started on this road sooner.

RW: The Straits Times calls your portrayal of the late Mr Lee Kuan Yew in The LKY Musical ‘a stirring performance’. Now that the dust has settled, how did you feel about your role, LKY and the musical after taking on the role of arguably the most important public figure of Singapore?

AP: Apart from my work with Pangdemonium, I’m also a jobbing actor for hire, and the offer of the LKY gig was something that I was able to fit into my schedule in between Pangdemonium’s shows, so it was a very pragmatic decision to take it on. Of course because of the very nature of this specific role, there were all kinds of baggage and pressure and expectations that came with it, so I had to shut all that out, and just get down to doing my job.

I’m just relieved to have survived it intact – although I almost didn’t the night I ran into the underside of a metal staircase backstage and did the last twenty minutes of that performance with blood streaming down my face. Politics, eh?

RW: I understand that you are working with local autism associations to produce ‘Falling’, Pangdemonium’s second theatre production for 2016… Could you tell us a little about this new play that you are directing and starring in? What did you learn about autism both the good and the bad?

AP: First of all, the autism spectrum is so wide that no two persons with autism are alike, and one person with autism cannot be representative of the condition. And a lot of the time, the person with autism is so much the focus that their caregiver becomes the one to suffer in silence. Most families untouched by special needs will never have a clue about the hell that these families live through day by day. And they get so little support or even basic understanding from the public and even friends and extended family members.

Very often, an individual with autism can really test the patience and endurance of his/her caregivers, and FALLING demonstrates how a family can be pushed to the edge of despair and desperation. And what happens in the play may make some people feel uncomfortable or even disturbed, but this is the reality for some families.

And what is most remarkable and very real is that this family in FALLING (like so many real families in similar situations) is soldiering on, with bruises but also with resilience, with tears but also with a sense of humour, and with pragmatism but also with hope. And through it all, loving unconditionally. They really are heroes.

RW: You staged Tribes – a play that dealt with the theme of deafness – last year. This year, there’s Falling that looks into the world of the autistic. Are we seeing a trend here?

AP: Yes, if you look at our body of work over the last few years, the so-called “trend” is to tell stories that affect us all in ways that we perhaps don’t realise should affect us, stories that are relevant and resonant to our community that we are perhaps not even aware of, stories that show us another side of life that we perhaps choose to ignore, stories that celebrate struggle, survival, compassion, empathy, and life itself, stories that make great theatre and at the same time open our eyes and minds and hearts, that make us give a damn about someone and something else apart from ourselves and our lot, to dare to change what we feel needs changing, and be thankful for the good in our lives. That is Pangdemonium’s mission.

RW: Finally, tell us in your own words why Singaporeans should catch Falling?

AP: This story needs to be told to as many people as possible because – apart from it being a brilliant family drama about unconditional love – we need to get the message out there that there are individuals in our community living with autism who need our understanding and acceptance, and our genuine, tangible efforts to help them assimilate into our society. At the same time, and perhaps just as importantly, their caregivers need much more empathy and support. FALLING is really a unique piece of theatre that we hope will reach out to everyone and make a difference.


KC Arts Centre

Opens 13 May to 5 June 2016

Tami and Bill are ordinary parents doing their best to bring up their two teenage kids – Lisa, 16, full of attitude and angst; and Josh, who demands extraordinary attention, because he’s an 18-year-old boy with severe autism. Family life is a precarious balancing act revolving around Josh, his routines, his obsessions, and the rigid set of rules that have been created for them to get through each day.

When this delicate balance is shattered by the arrival of a visitor, impossible choices have to be made, and it literally becomes a matter of life and death for this family. FALLING is an electrifying and enlightening family drama that shatters unspeakable taboos, explores the lives of a misunderstood and marginalised minority in our society, and examines the meaning of unconditional love.

Ticket Pricing: $30 – $50


The LKY Musical: A Bold Account of Singapore’s Founding Father

Lee Kuan Yew is human after all. His is the story of personal triumphs, insecurities, moral struggles and setbacks much like every other Singaporean.

Lee Kuan Yew. A three-syllable name that will either strike fear or invite forth countless praises depending on which side of the fence you’re on. But no matter. It’s applaudable (or downright foolish) of anyone to even attempt at telling the story of Singapore’s legendary statesman for it can only result in glorious success or epic disaster.

Metropolitan Productions takes on the gargantuan task of telling Mr Lee’s story. The LKY Musical follows his story from pre-war days as a student at Raffles Institution through his transformation into a powerful political leader struggling to win Singapore’s Independence. The musical is performed at the MasterCard Theatres, Marina Bay Sands from 21 July to 16 August 2015.

Here’s what I saw: Take away the theatrics and the singing (which was fantastic by the way), what the musical sought to do was to help audiences come to a realisation that Mr Lee was as human as everyone of us. He too, experienced the basic human emotions of happiness, sadness, fear, anger, surprise and disgust. The musical provides insights into Mr Lee’s (Adrian Pang) life through the events that shaped him, and his relationship with wife Mrs Lee (Sharon Au), Rickshaw Puller Koh Teong Koo (Sebastian Tan), and even political opponent Lim Chin Siong (Benjamin Chow).

Adrian Pang and Sharon Au in The LKY Musical (2015)

The Prime Minister’s First Love

The musical opens with Mrs Lee recounting her beating Mr Lee in Mathematics and Economics in Raffles College much to the dismay of Mr Lee. Back in school, Mrs Lee was the only entity that stood in his way in being Raffles’ top student. It was pretty funny to picture a very upset and jealous Mr Lee getting all angry over the defeat. The two will later meet again under the circumstances of the war and fall madly in love with each other but their love story was never really developed from there on.

For all the publicity and posters about Mr Lee and his love relationship with Mrs Lee, I was left disappointed perhaps more so with how the script was worked out than with Sharon’s performance. If the musical sought to portray Mrs Lee as the submissive ‘good Asian wife’ to Mr Lee, they certainly achieved their objective, if not too overly-excessive. But history knows Mrs Lee not to be a docile figure. Sharon just didn’t stood out. I couldn’t feel the firm presence of the strong-willed Woman behind Singapore’s most powerful Man. Sharon blended in like a fixture to the musical and I kind of feel bad for her because I thought that she was capable of doing better.

Also, Sharon could certainly use more singing classes when put on the same stage with actors to the likes of Adrian and Sebastian. I felt apprehensive for her as she was belting out the high notes. However, Sharon did had some redeeming moments in the musical. In the final scene where a downcast Mr Lee sat down in the sofa head-bent contemplating Singapore’s future in light of Separation, Sharon’s singing of the Singapore’s National Anthem was haunting and touching at the same time. Swept throughout the entire theatre was more of this burden and sense of fear than anticipation over Singapore’s future which Mr Lee carried on his tired shoulders. I was stirred almost to the point of tears.

Mr Lee’s Only Formidable Opponent

If there was one person who stood the chance to topple the immovable statesman, it had to be Lim Chin Siong. For all the existing State censorship over national media outlets on the former PAP leftwing leader, I thought that the story of Lim and Mr Lee was pretty objective and even more interesting than Mr Lee and Mrs Lee’s story.

Jet back to the 1950s, Lim’s passionate speeches and ability to rouse the crowd had left a deep (positive) impression in Mr Lee despite his concern on Lim’s communist tendencies. Such was Mr Lee’s admiration for Lim that he asks if Lim was ‘the better side of me?’ in song item Look at him there.

Forming the opposition party PAP which won the hearts and minds of Singaporeans, they were practically unstoppable. The two tangos through the scenes, each having a deep admiration while trying to best the other. But one stern warning from Mrs Lee reminds Mr Lee that he is playing a very dangerous game, one of which he could very well lose.

Young actor Benjamin Chow did an outstanding performance as Lim Chin Siong. You know you have made it if you could make your audience feel – fear. I was at the edge of my seat as I watch Benjamin transverse through the scenes and dialogue with Adrian. His stellar delivery of lines made us felt that he was indeed the worthy adversary who could very well defeat Mr Lee and PAP.

Kudos to the creative team for not reducing Lim to a mere villain and plot antagonist, instead giving layers to the controversial figure which was very, very refreshing.

Sebastian Tan and Vester Ng in The LKY Musical (2015)

The Rickshaw Puller Singapore is Indebted to

I must admit that I didn’t know much about Ricksaw Puller Koh Teong Koo and his relationship with Mr Lee, so much of what was reenacted on stage was news to me. Played by Sebastian Tan, Koh was a major character throughout the musical. Being mindful of Singapore’s successful present, it is chilling to even consider that Mr Lee was so close to being massacred in the Sook Ching Massacre. Had it not been for Koh, one wonders how would Singapore be like today.

At first thought, I questioned the directors’ choice to feature so heavily the story of Koh and his rickshaw-pulling colleague Ng Kai. Perhaps Mr Lee’s larger-than-life persona could be told through the perspective of many other individuals, but in hindsight; Koh’s interactions with Mr Lee presents a candid and intimate account of the would-be Prime Minister in his younger days.

I liked that the musical chose to illuminate the story of Koh over other important characters in Mr Lee’s life. In one particular scene, Koh (Sebastian) performs ‘Progress’, a number that celebrates the progress of ordinary Singaporeans from poverty to luxury. There, Koh works hard and acquires three trishaws – as if highlighting that with diligence and hard work, anyone can make it in a meritocratic society like Singapore.

Adrian The Right Man for the Job

Can you imagine any other actor playing Wolverine other than Hugh Jackman? Or any other actor playing Jon Snow than Kit Harington? (Laughs) Nope, neither can I. Adrian dazzled on stage as a singing Mr Lee. Anyone might have crumbled under the pressure of playing Mr Lee but not Adrian. I thought that he resembled Mr Lee in mannerisms and personality, but wasn’t too concerned with ‘trying to get it right’.

Despite having little resemblance to Mr Lee, Adrian did a phenomenal job portraying Mr Lee as fighter, lover, political opponent, compatriot and friend. I particularly liked how Adrian acted out Mr Lee’s own insecurities, fears of failure and the moral dilemmas he faced, stripping down Mr Lee’s tough exterior many have known to reveal an intimate side people don’t often think about.

It’s one thing to be a versatile actor, but another to personify the role. And I felt that Adrian did just that. Right from the beginning, Adrian commanded such an enormous stage presence that it was easy for anyone to readily accept him as Mr Lee. While not many people have taken on the role of Mr Lee but for now, I can’t see anyone else a perfect fit for this position other than Adrian.

The LKY Musical_3

Some Scenes Which Stood Out

How Can Heroes Be So Cruel?

“The British will take care of us!”, says young Mr Lee. At the beginning, English-educated Mr Lee was all praises for the British Empire. We witnessed Mr Lee adamantly defending the pride of British when doubts of their inability to defend Singapore against the Japanese arose. Singing Great Britain’s National Anthem with all his heart, Mr Lee was a British compatriot through and through. But all that came crashing down when he experiences a double blow; Britain’s failure to defend Singapore during WWII and Mr Lee’s coloured treatment during his time in London.

In the song item, Adrian laments on ‘How can heroes be so cruel?‘ That was perhaps one of the key moments in Mr Lee’s life that changed his mindset on colonialism, thus cementing Adrian as one of Singapore’s finest actor.

Four National Anthems in One Musical

The national anthems of Britain, Japan, Malaysia and Singapore was sung in the musical. That in itself was a very powerful moment for me. As I witness the singing of the different national anthems through the eyes of Mr Lee, it made me realised that, perhaps we don’t grasp the gravity of the situation until we realised that hey, “I could still be singing some other country’s national anthem today.” I thought that that was a very clever way of telling Mr Lee’s motivations.

Plus Points

Packing 24 years of Mr Lee’s life into a 2 hour musical is not easy at all. Nevertheless, the show’s pacing was comfortable and I never felt lost throughout the entire musical. Veteran composer Dick Lee proved to be the right person for the job. Without turning its political importance into circus tunes (like Singapura the Musical), I thought that his lyrics and tunes were pleasant. The (use of the) very charming rustic nine-grid stage setting in the background was a brilliant idea and added much depth to the musical’s mise en scene. The production did however experienced some technical problems during last Sunday’s matinee, resulting in a few minutes of waiting time.

Points to Improve

Again, I would have loved to see the blossoming romance of Mr and Mrs Lee than Ng Kai’s backstory being played out in the show. Interactions with important characters Mr Goh Keng Swee and Mr Toh Chin Chye was relegated to a few minutes within the show. It would have been interesting to see the dynamics between Mr Lee and his former colleagues acted out in theatre.

Overall, The LKY Musical was extremely well executed and the lines polished. Everything about the musical was great from the plot, music, stage set, and all-local actors. I have no complaints at all. Less the concerns of cherry-picking or government intervention, I thought that the musical was perfect for both local and international audience. It is an understatement to say that I have enjoy it terribly. Many thanks to the organisers for the press invite.

If there’s a show Singapore would like to export, The LKY Musical is it. I would think that Mr Lee himself would have liked this musical. RW

The LKY Musical

MasterCard Theatres, MBS

21 July to 16 August 2015

The LKY Musical is an original play with an epic span and tremendous emotional depth. It explores the tumultuous times of pre-independence Singapore, an era rich in drama. Central to the play is the figure of Lee Kuan Yew whose life, political battles and enduring relationship with his wife form the crux of the story. This is a tale of high drama, intrigue, betrayal, love and loyalty. It offers new insights into the emotional struggle faced by LKY and his friends at a time when Singapore history balanced on a knife-edge.

Ticket Pricing: $58 – $150

Web Link: The LKY Musical