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I began in the youth theatre arm of Singapore Theatre’s American Repertory Showcase (STARS). The whole premise of the programme was to involve young people and expose them to theatre. At the age of 14 or 15, I was in the chorus of Annie Gets Your Gun, which was an amazing experience.
I was always singing, and I grew up thinking that everybody did the same, because if you like music, you would sing. I don’t play an instrument, and the only way I could express myself musically was to sing.
I think I learnt ballet, jazz and tap dancing when I was in the Singapore Armed Forces’ Music and Drama Company. There were all those lessons every morning. It was very strict at that time, but it was a terrific experience. We sang and danced, acted and emceed, and it was like an education. I wouldn’t call it a professional school because we came out rather unpolished, but it did teach the basics.
When they began auditions for the Japanese tour of Beauty World1 in 1992, everybody went.
So, there I was! At that age, you always feel excited. It doesn’t matter what you were doing, everything was exciting. It could be the most boring thing in the world but it was exciting.
At some of the rehearsals, I was excited because Najip Ali’s choreography at that time felt so good to dance to. It really flowed, and he knew what he was doing and what he wanted to achieve. We performed in Tokyo, Hiroshima, Osaka and Fukuoka. It was my first local musical, what you would call a professional experience—getting paid to do a job well.
I worked with Ong Keng Sen, who was of course very detailed, down to how the chorus was supposed to be. It was not just about working with the principal actors and finding out what their motivations were; he wanted us to do our homework and gave us characters to study. That’s something you don’t get with every director in any kind of production.
In opera nowadays, you have a chorus and you leave them to their own devices because the focus is on the principal singers. But there are directors who look at it as a whole and want everyone to have a voice; and I think that Keng Sen is definitely one of those directors.
I auditioned for Channel 8’s Star Search in 1995 and got into the finals! Although I didn’t win, I was asked to sign a two-year contract as a Television Corporation of Singapore artiste.
I was 24 or 25 at that time. Near the end of my contract, I was involved in a segment as part of the President’s Star Charity, which Hossan Leong was in, and that’s how we got to know each other.
Then he said, “Eh, want to come and audition for something with me?” which turned out to be Chang & Eng (1997).
They had already cast the leads, but the actor who was supposed to play Chang dropped out (Eng was played by, very interestingly, this guy called Sing Seng Kwang, who is now a filmmaker). So Hossan and I went to audition for the role. Luckily, my height and build were closer to Seng Kwang’s.
So I auditioned for the director, Ekachai Uekrongtham, and I remember it clearly because I sang If I loved you from Carousel (1945). And he gave me a scenario and an emotion to act out, and told me to do it again! And so I did, about four or five times in total. Before I knew it, I was Chang! The musical was staged at the Festival of Asian Performing Arts.
Then as we developed it, Linda got further and further away from it, so… the factory girl Linda Teo was no more in it. So when it was presented to Michael, it was a girl (who) comes to (a cabaret to) look for her past. And, I think Michael worked out the rest. That was basically how I developed my shows. Like Forbidden City (2002), I just thought, Empress, you know, from her point of view. And then I bring it to the writers. I just come up with an idea first.
Chang & Eng is one of those productions you definitely have to bring up when people ask you what you’ve done. Even when you don’t remember, people remind you about it. It’s one of those situations where you get, “I saw you in Chang & Eng,” because it was that successful.
One of the reasons why it was successful is because Ekachai is a marketing genius and when he believes in something, he is invested. He worked hard with everyone to stage and sell the show, and he did it to such a remarkable degree that people started to think, “Eh, musicals can make money ah… Local musicals can make money ah… and that much money ah? I’ve got to try it.”
And lots of people did, but hardly any succeeded on this scale. When you think back, you needed an Ekachai to come and tell you how to sell it. But of course, he had something to sell. It’s a good story!
Ken Low wrote some beautiful music, and somewhere along the way, it touched a chord. It was something that people could identify with. The story is terrific, with the music and everything. I was singing with an orchestra, with strings and cellos, violas and violins, and horns, and it was terrific!
After the initial run, they brought Chang & Eng back for the second time in 1998 and it was very successful. Then they wanted do another run, this time at Victoria Theatre. I told Ekachai that I wanted to play Eng, which was the only condition that I had. He said yes, and went looking for a replacement. (Laughs) And so they did; they found someone in Australia, RJ Rosales, and flew him over. Then we went on tour.
I did not finish my two-month contract because I was exhausted. I was with arts radio station Passion 99.5 at the time, doing the morning show in between performances. I had to wake up at five o’clock in the morning to get to work, then go for rehearsal all the way until 11pm. I was exhausted by the end of six weeks, so I gave up. It was a miracle that I had an understudy then, so he took over and performed for two weeks. I went back to finish the last weekend of the run before the production went on tour overseas. I was still with Arts Radio, so I couldn’t go. Admittedly, I was sick and tired of Chang & Eng (you do get sick of it). I don’t know how those people on Broadway and West End do it.
So the production was staged in Beijing, then Bangkok and Kuala Lumpur. I had left the station by then, so I decided to join them in Kuala Lumpur, and it was fun. Chang & Eng is a show that can definitely tour, and Ekachai had plans for it. So who knows, it might return.
After Chang & Eng (1997 – 2002), there were Honk (2002), Forbidden City (2002), and a few other shows; it was also around this time when pantomimes became popular. I was in Aladdin (2005) and Cinderel-Lah! (2003). The pantomimes became part of the musical landscape in Singapore because they were for both kids and adults. They were meant to be commentaries on the social atmosphere of their time, with so much packed into it. We’ve made the genre our own in so many ways.
I’m not a big fan of pantomimes, I’ve only been in the two. They’re fun to be in, but not so much to watch, maybe because I’m not young enough to really get into them. I am always in awe of my colleagues who are able to interact and react to the audience spontaneously based on what they throw them. Karen Tan is a great example of this. She is fearless, whereas I have always been a little terrified of audiences.
The last musical I was in was probably the first production of Forbidden City (2002). Or it could have been as a chorus member in Dream Academy’s Little Shop of Horrors (2006). I’ve been a radio presenter with 883JiaFM for 10 years, and that’s mostly what I’ve been pre-occupied with.
Musical theatre has gotten more commercial over the years. When I was starting out, we were all doing it part-time, such as having four hours of rehearsal after work. There are many more full-time actors now, and there are also more resources for theatre companies. The cost of putting on a production has also grown exponentially, keeping in mind that audiences today expect quality, especially with all the foreign productions coming in from overseas.
The level of professionalism has of course increased as well, and I often marvel at the resourcefulness and perseverance of local theatre companies in trying to stay in the black as they bring their message and work to the public. In that sense, the passion and love for local theatre hasn’t really dimmed.
1 First staged in 1988 by TheatreWorks, playwright Michael Chiang and composer Dick Lee’s Beauty World not only paved the way for homegrown musicals such as Chang & Eng (1997, 1998, 1999, 2000, 2001, 2002), but also introduced a host of practitioners who would be at the forefront of Singapore theatre today. It was so well received that it went on to tour Japan in 1992 with much success, as well as enjoyed three additional revivals in 1998, 2008 and 2015. This landmark musical has been helmed by directors Ong Keng Sen, Ivan Heng and Dick Lee.
A familiar voice over the airwaves, Robin is a deejay on Mandarin radio station Jia 883FM. He began his career in musical theatre, and has performed in several blockbusters such as Beauty World (1992), Forbidden City – Portrait of an Empress (2002), and most notably Chang & Eng (1997). Apart from musicals, he also appears in revues.