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At that time, I was living in Hoot Kiam Road, in an apartment shared with Linda Teo of Carrie Models and I used her as an inspiration because Linda is very funny, and she’s like…she’s like very suaku. But she’s a girl made good, you see, and we were both partners at Carrie Models at that time. She comes from a very simple background. She was working in a factory, she wasn’t really much educated. So I just wrote the song, Beauty World Cha-cha-cha. I wrote it around maybe 1985 or ’86, just that one song.
My 1985 album, Return to Beauty World, had nothing to do with the musical. It was just the name of my album, something that I was just fascinated with, that whole Beauty World area I grew up next to, in Upper Bukit Timah. I used to go there all the time. I thought the name was also very amusing. Because what does it mean, ‘Beautiful world’? It’s a world of beauty, you know? And I remember that there was a nightclub, a stand-alone, around there, that I remember passing. So I just fantasised about this thing, and the premise then, through the mid-’80s. I kept developing an idea in my head.
Then I think around 1987 or maybe late ’86, I went to my friend Justin Hill’s house for dinner. He was a TheatreWorks’ founder. (So I said) I have this idea. And so, he took it to (director Ong) Keng Sen. And he and TheatreWorks then put me and Michael (Chiang) together. Because Michael at that time had written Army Daze (1987). So they said, "Why don’t you work with Michael?" … I lived in Hoot Kiam Road, (and) he was (a journalist) at the old Straits Times, a five-minute walk (away). So that’s how we started to work on it together. He just came (to my place) after work. And he sat down and worked it out, and then I would write the songs.
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.
It’s very funny, you know. We used to write a musical for the actors.
You know, we do a musical, we call on the few people we know who can sing, basically. We just had to find the right roles for you, and I mean, you know, subconsciously, we wrote the roles for all of you!
I wrote Nothing Gets in My Way for Christina (Ong), whom I knew from my work in entertainment, like she was singing in clubs and so was I. And I knew her voice. I made that song with a high D and I knew she could hit it. And I wrote the lyrical ones… if you notice, the more lyrical ballads are for Ja (Jacintha Abisheganaden), who is not the protagonist, very oddly.
Which is why, when we restaged it with W!ld Rice, we added, like five more songs for (the protagonist) Ivy. But Claire (Wong, who played Ivy in the original production)… she's a wonderful actress and competent enough singer, but not a singer-singer.
Yes, so she had that one poignant moment, and then the big love duet of the show, oddly, is not between Ivy and Ah Hock, right? It’s between Rosemary and Hock. But in the W!ld Rice version, it’s between Ivy and Hock, which we changed it so that Ivy gets the big song moments too.
Fried Rice Paradise was a song of mine from my 1974 first album, which was Life Story. And how that song came about was … you see, I was taking part in Talentime (a televised singing contest by the then Radio Television Singapore).
I was only 17, and that was when I started to write a lot of songs. And those songs that I wrote were largely inspired by my idol Elton John, and Joni Mitchell, you know, that kind of songs. But for the finals, I thought I wanted to do something very local, very Singaporean.
So I came up with Fried Rice Paradise, for the finals of the competition.
One of the judges in the finals was an EMI executive. And he thought that song was like brilliant and very different from anything else he had ever heard, so he signed me. And that’s how I got my first album, Life Story, with that song, Fried Rice Paradise in it.
Fried Rice Paradise, when it came out in 1974 was, well, to me it was just a way of expressing my Singaporean-ness right, but you know, RTS, in those days, banned the song. Because of the Singaporean-ness.
After that happened, I decided to bury my Singapore identity. I decided to become international.
And then I went to England to study and everything right, but… when I came back from London, when I started to do Bumboat! (a play for the 1984 Singapore Festival of Arts), (when) I did my first album (for Warner Music) in 1984, Life in a Lion City, I decided to revive that Singaporean-ness.
But it didn’t work. It failed. Piracy had a lot do with it, and the fact that there was no interest from Singaporeans about being Singaporean. Nobody cared at all. The whole National Day campaign all hadn’t started yet. Stand Up for Singapore only appeared in ’84. And then the other songs followed – ’85, ’86, ’87. So, in ’88, when Beauty World happened, and the Arts Festival was starting to become a Singaporean thing and the audience was starting to feel Singaporean, and Army Daze had some success, when Beauty World came out, everyone was ready to accept it. And so, that freed me.
Based on the success of Beauty World, I did (my album) The Mad Chinaman (1989). Which was totally Singaporean, and that was the thing that helped me go abroad, right? And that is why by the time I did Fried Rice Paradise (the musical, in 1991), I was totally… I mean, you talk about daring, I was like, don’t care already. The audience, I know they can accept it, they want it, I want to be as Singaporean as I possibly can, through my work.
We were very concerned that when you sing, it cannot suddenly be Queen’s English, and then when you talk, it’s different. So, we carried (the Singlish) through (into the music and lyrics) and that made it sound very Singaporean, I think.
Once I started with Beauty World, it kicked off this whole thing for me, because theatre companies realised that musicals are good money-spinners as well. So, in the early days, my work here was with TheatreWorks. And, the next thing we did was Mortal Sins (1993). Where we brought back the dream team (the team behind Beauty World, which apart from Lee, included director Ong Keng Sen, playwright Michael Chiang and choreographer Najip Ali).
Okay, we were all at that time a bit ambitious. I think (Mortal Sins) was a very dark world, it was a little bit…maybe we were a little bit ahead of our time, but by that time I had also done Nagraland (1992), so I was trying to expand. We wanted to move a little bit away from the Beauty World-type of comedy, fun-fun thing.
(Later) I did Kampong Amber (1994), which was an Arts Festival thing, and I did Hot Pants (1997), through (events and entertainment company) Music & Movement. (I did) Sing to the Dawn (1996), which (was also commissioned by the Singapore) Arts Festival. The festival was also keen to develop musicals and I guess I was one of the only ones writing at that time? Then I joined Singapore Repertory Theatre (SRT), after Sing to the Dawn, (as an Associate Artist).
I went to China, and there was this conference, the first international women’s conference, and it was in Beijing. And I happened to be there at that time. And then I went to the Forbidden City and walked around, and I thought… you know, (the) woman’s point of view… then I walked round (the Empress Dowager Cixi’s) apartments.
I thought, "Is it really her fault? Was she really as horrible as they say and what if she had a chance to tell her side of the story?" That’s where the idea came from. (Lyricist) Stephen Clark and I read Katherine Carl’s biography of her, With the Empress Dowager of China (1905) – Kate Carl was a foreign artist who had been invited to paint a portrait of Cixi. From Carl’s account, it was not unreasonable to assume that many events had been invented to either blacken (Cixi’s) name or heighten her status, when in fact she had very little power other than the fact that she was the child emperor’s mother.
So we pitched it to Esplanade. What I did was I wrote a piano piece, a tone poem, just inspired by my feeling for this woman. And I used that to pitch it to Benson (Puah, Esplanade’s CEO). I invited him to my house, with (Esplanade’s then programming manager JP) Nathan, and played it for them. Told them the outline, and got them to be a co-producer, with Singapore Repertory Theatre. And they commissioned it for the opening of Esplanade (in Oct 2002). It took six years to develop, from idea to (production), but Beauty World took a good four years anyway, so you know these things do take time. The lasting ones.
In the early days, foremost in my mind has always been to create a work that was relevant to my life and times. Writing for the theatre in our theatre scene's infancy, I was aware that I, along with all the other writers, were a part of the evolution of the local industry, and at the same time, we were contributing in our own small way, to the formation and development of our own unique culture.
In fact, all my music writing in my career has touched somewhat on the subject of identity—Singaporean, Asian, Peranakan, or otherwise—and my musicals have been wonderful platforms to expound my ideas. Besides my chosen subject matter, I suppose my songwriting style lends a sound to my musicals, but that is a matter of my musical personality which appears in everything I write.
I don't think about the future as such, as I have been very fortunate to always have projects that directly or indirectly involve my music. The majority of my projects have been self-initiated, and my next few include a re-telling of the Chinese legend Hua Mu-lan (to be staged by SRT in 2018), and a couple of Chinese musicals, Sunshine Girls, and Monkey3000, which will be presented by my new company Dick Lee Asia, in partnership with mm2 Asia.
Dick Lee has written the music for over 10 made-in-Singapore musicals, including popular favourites such as Beauty World and Forbidden City. He has also composed for musicals produced elsewhere in Asia, such as Snow.Wolf.Lake and Puteri Gunung Ledang.
As told to K.K. Seet in 2003 (in The Arts Magazine), Lok Meng Chue in Mar 2012 (during the research for the musical National Broadway Company) and Clarissa Oon in Jun 2017. Minor edits have been made for clarity. The views and opinions expressed here do not reflect the official standing or position of The Esplanade Co Ltd.