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(Hong Kong playwright) Raymond To and his company produced a movie I Have a Date With Spring, and it was quite a hit in the Asian world. (It was 1994) and Toy Factory was four years old. We were very excited about this movie, we wanted to do the stage version and through friends, we got his number, at that time it was fax, so we did a fax.
I wrote a beautiful Chinese letter (beginning with) “Dear Du Guo Wei lao shi…”, then we faxed it over. That evening the reply came, he said, “Of course you all can do it.”
We staged the Mandarin stage version of I Have a Date With Spring in Singapore. I don't know if you would call it a musical, I think it's a drama with a lot of singing. There were four leads, including Sharon Au, who was an air stewardess with Singapore Airlines, and we said, “Oh my god, ya, you can act, come, come!” Then there was Judy Ngo, Jalyn Han and Liow Shi Suen. Four actresses, and we planned for 10 shows in Drama Centre—it was completely sold out.
I think that because (I grew up with) Chinese opera (his mother is veteran Hokkien street opera performer Oon Ah Chiam), I do like theatre to be associated with music, or have some musical element in it. But after I Have a Date With Spring, we didn’t really do many (musicals till the late 2000s). We did more Mandarin drama, but for Mandarin musicals, there was a big gap.
(Producer) James Toh, (director) Alec Tok, (composers) Jimmy Ye and Liang Wern Fook—the four of them created December Rains in 1996. It was a major hit, and in fact, December Rains was the first Mandarin musical written by Singaporeans. You know, unlike I Have A Date With Spring, which was an imported piece of work.
I saw it in 1996. I fought for a ticket, I queued, I got a ticket and went to see the show, it was very long [laughs]. It was three and a half hours.
After that staging, they put it on the shelf until 2009. James came to us looking for a director, looking for a company to work with, to rework this musical. So I re-read the material and found the potential of it. I saw the possibility of creating a December Rains for this current generation.
So I said yes to James and we started working on it, then we met Wern Fook and Jimmy, we changed (it) here and there: we cut things and we changed some lines and took away some scenes. We took away a lot of scenes actually, and then it became two and a half hours.
The 2010 and 2015 productions were very similar. It’s just a different cast and actually in 2015, somehow people felt that the whole production was even more grounded. Also, based on the experience of 2010, I knew how to direct it to be even stronger.
I think in the original 1996 version, everybody was eager to contribute a lot (to the script) and it had a lot of sidetracks and we didn’t know where is the focus. (In later versions) we knew that, okay, it’s about the student riot, about Chinese school students who want to have their voice heard and then, just focus on that.
So of course, there is a love story, there is a love triangle, there’s a letter not being sent through, so that said, we kept it simple, we kept it, you know, as moving as possible and let the music breathe.
Because no, you cannot have a very complicated story doing a musical.
We had a very good rapport working with James Toh, who is also an investor, and then after December Rains, we were talking about what to do next. And actually, James Toh held the right of 881 (a 2007 film by Royston Tan revolving around getai—popular Chinese songs performed on makeshift stages during the Hungry Ghost Festival), so it was easier to get clearance.
I know getai too, I felt comfortable reworking 881, so we created a stage version in 2011. In the late 1980s, the Chinese opera audience was dwindling, the audience preferred to watch TV at home. In desperation, Chinese opera performers like my mother had to do something, so they did getai. They would do getai from eight to nine o’clock, and then nine onwards was Chinese opera. So I grew up with a whole 10 years of that.
We also collaborated with James on Glass Anatomy (2013), but of course none of us owned the rights (to the movie it was based on), Papa, Can You Hear Me Sing?. I watched it when I was a child and I couldn’t forget this movie, it moved me a lot and let me appreciate good storytelling. That movie really inspired me a lot in my directing career, so it was always in my mind to do something about it. Also that movie, which starred Su Rui, has many, many beautiful songs.
After Glass Anatomy, I also adapted (the Jack Neo movie) Ah Boys to Men into a musical (in 2014). That was produced by Running Into The Sun (and directed by Beatrice Chia).
After all these adaptations, you kind of know like hmm, it’s time that you should create your own musicals. We started Innamorati One (2014) using (well-known Singapore singer-songwriter) Eric Moo’s songs, we had to create a new story to house all these songs. These familiar tunes were the main selling point, but (we wanted to) treat all these with a very refreshing style of storytelling, (something) more relatable to today’s younger generation.
It was a story about young people pursuing their dreams, different kind of dreams. We kept it very organic, assembling this group of performers like Huang Jinglun, Bonnie Loo, Chriz Tong, and then extracting their life stories. We workshopped with them, they shared their life experiences, and then we wove all these stories together and used Eric Moo’s songs to sing their stories—thank god Eric Moo has a lot of songs to choose from [laughs]. Sometimes we had to change the story a bit to fit the song.
That started our Innamorati branding—we wanted to continue developing this show. It will always be (about) young people who are passionate about things, so we created Innamorati Two (2016). Everything was new—the writing, the book, the music, the songs.
During the audience interaction (after Innamorati Two in Beijing in 2017), there were audience (members) asking, “Are you from Taiwan? Why you all speak like that?”, then I was like, “Oh no, we are Singaporeans, just that we don’t speak the China Mandarin, and also you all should stop thinking that Singapore Chinese can’t speak Mandarin.”
So, actually to us, it was a compliment that we sound a bit like Taiwanese because it’s actually a more pop-style of Mandarin which is quite nice for contemporary theatre. Also, because it’s not our first show in Beijing or Shanghai, there were some audience members from Shanghai who took a three-hour train ride up to Beijing to watch us and that was very touching.
I think in China, they are translating Mamma Mia!, the foreign musicals; they are still finding a way to do their own musicals. So I think we brought in our way of doing musicals and I think for them to see Innamorati, wow, you know, it can be done in a very lyrical, simple, clean way. A musical doesn’t mean that you have to have a revolving stage, big wigs, a lot of costume changes. It’s all about what is the song and what are we singing about and are these songs moving or not. And does this song convey a story or message.
Music is abstract, it explains the emotion that cannot be expressed through words. Using musical notes, you will sink further into the world of the character. Not that words are not powerful, but music brings you to another dimension of emotion.
And also, maybe it does help to summarise a lot of emotion within a short time. We don’t have to talk about how much I dislike you or like you, you just have to do a 1-minute-30-second love song and everybody can (understand). So it also helps to condense the time. The musical has that power to do it, and also it links people; when a drama has music, it somehow multiplies the audience because people are more comfortable and feel safer to come to the theatre. People like drama with music.
Somehow, (with) different (kinds of) material, you have a different way of dealing with it. With December Rains, the whole team of us, we locked ourselves in the library and read and read and (did research), so that is December Rains.
But Innamorati Two, it’s like we all go Batam and camp and then we just sang song after song after song, until we found that this is the song that reflects my emotion and thought from the story of the musical.
For Sometime Moon (Toy Factory’s new musical, to be staged in 2018), I’m thinking about how through history, through historical events, we can find very small unheard voices of the people, and it’s not recorded, it’s not being amplified or told or shared. The musical has a lot of history in it, it spans the 1920s to now, so every scene is 10 years later. We are working on this story, and it’s like through this group of people and also this 会馆 (clan association), we are seeing how Singapore changes.
I mean the National Day Parade (NDP) has a lot of music (having been creative director of NDP a few times). So having some knowledge about how to use music, what kind of music is good for what kind of scene and what kind of choreography—these experiences helped (me) to do NDP.
In the 2017 NDP, there’s this show section that I’m mainly in charge of; because it’s outdoor, because we are talking about a very big spectacle, so the accent of the music and storytelling has to be very opera-like, (or) it will be washed away totally by the scale of things.
You should know what kind of music to introduce, and then when you are working on music, it’s not always straightforward—sometimes it’s about instrumentation, about arrangement, whether we need vocalists, what are the lyrics and then what is this scene telling.
Then when you map out everything, you see the whole show. Then, oh my god, there is too much percussion here, you know you have to shift them around, you have to take care of the ears of the audience, knowing that the music is actually the journey of the show.
So all these are what we do in musicals too but on a smaller scale, and then because you practice so much on a smaller scale, it’s not very difficult to do a big show. Without the experience of theatre, I think it would be very daunting.
As chief artistic director of Toy Factory Productions, Goh Boon Teck has directed 10 musicals, including two successful iterations of Singapore’s first Mandarin musical, December Rains. His credits include Glass Anatomy and Innamorati Two – both of which travelled to China.
Esplanade Presents | Huayi – Chinese Festival of Arts
Watch a riveting theatre work about freedom, humanity and the arts, set in a dystopian surveillance state, first presented at Huayi in 2020. Watch for free or pay for a ticket if you can. Proceeds from ticket sales go to Toy Factory Productions, the arts group featured in this production.