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Jewel of Tibet -- Razzle dazzle

April 12, 2009

Star Online (Malaysia)
April 10, 2009

This time around, musical theatre is accorded its
rightful place at the BOH Cameronian Arts Awards.

MUSICAL theatre is more than just the sum of its
parts. Putting a musical onstage is not just a
matter of bringing song, dance and acting
together; rather, it is about blending these
elements in exactly the right way to create a
whole new type of performance. Most of all, it is
about using these varied elements to tell a story
that will connect with the audience.

Recognising this, the BOH Cameronian Arts Awards
(BCAA) this May will, for the first time, honour
musical theatre as an awards field on its own.
Previously, musicals were judged under the theatre or music awards fields.

It is a move that has been largely welcomed by
those in the industry, particularly with the
burgeoning popularity of musical theatre in Malaysia.

Leading the pack with a record 14 nominations is
Jewel of Tibet, The Musical, presented by Musical
On Stage Productions. Based on a true story, the
musical tells the tale of Princess Wen Cheng, who
undertakes a three-year-long journey from China
to Tibet to marry King Songsten Gampo and bridge
their countries’ political divide.

Ismail, The Last Days, by KLPac, which traces the
later years of former Deputy Prime Minister Tun
Dr Ismail Abdul Rahman, also did well for itself,
bagging 10 nominations. Broadway Parodies
Lagilah! by The Actors Studio, which used classic
showtunes to parody various aspects of Malaysian
life, racked up six nominations. Also getting
mentions were sci-fi musical No Limits (by
Integrated Expressions) and KL Ku (by Sanggar Teater Fauziah Nawi).

Deserved recognition

Sitting down with some of the nominees in this
field provided an insightful look into local
musical theatre and the challenges faced by practitioners.

Brian McIntyre, who was nominated for Best
Musical Direction and Best Director in Broadway
Parodies Lagilah!, called the establishment of a
separate awards field a “good move”.

"When we did the show the first time around
(Broadway Parodies Lah in 2007), we discussed
putting ourselves up for consideration in either
the music or theatre fields. But we couldn’t
decide. Tak bolehlah go into either one, because it’s both!

"It’s great to have musical theatre now
recognised on its own, rather than trying to
shoehorn it into either music or theatre,” explains the theatre veteran.

Imee Ooi, who was nominated for Best Original
Music and Best Musical Direction for her work on
Jewel of Tibet, The Musical further brought up
that having a separate field allowed for higher
visibility for each individual production.

"Musical theatre is quite new locally, and when a
production is competing against a bigger and
(more diverse) group, perhaps people will not
notice it. This way, it’s a level playing field,
and there is more interest in our work,” says Ooi.

She is definitely speaking from experience --
Jewel’s 14 nominations, may not have been
possible were it competing in either the theatre or music categories.

Notably, behind-the-scenes people like Best
Choreographer nominee Michele Yong Soo Fon get
the recognition they deserve for their unique
efforts. Both McIntyre and Ooi agree that it is
great to have the choreographer of a musical recognised.

"The choreographer is so important, and their
work on musicals are very different from
choreography for a pure dance showcase,” says
Ooi. “In Jewel, for example, the choreographers
had to imagine the movement and body language of
people 2,500 years ago in India. It’s a lot of research!”

Yong, who was nominated for Jewel of Tibet
together with Chan Soo Leng, says choreographing
for musical theatre requires a wide knowledge of
various dance styles, as well as the ability to
integrate dance into a wider storyline.

"For Jewel, it was important to base the
choreography on Tibetan dance, but even there, we
had to include many elements of Chinese classical
and folk dances. The Guan Yin dance, for example,
is based on the Dun Huang dance, which is one of
China’s major dances,” says Yong.

Still struggling

Despite the enormous success of local productions
like Puteri Gunung Ledang: The Musical (PGLM) and
P. Ramlee: The Musical, homegrown musicals are
still struggling to pull in the crowds. The
reason for this, however, is not easy to pin
down. Inadequate support, competition from
foreign productions, and lack of awareness among
audiences, are some of the reasons that can be pointed to.

Ooi says sponsorship could go a long way in
sustaining Malaysian musical theatre.

"There is a lot of talent in Malaysia, but they
are not given a fair chance. Some hold day jobs
to make ends meet, and the issue of financing is
a constant source of stress for the team,” she says.

Ooi adds that competition from foreign musicals
often places an unfair bias against local shows.
"There are many people who would rather go watch
a foreign musical, simply to be seen. They don’t
have any idea what the story is about, or even if
it’s a good show, just as long as it is ‘international’.

"These same people will automatically dismiss a
local production, assuming it can’t be any good
just because it is made by local talents,” she says.

McIntyre suggests that exposing schools to the
performing arts would be a good way to create
awareness about the local field. “As a kid
growing up in Britain, I performed in shows in
school. I don’t think that happens enough here.
It is very vital to involve young people in the
arts in order for the field to survive long-term.
We need to get theatre into schools, or schools into the theatre," he says.

The key component, of course, is the quality of
the production itself. Ooi says that, at the end
of the day, a good production will speak for itself.

"If a musical is really good, it will attract
audiences who will promote it by word of mouth.
This is where the local media can also help, by
highlighting the efforts,” she says.

"PGLM was a great Malaysian production, both in
terms of the show itself and the success it
achieved," says McIntyre. “P. Ramlee, too, was
very good. These shows have raised the bar on
audience expectations, and it’s up to us to match them."

As for the future of musical theatre in Malaysia,
well, the recognition by BCAA is definitely a step in the right direction.

"I hope to see people who want to enter the
field, actually making a living out of it," says
McIntyre. "It’s slowly happening, and hopefully only gets better.”

Ooi relates an experience her friend in Spain
told her, where a different musical would be
playing to full houses on every street in a
particular area. “It would be great to see that
here; not just one musical at a time, but many of them running all over town!"

The seventh BOH Cameronian Arts Awards, organised
by online arts magazine Kakiseni, will be
presented on May 3 at the Mandarin Oriental Hotel, Kuala Lumpur.

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