Someone Else Is Singing
There haven't been many Mandarin musicals in Singapore - only a handful, like Lao Jiu, The Musical, Snow Wolf Lake and Mr Beng come to the mind of this reviewer (and the last one was a trilingual shebang, so it can't completely count). By and large, our homegrown musical theatre scene's been thoroughly Anglophone, drawing on Broadway, West End and English pantomime traditions for our inspirations.
So when a new Mandarin musical comes in and sells out every single seat of its 16-day run, those of us in the English-language musical scene sit up and take notice. Wake up, guys: someone else is singing.
If There're Seasons is especially important because it's a dramatic interpretation of the best songs of renowned Singapore songwriter Liang Wern Fook, who almost single-handedly started the xinyao movement back in the 80s. For those of you out of the loop, xinyao are popular Singapore Mandarin "folk songs", identifiable by their clean acoustics and composed and sung by Singaporeans, usually accompanied by solo guitar; a movement in music on which the thriving Mandarin music scene in Singapore is built today.
The very idea of commissioning such a musical stands as a recognition of the significance of Liang Wern Fook and the genre and the composer behind it, a testament to their impact on a Sinophone culture. Besides the diehard theatre crowd, the 30- and 40-somethings who grew up with xinyao are in the aisle, eagerly pulling along their parents and their non-Chinese speaking friends. It's an affirmation of the culture of their generation. Finally, someone else is singing.
Storywise, If There're Seasons isn't anything to crow about. Playwright Raymond To's created an awkward but functional narrative about A-Le, a young Singaporean who moves to New York to start a new life: there, he starts work in a Singapore-owned Chinatown pizzeria, tries to get in the music business with his fellow waiters and deliverymen and falls in love with Rose, an aspiring experimental actress, all the while dogged by his memory of his dead ex-girlfriend Xiao Jing.
It's a plot that's replete with melodrama and strange non sequiturs - was it truly necessary to insert that gay love story side-plot? - and his main characters are fearfully one-dimensional. A-Le comes across as milquetoast and flavourless in the role of a romantically confused but good-hearted paragon of masculine Chinese youth, while Rose fails to seduce as she flips between playing crazy girl and good girl, alternately bugging and boring me. With his background in screenwriting in Hong Kong, To seems to be reproducing the stock tropes of Chinese romantic comedy on stage. And while this strategy may work better in a musical than in a straight play, to this critic, it nonetheless reeks of cliché.
Luckily, To never allows his writing to obscure the music. And it's the songs that are the heart of this musical, sweeping away my petty quibbles with their sheer beauty and variety. Never a fan of Chinese music myself, I'm suddenly stirred by the wistfulness of the title song If There're Seasons/Tian Leng Jiu Hui Lai, doubled up laughing at the cheeky lyrics of On the Eve of the History Exam/Li Shi Kao Shi Qian Xi and stunned by the inventiveness of Someone Lived in a Pretty How Town/Mou Mou Ren Zhu Zai Hen Na Ge De Xiao Zhen, inspired by a poem by e. e. cummings. With deft lyrics and catchy tunes, the songs run the gamut from pensive to folksy to love struck, transporting the audience with their emotional power and intelligence.
Liang's music truly is a force to be reckoned with, but credit must be shared with the arranger, Bang Wenfu, and the playwright, for finding new ways to string these diverse songs together in a cohesive matrix. More veteran fans of Liang's music tell me of the added depth that's revealed in a song emerges when an old father-figure sings a song first written for a young woman - a fresh take on a classic.
And really, another major force that drives this musical to success is the depth of faith that the creative team has in Liang's work, displayed in how much they've been willing to invest in this production. Directors Kuo Jian Hong and Alvin Chiam Hwee Chin bond with choreographers Jalyn Tan and Kuo Jing Hong to create some memorable stage play, such as a rippling ring of pizza boxes in the toe-tapping One Step at a Time/Yi Bu Yi Bu Lai. The ensemble features both relative newcomers as well as big names of Mandarin theatre like Goh Guat Kian, Sebastian Tan, Mindee Ong, Celine Rosa Tan and Johnny Ng, working together to create a stronger chorus. The Theatre Practice even manages to rope in a gaggle of children to enlarge the family sequences, plus two non-Chinese actresses to do hip-hop dance. Everyone's driven to be a part of this production by the power of belief - a celebration of xinyao as a genuine Singapore art form to be appreciated on multiple levels.
In fact, what disturbs me most about To's script is how it seems to demonstrate a fundamental misunderstanding of Singapore culture. As a Hong Konger writing for a Singapore company, he's decided to situate his story in the apparently neutral geographical space of New York, characterising his Singapore émigrés as prototypically frustrated Asian Americans: living in a tight-knit community in Chinatown, nostalgic over their loss of Mandarin culture, invested with repressed dreams of careers in the arts but never quite allowed succeed in a white-dominated entertainment industry. Having lived in New York before, this just doesn't ring true to me - our community was sophisticated and mobile within the city, having already been primed for urban multiculturalism back home. Absorption into a more generalised Chinese diaspora seemed like a diminishment of our identity. Then again, we'd hardly do as To's characters do and move our entire families back home on whim, chorusing with a jawbreakingly patriotic song like Singapore Pie/Xin Jia Po Pai. We really are smarter than that.
Ideally, a Singapore playwright should have been commissioned to write this piece. But how many established Mandarin playwrights do we have who could be trusted to do a mainstream piece? (For those of you who think The Theatre Practice should have staged an experimental musical, they've done a great essay in the programme defending the need for a solid mainstream Mandarin theatre scene in the country.) A healthy scene requires some balance between commercial and avant-garde, and right now, we're definitely experiencing a famine of authorship.
Of course, it's possible that The Theatre Practice chose Raymond To specifically because of his renown as a Hong Kong screenwriter, which inevitably adds a little international buzz to the publicity. Where's the injustice in that? Xinyao are enjoyed throughout the Chinese-speaking world, after all, and To may have added that fresher take on the songs that a local writer couldn't have envisioned.
When someone else is singing, there's always a danger they'll ruin the song. But it's essential to have some company if you want the song to grow in volume and harmonic complexity. And If There're Seasons is by no means ruined - it stands out with a charm, freshness and dedication to high production values that distinctly shows off the conviction of its creators.
As an unmistakable financial success, there's every chance that this musical will eventually be reprised, hopefully inspiring another generation to appreciate the genius of Liang Wern Fook. Someone else is singing. And that is a good thing.
Ratings out of 5, based on
Practitioner's Vision / Reviewer's Response: ***** = Transcendent /