It's My Life: the musical
Book: Chong Tze Chien
Lyrics and Direction: Lim Yu-Beng
Music and Music Direction: Bang Wenfu
Choreography: Ricky Sim
Additional Music: David Tan, Corinne May
Performances 27 Nov - 5 Dec 2008 at the University Cultural Centre, Singapore
It's My Life is about ten teenage auditioneers, who are informed right at the start of the musical, that they have been chosen. The show that they are to perform in, it is explained, will be based on their own personal life stories. They have to talk about their families, their school, their friends, their dreams, and that forms the premise of the musical.
Comparison with A Chorus Line is inevitable. To try to obviate, at least in part, any potential bias, I therefore asked some of the younger audience members who had not seen A Chorus Line to comment about the show. The consensus is that they are rather underwhelmed by It’s My Life, and they said that the show did not work for them. Despite the individual elements of performance, music, direction, choreography, sets and lighting being excellent, the pieces do not seem to fit together, and the show is indeed flawed. I will try to dissect the cause of this.
It's My Life is an unconventional musical, and like A Chorus Line, it departs from the classical Aristotelian dramatic structure. Therefore, it depends on other factors to propel it forwards and to maintain audience attention. A Chorus Line is about the callous elimination process of an audition, and considerable tension is generated as you are left on tenterhooks wondering whether a candidate will succeed or fail. This apprehension is conspicuously absent in It's My Life, because the results are announced at the outset. The ensuing loss of tension robs the show of interest, and it is not adequately replaced by anything compelling.
A Chorus Line establishes very clearly each main character's motivations and reasons why they want so desperately to succeed. The teenagers in It's My Life talk in vague terms about their dreams ("I want to study the arts"), and to make matters worse, some of them are easily thwarted by external pressures, and discard their dreams. They do not appear to have the inner strength or drive to want to pursue their passions. They have abandoned their dreams without much of a fight, which weakens their internal conflict, and audiences' emotional involvement gradually wanes.
In A Chorus Line, each individual lead performer sings about his or her life story. In It's My Life, the teenagers act out their lives, largely devoid of song. The result is that the harsher elements of their lives are not cushioned by music, and they become overwrought actors appearing in a kitchen soap drama, and this further reduces our sympathies for them. This applies to Farouk and Sharon’s stories. Song could have amplified the humor in Arif, Xie Ting, and Awang’s stories, and the pathos in Corey’s life. But sadly a great opportunity was wasted.
In A Chorus Line, there is quite a wide range of musical styles and there are some memorable tunes. The music in It's My Life is a bit like Sondheim at his unmelodic worst, backed by a rock band. This is not to say that the music is bad. Far from it. The music is actually very good, but it is in the wrong show. For a musical about present-day teenagers, there is no hip hop, no alternative indie rock. As one critic said, the music sounds rather dated.
The abrupt introduction of a religious (?Christian) scene toward the end of the second half sticks out like a sore thumb. Divine intervention, apparently converting sinners into goodie twoshoes, acts as a deus ex machina that resolves some of the conflicts, and this makes one cringe.
Character development is, to me, an important part of any successful musical. Unfortunately, because there are ten leads, all competing for equal attention, each with ten different stories to tell, many of the characters do not have enough time to be developed adequately. Perhaps reducing some of the leads into supporting roles might enlarge the time given to selected leads, and allow them to become more rounded personalities. As it is, they are all rather cardboard.
Several scenes are unique and initially quite interesting. For example the scene with the characters listening to their MP3 players, each with their own brand of music, is quite refreshing. The same goes for the internet scene, when they try to describe themselves online. The stomp-like scene where they slap themselves rhythmically and play with a water container is also quite interesting. Unfortunately all these scenes are repetitive and a little bit too long. Without fresh ideas thrown in every couple of minutes, the novelty soon wears off, and the scene rapidly becomes tedious.
The life stories are revealed too quickly and without much prompting. This is a little unbelievable in the Asian context, where innermost thoughts and family secrets are usually held in abeyance. There is one romantic story, but other than that, there is relatively little substantial meaningful interaction between the characters.
Ultimately the unconventional structure lacking a cohesive story line militates against the musical. As mentioned above, A Chorus Line overcomes this by constructing a story where the characters fervently want to succeed, and the audience becomes intensely apprehensive of the audition results and the fate of the cast members. Without such a compelling backdrop, It's My Life is bereft of purpose. A Chorus Line constantly reminds you that the performers are auditioning for a forthcoming stage show. This aspect is almost entirely forgotten in It's My Life, and the director completely disappears in the second half.
What are the redeeming features? There are several. Firstly the performers are young, enthusiastic, and very talented. Their passionate performances and their obvious enjoyment rescue the show. Special mention should be made of Tok Xue Yi, Nabil Aliffi, and Movin Nyanasengaran’s polished performances. The accompanying band is outstanding, and the music itself, despite being in the wrong show and perhaps more suited for a movie, is actually quite stirring. The many innovative scenes, albeit a bit too drawn out, are refreshing to watch, at least initially. The set design by Tan Ju Meng is simple, clever, and effective.
In the final analysis, It's My Life succeeds despite its many shortcomings. It is worth watching.
4 Dec 2008