Content Development for Musical Theatre
by Kenneth Lyen
The Singapore Renaissance City Plan III report published in 2008 concluded: "Content is at the core of arts, culture and the creative industries. While technology has advanced rapidly, creating new platforms for creative content, at the heart of every work is a story to tell. Writer, composers, choreographers, artists and curators are story-tellers that draw on their past and their imagination to create artistic works that delight and educate. Some of these works will go on to drive the digital media, television and design sectors as intellectual capital."
What are the problems associated with developing new musicals, and why is it so critical to assist writers and composers in this process?
Musical theatre is a highly complex collaborative art form requiring the combination of skills from different talents, including storytelling, music and movement. Getting a musical right is much more formidable than with a straight play. Writing a musical can be likened to assembling a jigsaw puzzle. Each piece must be placed exactly. If you remove one song, you might land up with two ballads in a row, which could affect the scene’s momentum. Or if you add an extra song to a minor character, you might undermine a main character’s developmental arc.
Mastering the craft of writing a musical is a long journey that requires guidance. All roads lead to Rome, and this is equally true of musical theatre writing. You can start with a synopsis or plot outline, or you can start with fashioning the main characters. You can start with the book or the songs. No matter which route you take, it is usually difficult for rookie writers and composers to come up with a masterpiece on their first attempt.
Each participant is assigned a mentor. A series of readings in front of experienced writers, directors, and performers, who are primed to give diplomatic critiques, is invaluable in the developmental process. A set of assessment rubrics has been developed to allow for more accurate and detailed evaluation of the musical.
1. The first reading focuses on the book and story.
2. The second reading adds singing of the songs.
3. The third is a concert-like performance of the entire musical with no sets, no costumes, and scripts held in the hand.
4. The fourth and final step is a no-frills performance in a small stage.
It is through such a process that we can develop thrilling, vibrant and ground-breaking musical theatre.
Major cities with a thriving musical theatre scene have organizations dedicated to the creation of new works. These include:
a) New York BMI Musical Theatre Workshop http://www.bmi.com/genres/C2687
b) Chicago Theatre Building http://www.theatrebuildingchicago.org/
c) Mercury Musical Developments http://www.mercurymusicals.com/
These companies have played important roles in developing new musicals in New York, Chicago, and London respectively. The developed musicals are then showcased to production houses, who, if they like the musical, take the show to the commercial stage.
We have studied the above models when in 2004 we set up Musical Theatre Society (later called Musical Theatre Limited) to develop original Singapore musicals.
The founding members have already had 10 years’ experience in writing and staging Singapore musicals before setting up Musical Theatre Limited. In a few short years, we have already established an outstanding track record in identifying and nurturing writers, musicians, choreographers, directors, and performers. Since our formation, we have successfully staged over 30 new Singapore musicals. Among our alumni are Iskandar Ismail, Bang Wenfu, Kenny Ngo, Clement Yang, Jack Ho, who are now very successful professional musicians. Our writers include Stella Kon, Robert Yeo, Ng Yi-Sheng, who are also successful professionals. In addition, we have discovered and mentored more than a dozen younger writers and composers.
One of the songs written by Sean Wong for the musical “Heartstrings” was picked up by Universal Music for one of their Hong Kong pop singers. The musical "Georgette", featuring the life of pioneer Singapore artist Georgette Chen, has received critical acclaim, and we brought it overseas for a performance in Manila in 2008. Our puppet musical "The Legend of Red Hill" has won second prize in an international puppet festival in 2008. We were invited to write the television musical "School House Rockz" received the highest AC Nielsen rating of 11% by a local show, and was nominated for an Asian Television Award 2008.
Musical Theatre Limited has developed musical content not only for live stage, but also for television, movies, puppetry, and for the pop music industry. In future, we will be exploring the writing of musicals for animation and new media.
Musical Theatre Limited is ideally placed to help Singapore develop quality content for musical theatre and its allied industries, and to propel Singapore into the international arena.