When two Singaporean businessmen pitched the idea for a contemporary opera about Singapore’s founding father to local theater companies three years ago, they met with no shortage of skepticism.
“My first thought was: ‘Seriously? You want L.K.Y. to sing?’” Singapore Repertory Theater artistic director Gaurav Kripalani said, referring to the late Singaporean prime minister Lee Kuan Yew (李光耀), who died in March at 91 years old.
Since those first pitches, many residents of Singapore, a population of about 5.6 million, have responded similarly to the idea that a politician known for his solemnity and no-nonsense economic pragmatism, who once insisted that “poetry is a luxury we cannot afford,” might belt out ballads and execute complicated choreography onstage.
However, that just about sums up the show that the producers developed.
“The LKY Musical” is not an opera but a fast-paced two-hour production that tells the story of Lee’s early political career, from the Japanese occupation of Singapore, then a British colony, in the 1940s to the country’s short-lived merger with Malaysia and its subsequent independence in 1965.
Since its premiere here last month, the show has played to packed audiences. The producers, Tan Choon Hiong and Alvin Tan, who mounted it in partnership with Singapore Repertory Theater, estimated that by today, the end of its run, they would have sold nearly 54,000 tickets for 34 performances.
“Yeah, it is propaganda — you can’t tell the story of the man and of Singapore and avoid that,” veteran stage actor Adrian Pang, who plays Lee, said in an interview before the matinee today, when Singapore was celebrating its 50th anniversary.
“But for something that could have been an unmitigated disaster — and I think it’s safe to say there was a whole army of people ready to throw poop at it — I think we’ve really managed to make the critics pause,” Pang said.
“This is certainly not a subversion of the myth of L.K.Y but I do think we are getting away with something. We are not skirting moments in history that are not pretty, “ he said.
The show, staged on a lavish three-story set and performed in English language with Chinese-language subtitles, opens in 1965, with Lee delivering a speech announcing Singapore’s independence from Malaysia.
It then jumps back about two decades to college, where he met his future wife and longtime confidante, Kwa Geok Choo (柯玉芝), played by Sharon Au, the only woman in the cast.
After that, the love story takes a back seat to politics, with the main dramatic tension occurring between Lee and Lim Chin Siong (林清祥), Benjamin Chow, the charismatic trade unionist who helped Lee create his political party, the People’s Action Party. Lim was imprisoned by Lee after breaking off to start his own, more left-leaning party.
“I think the fact that they gave Lim Chin Siong so much time onstage and portrayed him as sensitively as they did was quite good,” media consultant and former journalist with The Straits Times Soh Chin Ong said.
Singaporean composer Dick Lee said he had sought to create “emotional tunes set against a driving pace.”
That juxtaposition is encapsulated in Stand Alone, the penultimate number, in which the protagonist sings of his vulnerability and fears.
The musical culminates with Lee Kuan Yew’s famously tearful speech in 1965, after Singapore was expelled from the Malaysian federation.
At the end of the performance today, many in the audience broke into applause during the final rendition of Majulah Singapura, Singapore’s national anthem.