Musical Theatre – Japan and Malaysia exploring

imagesIt’s Sunday and I am settled in a café at the Kuala Lumpur Performing Arts Centre (KLPAC) shortly to meet the director of “Cabaret” before seeing the show in the black box space. In the other theatre there is Dama Orchestra’s Cantonese musical “I Have a Date with Spring” playing with chinese and English subtitles which I saw two nights ago. Packed houses for classic broadway, and specially created new work.

I am half way through a 4 date tour to explore Musical Theatre and understand better what the future might be for the artform in each of Japan, Malaysia, Singapore and Korea. Feeding this back to my colleagues at Perfect Pitch to help them look at trans-national connections and collaborations.

I am struck by the similar problems/challenges which independent and smaller producers and creatives face in each country, including the UK. I also feel quiet relief that I have lived through and survived the last 30 years arriving now with a feeling that some of the challenges in the UK have been matched with solutions: Perfect Pitch, Mercury Musical Development, Musical Theatre Network, Youth Music Theatre; Mountview’s new writing and producing courses; Rufus Norris at the National Theatre in London, Laurie Sansom at the National Theatre of Scotland; the continuing passion for new work at West Yorkshire Playhouse, Theatre Royal Stratford East, Royal and Derngate Northampton, and many other of the regional repertory houses; the LOST Festival of new work, and York New Musicals Festival; the phenomenal dedication of smaller houses like the Union, Landor, Gatehouse in London to make new musicals and revivals happen; and finally the ever growing number of emerging producers and directors who believe Musical Theatre is an artform which dares to speak its name with pride.

The UK is blessed with an Arts Council which has funds, albeit ever stretched and challenged, to support independent new work – including Musical Theatre. Thank you Emma Stenning and Barbara Matthews for “getting it” 6-8 years ago and realizing that Musical Theatre is not just commercial showtunes, understanding equally that plays are not just instant commercial comedies – they each need r&d, support and nurture, to tell new stories, reach new audiences, and challenge with new forms.

But this is not meant to be a thank you letter to “problem solved” in the UK. We all, in each nation, face immense challenges. New writers want to tell new stories. They want and need to be challenged to write better. New directors and producers need space to work, funds to develop ideas, and enough rope to be allowed “the right to fail”, and thereby learn and move on. To quote one Samuel Beckett, who never wrote a showtune in his life but clearly understood Musical Theatre, “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try Again. Fail again. Fail better”. And we all have to find ways to get the audience of the future away from their mobile devices living alone, and in to a shared exhilarating space where they can breathe together and share in an event together.

At the moment, in Tokyo, there seems to be no network for Musical Theatre producers and creative to share best practice. The city is blessed with some of the largest and most prolific Musical Theatre production houses on the planet (Toho and Shiki), who together sell millions of tickets for musicals each year and need a constant flow of fantastic shows. I have only come across a small handful of Japanese writers, but understand that there are many poets and composers who might realish the chance to create Musical Theatre. There is no course for writers or producers – they need to go to Tisch in New York, or now Mountview in London for dedicated taught Master’s programmes. I am sure we will all collaborate more in these areas in time to come.

What Tokyo does have is a babel of young and experienced translators (see last blog) who are, like Richard Maltby Jnr and Herbie Kretzmer before them, take work in other languages and shape them to resonate new audience. This is an immensely skilled job . It was a pleasure to meet so many of them dedicated to the task.

Here in Malaysia there are different and similar challenges – again no network for creatives, no writing courses, no producer or creative dedicated training. But here there is also the challenge for actors to gain the level of skills through dedicated training and challenge that they need to keep raising their games and being better national and international performers. Maybe this is because, as far as I can gather, the Disney, RUG, Mackintosh casting machine has never rolled into town in order to cast Malaysian reproductions of the massive classics to be performed in the local language. Maybe young performers have not had the challenge of being judged against the best in Sydney, Tokyo, New York, London, Sau Paulo, Berlin or wherever.

Whole schools and ongoing training programmes, drop in classes, dance/MT bootcamps have all grown around these classics in cities across the world, giving emerging performers phenomenal challenging opportunities. Here, because English is a common performance language understood by most of the theatergoing population, the classics of Mamma Mia, Cats etc have been seen when the International troupes have rolled through on an international tour. They have come and gone, leaving nothing but memories, t-shirts, and CDs behind them.

I have met some wonderful creatives making projects happen here in KL, seeking to serve and celebrate creativity with the Malay, Indian, Chinese and English heritage populations here. Working in Chinese and English as the two languages, they are telling traditional stories through musical theatre, demystifying Shakespeare to capture the imaginations of young people who are studying the plays as literature, presenting broadway and off-broadway classics, creating cabaret and performance opportunites for the next generation of singers, and exploring the multi-cultural, multi-lingual forms which are possible in drama where almost all the audience is bi-lingual (at least).

There’s an exciting 10 years journey which starts with every creative in town knowing what’s good and happening with their colleagues, sharing ideas and opportunities, and celebrating their artforms together.  One trainer suggested that many actors, when they seek training and performance opportunities “swim away” to head to New York and London – and may never return.  International travel and experiences are great, but hopefully the opportunities will grow here for all creative artists to be challenged and rewarded for excellence.

One more day of meetings here and then I move on to Singapore for 48hrs before 5 days in Seoul. I am grateful to Andy and Wendy Barnes for asking me to make connections. I have met many new friends, re-connected with many contacts, and learned so much more. “In front of me now is an open door, I’m moving ahead not sure of the way, And yet there’s a light that I’m heading for, Now if someone had said to me a year ago, That I would take the trip I’m taking now, I would have said, “you’re crazy, [I’ll be better off right here]” But here I am”…Thanks Messrs Maltby and Shire – now time for another coffee.


  1. Interesting reading Chris.

    Certainly the Toho production in Tokyo a couple of years back of “Tomorrow Morning” has been the most commercially successful production of the show around the world, but was also without doubt one of the most successful artistically. The producers in Tokyo put together an extremely well crafted, well executed production within a short preparation time. I found the same level of efficiency in Seoul with “Tomorrow Morning” and also the new production of “Through the Door” currently running – the professionalism seems to me to be second to none.

    The level of confidence and ambition for new work that I became aware of in these Far East experiences was impressive – having put shows on in London and New York and elsewhere, they have a lot admire in Tokyo and Seoul, in my experience.

    LMW 🙂

  2. Chris,
    Can’t wait to hear more.

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