He sings, he drinks, he flirts — here's a characterisation of Lee Kuan Yew like you've never seen him before
"Sometimes history takes devious turns."
If there's a line from The LKY Musical that sums up the story crafted by this production, it's that. This musical by local theatre company Metropolitan Productions has garnered much fanfare since the announcement of its story and cast (featuring Adrian Pang as the titular character, and Sharon Au as his wife, Kwa Geok Choo) and rightfully so — for what better time was there to stage a musical just four months after the passing of the late Lee Kuan Yew in the heat of the omnipresent SG50.
Billed as a "humble tribute", the musical follows Singapore's late prime minister from his schoolboy days in Raffles College and courtship with Mrs Lee, their time together in Cambridge and the nation's road to self-governance — all under the backdrop of a tumultuous period in history. Humble, the production isn't — the stage towered three storeys high and adopted various multimedia backdrops of maps and video footage. Employing a cast that includes Pang, Au, Sebastian Tan as Koh Teong Koo and Benjamin Chow as Lim Chin Siong, it's backed by lauded talents: Music by Dick Lee, direction by Steven Dexter (Forbidden City, Portrait of an Empress), lyrics by Stephen Clark (Martin Guerre) and a script by Tony Petito (A Twist of Fate).
The production began with a scene we're all too familar with: That of Lee Kuan Yew in a televised announcement of Singapore's separation from Malaysia in 1965. It's one we've seen countlessly in television and books, but when achingly dramatised by Pang and seen from the wary, watchful eyes of Au's Choo — as Lee affectionately calls her — it's a heartbreak on another level.
Pang's delivery of Lee's character is riveting, humanising this character we've grown up with. It isn't often our late prime minister's depicted as a "beer-swirling bourgeoisie". He owns much of Petito's rapid-fire script, fluently adapting the speech of Lee's Cambridge-educated, non Mandarin-speaking patterns and shuttling between an insecure politician in the making to a common husband, caught up in his job. While Au's subtle affections and mannerisms as Choo are commendable, her vocal chops couldn't command the resistance needed for her solo numbers.
Besides the dynamics between husband and wife, a more chemistry-fuelled exchange lied in the relationship between Pang's Lee and Chow's Lim Chin Siong, the original frenemies. Giving this peculiar, almost doomed coupling the microscopic look it deserves, the musical highlighted trust issues faced in any friendship, giving us a chance to grow empathy (for either side) where there was none before.
Opportunely, the supporting cast provided a rousing backing, whether as fellow schoolboys belting out God Save The Queen or as supporters for the People's Action Party and Barisan Socialis. Although Dick Lee's musical numbers weren't immediate earworms, nuggets of wittiness were where the cast shined at the most, and is a true testament to the script (save for some cheesy lines). The men compared sips of beer to capitalism, socialism and communism; regarded British beer as horse piss; and sang about how "sushi isn't very nice when you're the bloody fish" — a self-deprecating look at life under Japanese rule.
Refreshingly, the musical didn't glorify Lee, nor did it trivialise him. It was what it was: A document of Singapore's road to independence, and the men and woman instrumental in it. Think of it as a fitting rival to the annual National Day Parade — with more bravado, less shiny costumes and a dramatised rendition of the national anthem. Cue the fireworks.
The LKY Musical will be held from 21 July to 16 August at the MasterCard Theatres® at Marina Bay Sands. Tickets from Sistic.