In this timely role as Singapore’s late former Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew, Adrian Pang talks reactions, expectations and whether he has the balls to do it
The last thing I asked Adrian Pang before we parted ways was whether he liked to be interviewed.
"Not really," he said, pausing before answering.
I gathered as much. From the start of the interview, he barely made eye contact, and only did so towards the middle of our chat. Maybe my questions bored him. Not that they should, but after it was announced that the 49-year old actor would play Lee Kuan Yew in an upcoming musical — yes, with songs and all — he has been bombarded with the usual questions: Is he nervous? What does he expect from Lee's relatives? What did the man mean to him? Is this role a big deal?
"There's probably some perception that it is a big deal," he shrugs. "If I allow that notion to creep into the process of it, then I think it's kind of dangerous and I'll be having to subconsciously take people's expectations into consideration — and I can't."
We were in the headquarters of Pangdemonium — the theatre company that Pang is creative director of — in early May, a month before rehearsals for the musical were slated to start. I caught him when he was still in between rehearsals for TRIBES, which ran from late May to early June. At the time of our conversation, his research into the role as Lee had been minimal at best. The exhaustion shows on the rings around his eyes, but it's a labour that bears many, many fruits.
"Nothing will beat theatre," gushes Pang. "I thrive on being up there every time. I love working with the director and fellow actors, and trying to deconstruct a script to tell the story in the best possible way. It can be infuriating but it's very rewarding."
Co-starring with him in the musical is Sharon Au, who plays Lee's wife Kwa Geok Choo. Besides her, the all-male cast will belt music by composer Dick Lee, lyrics from Laurence Olivier Award winner Stephen Clark, and a story by local author Meira Chand. Directed by London theatre veteran Steven Dexter, the production couldn't come at a better time — it'll run from the end of July through the nation's birthday month.
Since the musical's announcement in April, Pang has been met with some outrage.
"I've encountered people who've said, 'But Lee Kuan Yew doesn't sing! You're going to make him sing?!'" he exclaims with exasperation. "Who says you can't make him sing? For f***'s sake, there's a musical called Cats! It's a bunch of people dressed up as cats, singing! You're okay with that, but you're not okay with a human being singing?"
Pang stands by the notion that at the end of the day, it's just a theatrical production. He references Assassins, Steven Sondheim's Tony Award-winning musical where a series of past American presidents sing and dance as one of the many high profile politicians who've been characterised on stage. Lamenting that some of the public have been so protective and jaundiced in their view of Lee, he also adds that they each have their own baggage attached to the man. However, it's this very hurdle and the fact that "the guys had the balls to do this" that attracted Pang to the role.
"As an actor I've always tried to embrace the scary and the challenging, I suppose," he ponders. "A part of the appeal of the production for me was to make this very untouchable myth, a man."
Pang and Lee
His own concept of Singapore's former prime minister is one of ethereal vagueness. Born in the late '60s from Hakka parents in Malacca, Pang and his family moved to Outram Park when he was about four, right at the point when Singapore was a young nation being built.
"To be honest, I didn't think I had much of a concept of this kind of thing," he recalls. "I was just trying to learn Mandarin. Which, ironically, was also down to this man decreeing that mother tongue was going to feature so highly in education."
Outwardly, Pang's an offbeat choice for the part — he's a personality who's always been slightly irreverent, speaks with a slight accent, and is known for his comedic streak. On the other side of the coin, however, those qualities already sound strikingly familiar. Both Lee and Pang left Singapore to study law in the UK, and they're both rebels in their own right — with the former often billed as the "original rebel", having formed the nation's first opposition party.
A Family Man
Another obvious parallel was the dynamics between Lee and his wife, which something Pang, as a husband and father of two teenage sons, can relate to. "It's very moving to hear stories about when Mr. Lee lost Mrs. Lee," recalls Pang. "He just felt completely lost. A big part of who he was as a man had to do with having her in his life."
"I'm nothing without Tracie," continues Pang on his wife of 20 years, who's also a creative director of Pangdemonium — she recently directed TRIBES and will direct Chinglish, an upcoming play in October. "I'm nothing. I sometimes forget that, to my peril. I do realise on a daily basis how lost I would be without her."
I asked him if there was any relationship advice he took away from the Lee power couple.
"When your wife tells you to do something, you bloody well do it," he smirks. Hear, hear.
The LKY Musical will be held from 21 July to 16 August at the MasterCard Theatres® at Marina Bay Sands. Tickets from Sistic.