PUBLISHED May 17th, 2016 12:40 pm | UPDATED June 7th, 2016 03:22 pm
Emily Gan, the formidable Nonya matriarch of Stella Kon’s acclaimed play, “Emily of Emerald Hill”, is one of the most iconic characters in Singapore theatre. And she’s going to be in a musical!
Since it’s first staging in 1984, “Emily” has become the most performed English-language play in Singapore and Malaysia. Local and international audiences have laughed and cried with her joys and heartbreaks, her struggles, and her social triumphs. Actors such as Margaret Chan and Ivan Heng have donned a sarong kebaya to play her. The play has been translated into French, Chinese, Japanese, and Icelandic, and toured France in 2015.
Playwright Stella Kon was born in Edinburgh and educated in Singapore. The play is a based on Kon’s grandmother and features a Peranakan (Straits born) girl, Emily, who was married at 14 to a widower, Keong, the eldest son of a rich family who live at Emerald Hill. Emily takes great pains to ensure her position as the eldest daughter in law is respected despite being younger than her sisters in law, and that her son, although the not the eldest grandson, will be the heir.
Kon began writing scripts for musical theatre in the 2000s and became the president of the Musical Theatre Society in 2005. Now known as Musical Theatre Live! (MTL), the non-profit organisation focuses on creating original musicals.
The Singapore audience will have a chance to experience a musical version of Emily’s story this May. Accompanying Stella Kon’s script are songs by award-winning composer Desmond Moey, who has composed music for both stage and television. Instead of the solo actress of the monologue version, expect to see the glittering Nonyas and Babas of the 1930’s. You can also hear them pour out their hearts in song, as music conveys their pains and passions, and the colourful Peranakan love of life.
The cast of characters includes Emily’s son Richard, who is later driven to suicide, and her rival for her husband’s affections, Diana. The cast members are mostly of newcomers who turned up for open auditions. Three actresses – Temasek Primary School pupil Melissa Wei-En Hecker (11), Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts student, April Kong (28), and actress Karen Lim – will play Emily as she ages in the musical.
Emily – The Musical is directed by Sonny Lim (who was seen recently in Wife #11). We asked him about his involvement with the musical:
How did your involvement with Emily The Musical come about?
MTL invited me to direct the show. I have been on the MTL panel for their incubation program for new Singapore musicals in the past and Emily The Musical was developed as part of this incubation process.
What are the challenges of directing this production versus the original version of the play (as a monologue)?
The two are as different as chalk and cheese. For Emily The Musical, the directing challenges are the standard challenges of any musical – making sure that the all-important musical elements work in tandem with the drama, serving and supporting the drama, not overwhelming it.
How did you go about selecting the cast for this production?
Open auditions were held over two days. We selected the cast by consensus among Kenny Ngo (Music Director), Stella Kon, Desmond Moey and myself.
Local audiences have seen various productions of Emily as a monologue and are familiar with this format. What can they expect from the musical version?
The emotional takeaways will be different. It will be an entirely different experience. I like the work at this fundamental level – the songs and lyrics. I hope the audience does as well.
Is this the first musical you have directed?
No. What people in the theatre world would not be aware of is that I cut my teeth directing musicals for youth theatre long before I ventured into non-musical theatre. This fact would probably surprise many.
Photos courtesy of Emily The Musical Facebook page.