It has been 30 years since singer-composer Dick Lee made his musical debut with Beauty World, the musical set in the sixties about a teen from Malaya whose search for her father sees her joining a cabaret in Singapore. Since then, he has made 18 shows, including the most recent Forbidden City and the LKY Musical. “Musicals have played a big part in the way that I see myself as not just a composer but a Singaporean,” he says. From the more overt use of Singlish to subtle cultural cues, these works mirror what it really means to be someone from Singapore.
What charmed Dick about musicals (fairytale pantomimes and the Sound of Music among the first few he watched) was its ability to tell stories. The long form structure allows the creater to explore and expand on local nuances in a way that a two and a half minute song can’t. Beauty World might’ve marked his entry to this corner of the entertainment scene but even as an angsty youth, he was already writing his own scripts and music. “I was maybe 12-years-old during Christmas one year when I wrote this 30-minute story about Hilary Rabbit,” he says. A ringleader even back then, he would round up his brothers and sisters to sing and act it out. He played the titular role of course. “I was always creating scenarios where you had to invent your own fun," he adds. It was a different time - before the Candy Crush and Pokemon Go waves.
Dick has come a long way from rounding up friends and family to staging a multi-racial production reflecting everyday neighbourhood life (as seen in Fried Rice Paradise). And it all began in a time when the cultural landscape in Singapore was still in its infancy.
In the past three decades, Singapore’s arts scene (music included) has grown from strength to strength. Take for instance the rising number of talent who’ve made themselves known in mainstream consciousness (Gentle Bones, The Sam Willows, Myrne and Charlie Lim just to name a few). “In the first Beauty World, everyone had day jobs and was performing part-time,” recalls Dick. They would be lawyers by day, singers, actors and dancers by night. Now, there will be seven full-time theater professionals joining him on stage to perform SINGAPOPERA. It’s a celebration of local talent and music.
Since SINGAPOPERA is about celebrating old favourites, it was extra meaningful that the songs be performed by the original cast members. And it's nostalgic to think that Dick first met comedian Sebastian Beng when the latter played an NS boy in one of his shows. This was in the early nineties, way before he became a household name as Broadway Beng.
Asked how he decided on which songs to include, Dick says he started out by listing out his favourites only to realise that no one would know them. So he decided to create a medley of familiar favourites and lesser known gems. Among the more obscure ones that remain close to his heart are from Twist of Fate. "It only had two productions and was a small show in an intimate space," he remembers.
Dick has always had a strong sense of the Singapore sound. “I wanted people around the world to recognise that this is Singaporean in a way that you would recognise something as Korean or French,” says the man who released The Mad Chinaman in 1989, an album that is riddled with local-inspired touches.
SINGAPOPERA is a celebration of the musicals of Dick Lee. Show times are on 25th and 26th August 2018. Venue: Esplanade Concert Hall.
Standard: S$118, S$98, S$78, S$58; Esplanade Box: S$138; Premier Box: S$138. Find out more here.