It cannot be easy to assume the role of a man who is immediately identified by his initials, a man for whom the nation stood still in March and whose legacy still shapes Singaporean lives today.
The musical opened on Tuesday night, and all eyes were on Adrian Pang as he took on his biggest role yet – that of the country’s late founding father Lee Kuan Yew.
But Pang, 49, says he is shrugging off the immense pressure that comes with the part.
“There’s a whole weight of expectation about this production, which I am choosing to ignore,” he tells Life at a cafe in Goodman Arts Centre, where rehearsals were ongoing.
“Because if I let it have any effect on what I am trying to do here and on stage for the next month, I think it’s counterproductive.”
Simply titled The LKY Musical, the Metropolitan Productions show is being presented at Marina Bay Sands’ MasterCard Theatres. It will span 26 years of history, from Mr Lee’s student days at Raffles College right up to the independence of Singapore in 1965. He died in March, aged 91.
The all-new 19-song musical boasts a star-studded creative team, including veteran composer Dick Lee, Laurence Olivier Award-winning lyricist Stephen Clark and director Steven Dexter, who helmed Singapore Repertory Theatre’s Forbidden City (2002) and Fried Rice Paradise (2010).
Ticket sales for the musical as of July 21 stand at about 35,000, or 70 per cent, says a Singapore Repertory Theatre spokesman.
The script was written by Singapore Repertory Theatre founding artistic director Tony Petito, who says that through the “accessible and intimate” musical format, audiences may glean fresh insights into Mr Lee’s life.
“What people might be familiar with are the major milestones in his life and those of the history of Singapore, but we think they will be surprised by the number of challenges he had to face, how he faced them and why he did what he did.”
While there is a deluge of videos, photographs and writings on Mr Lee, Pang says a lot of the material reflected him in a public setting, which was “useful only up to a certain point”.
In order to peel back the public persona, the actor spoke to a former colleague of Mr Lee’s who is now in his 80s. “He used to work in his office and he saw Mr Lee daily, and saw what he was like in his quieter moments.”
So what was Mr Lee like really? “He said that he was very passionate, quite intense, very impatient but, at the end of the day, absolutely devoted to Mrs Lee,” says Pang.
The musical hopes to shed light on this more tender, private side of Mr Lee.
Petito says: “His relationship with Mrs Lee was the most important relationship in his life and we try with this musical to portray that relationship very respectfully and lovingly. She was a key partner in everything he achieved.”
The unwavering bond between Mr Lee and his wife, the late Kwa Geok Choo, is something which Pang says he has experienced offstage as well.
He has been married to his wife, Tracie, for two decades and they have two teenage sons, Zachary and Xander. They also run Pangdemonium, a theatre company which the couple set up in 2010.
“For me, there is no question that Tracie is the one true thing in my life,” Pang says reflectively. “In the wilderness of bulls*** I wander through every day, I know that I can come home to her and she’s there, and she will be a very calming influence on me.”
As for the relationship between Mr and Mrs Lee, Pang says: “Mrs Lee used to personally edit his speeches, she made sure he always presented well in public, that his hair was always in place for press conferences and that he was wearing the right tie. She had to kind of slightly mother him.”
And he gets that kind of “Mrs Lee” treatment in rehearsals as well, from former television actress and host Sharon Au, who is playing Madam Kwa, a Cambridge-educated lawyer like her husband. They were married for 60 years until her death in 2010 at the age of 89.
Pang gushes about his co-star: “She has been very, very supportive. She can tell when I am slightly frazzled and a glass of water will appear. In a way, she is kind of doing her Mrs Lee thing in rehearsals.”
Au says the relationship between Mr and Mrs Lee is “Singapore’s very own timeless love story, one that has moved even the least romantic of us”.
She adds: “I want to show audiences the intense vulnerability between two very strong icons who had huge ambitions, but were also, simply, two people in love.”
Au, 39, says when rehearsals started, she was focused on getting the technical aspects down pat, by going for singing and accent training. “But as we progressed deeper into rehearsals, I started to shift the emphasis to honouring her spirit, intelligence, poise and wit.”
Despite being the only woman in a cast of what Pang calls “rambunctious boys”, the actress says she is having a whale of a time in rehearsals. “The boys have been super sweet to me. I am very well taken care of by all of them… We laugh a lot during rehearsals. Once my jaw locked, another time I had stomach cramps because I could not stop laughing.”
Au and Pang are backed by a cast of veterans and newcomers to the musical stage.
“Broadway Beng” Sebastian Tan, 41, plays Koh Teong Koo, a rickshaw puller who helps Mr Lee elude the Japanese; and Benjamin Chow, 25, who graduated from Lasalle College of the Arts last year, plays opposition politician Lim Chin Siong.
Like Au, Pang has been enjoying the rehearsal process immensely. “It’s really a bit of a playground, just being with the lads and mucking about,” he says with a laugh.
But preparing to play Mr Lee has not been all fun and games, especially for someone who admittedly has “no head for politics”.
It has been “a very interesting challenge” to tackle characteristics of Mr Lee such as his accent, says Pang, who will be donning clothing from CYC The Custom Shop tailors – the same shop where Mr Lee used to get his shirts made.
“He used to speak very slowly, and very deliberately, which I have been trying to embody without slowing down the whole piece unnecessarily.”
Pang adds that because it is a completely new musical, written, choreographed and composed from scratch, it is unlike anything else he has been involved in. “It’s odd actually, but because it’s brand new, I feel like a newbie all over again, like it’s the first thing I’ve ever done.”
But at the end of the day, although the show comes with the weight of history and Mr Lee’s legacy, Pang’s hope is that audiences will leave the theatre feeling satisfied.
“As a piece of theatre, it’s going to be very interesting, because there will be people who usually would not give a damn about theatre who will want to come and see this.
“I just hope that when it comes together, it will, at a very fundamental level, be a good piece of entertainment.”