Thursday, May 03, 2007

Review: A Labour of Love

I attended the final performance of the labour movement musical, A Labour of Love, with some of my friends.

The musical is an inaugural initiative of the National Trades Union Congress (NTUC) to commemorate Labour Day, in particular Young NTUC.

Tickets were sold for about $70 publicly. I learnt from some of my friends that tickets were sold out for all the performances.

Taking into account the premium prices being charged and the high level of branding by reference attached to the musical, my friends and I returned quite disappointed.

The marketing materials shared, "From an award winning team who worked on Beauty World, Fried Rice Paradise, Forbidden City and many other sell out shows, comes the first musical based on Singapore's history and the struggles of workers!"

Plus, various local media, including the leading broadsheet of Singapore, The Straits Times, which often take an extremely critical view of any artistic endeavour, had given glowing reviews of the musical.

Perhaps, the glowing reviews were a justified sacrifice at the altar of national interest.

A reasonable member of the artistic audience, who is usually also a discerning one, was therefore led (or misled) into believing that the musical was going to be of a standard produced by the much-loved architect of Singapore musicals, Dick Lee.

Nevertheless, many of my friends who watched the musical had a fair amount of fun "dissecting" the play.

The play was essentially the story of an old man who had dedicated his life to trade union work from the time he met his wife. In fact, it was his wife that got him to take an active interest in trade union work.

In this musical, active unionists were roped in as artistes to perform. This is laudable since it conveyed both the diversity and passion one finds in a trade union.

There was also good use of theatrical tools, including real-time subtitling and other interactive elements.

But passion, diversity and effective use of props, sound and lighting failed in the face of weak content.

The script had great room for improvement and, at many points, one ended up feeling that one was attending a propaganda event of sorts.

The NTUC story was exaggerated and the hyperbole got even louder as the musical progressed.

This came at the expense of the personal relationships being presented in the musical. As such, the plot missed the wood for the trees, since personal relationships are really central to the work of any effective labour movement.

One could not help but return with a perception that the producers had oversold the NTUC story, to a point where the story felt draggy and skewed.

This caused at least one person in the audience to remark tongue-in-cheek to a song about "hope, faith and a bit of luck" in the musical: "I need hope, faith and a bit of luck to survive this play!"

Thankfully for the producers of the musical, there was no interval in the performance, which meant members of the audience - some quite reluctantly - had to watch the performance right till the end.

Most ironical was a scene involving the pivotal character, the wife of the old trade unionist. At a metaphorical level, the wife represented the union and everything that the old trade unionist stands for.

Unfortunately, she dies at the end. Her death, to a sensitive audience, may well have symbolised the death or dark future of the trade union.

This is really unfortunate for a musical that, at the outset, sought to highlight the relevance of a trade union in a developed Singapore.

As a result, one ended up watching up a musical that was high on entertainment value and energy but low on plot.

Better "hope, faith and a bit of luck" next time, Young NTUC!

Dharmendra Yadav

Please consider the environment - do you really need to print this?


jupilier said...

You put it all very mildly. But considering that you work for NTUC, I can sympathise with you on that.
If there had been an interval, I would have walked out of it all. It is all blatant unsophisticated propaganda practised frequently by totalitarian regimes!

jeremiah choy said...

Dear Dharmendra,

I had stumbled upon your private and personal musings and had debated within myself if I should write a reply - as anything I said may be taken to be a "defensive" gesture on my part.

However, my good friend, Mark Chan, reminded me that although an artist does not have to justify his work, he has to ensure that accurate and correct information about his work is relayed.

Hence, allow me to make some notes in your blog, not in defence of my work, but to perhaps illucidate the circumstances around it. And I maintain that I respect and accept your interesting comments and keen observations of the production.

Let's set the record straight. This musical is a purpose-commissioned production by NTUC to celebrate May Day Rally 2007. My brief is to write a musical about how the unions came about, how it had "survived" and developed over the past 46 years and how it is still relevant (especially to the young people) in this day and age. It is propaganda (unashamedly and unabashingly so). And I have accepted the brief and I have not pretended to write and direct anything otherwise.

All I have done is to try to soften the "hard sell" and perhaps framed it within a love story between the two protagonists and more palatable for the union workers and their friends (who were the main targets of the show).

And the clients (NTUC) had so graciously given me free rein (almost) to craft the show accordingly and I take responsibility for any artistic flaws within it.

However, to put 46 years of history and struggle within a hour and 20 mins context (as this is part of the May Day Celebrations - on May Day itself, there is another one hour of speeches and ceremony - hence the time constraint), I have to balance (finely) between the love (human) story and the epic (NTUC history).

I take responsibility for the plot (or rather the lack of it) and I am glad at least you thought it as high in entertainment value (bearing in mind that at least 90% of the amatuer cast had no stage or musical experience).

Thank you for comparing me to Dick and I agree with you that he is truly the architect of musicals in Singapore. He is my inspiration and role model, having worked with him in his very first musical in 1988. He has indeed honed his musical writing skills through the countless musicals he has written and the talented collaborators, both local and foreign, since then todate, whereas I have only (just) truly begun to create my own works.

Indeed, I have a long way to go to match up, but given time, more experiences (opportunities for producing expensve musicals like this are hard to come by), I hope I can only get better. (Even Keng Sen feels that he still is in the B list of the international arena despite having all the opportunities he is given, I have much to learn).

Finally, I feel compelled to point out that whilst the death of Meiling may have "symbolised" the death or dark future of the trades union to you, it was put in (after much debate both politically and artistically) to also symbolise that the union looks after its workers from cradle to grave. However with Danny, her grandson, deciding to join the union and to continue her work, I had hoped to convey the message of "rejunvenation" and "rebirth" of the trades union and making it all the more relevant to the young people of Singapore and the context of the "globalising" of the union - which is something the SG is pushing for.

As for the "high" pricing of the tickets, I am not sure if you are aware that union members, their family members and friends, get to only pay half price ($30, $ 15 and $ 10) and on 1 May and 2 May matinee, the shows were entirely free.

In fact, most of the people who had paid tickets were actually guests of Cooperatives/well wisher companies who paid a slightly discounted price. And the ticket money went to a charitable cause.

I am sure there will be some, like your friend in the above comment, were affronted by the blatant messaging and would have walked out in the interval should there have been an interval, and rightly so.

But then again, as in life, we all have choices. You have chosen to work in NTUC, I have chosen to write and produce a propaganda (blatant unsophisticated or otherwise) musical and we have all chosen to live in this "totalitarian regime".

And your friend could have chosen to walk of it, (why wait for an interval, make your stand! I dont think NTUC or I wouldnt have minded. Some students actually did and I admire their honesty.)

Perhaps the only difference is I have chosen to work with the system, rather than feeling indignant about it or commenting on it.

Thanks so much for allowing me to "intrude" into your private cyberspace. Please feel free to take my comments out, if you feel compelled to.

much regard
jeremiah choy
producer, playwright and director
a labour of love

Frankie said...

Dharm, you can't write a review the way you write a lawyer's brief. Your language is far too terse and fails to capture much of the nuance that this musical deserves. It is a pretty siginificant piece where the actual content itself is but the surface. Some of the possible layers that complicate the context of the piece: 1) PM got on stage to dance; 2) Mei Ling was played by an Indonesian; 3) a piece of the set fell off. Forget the plot, analyse the context.

Sorry Jeremiah, propaganda or not, bad writing is inexcusable. The songs weren't actually that bad, but some of the spoken lines sounded like they were lifted off a corporate brochure. I suspect that it was largely the unnatural speech cadence that took a lot of people out of the world of the musical, even though people are willing to suspend a helluvalot of belief when watching a musical.