As Singapore prepares for the arrival of a localised rendition of Stephen Sondheim’s 1970 Tony-award winning masterpiece Company, The Muse takes a sneak peek backstage and catches up with the show’s Director Hossan Leong and Choreographer George Chan.
The concept musical is set in the home of protagonist Robert (Peter Ong) as his 10 coupled-up friends throw him a surprise 35th birthday party. A series of short sketches is then played out to explore the relationships between each couple – as well as their relationship with Robert. As Hossan Leong puts it romantically, “At the heart of it, Company is all about Love.”
Leong has chosen to transport the New York-based comedy to Singapore, although he is quick to point out that “It’s not in Singlish – the dialogue remains the same as the original – we’ve only changed the references, subway to MRT and things like that.” The reason behind this change is that he feels a lot of people in the country will be able to relate to it.
“There are lots of Singaporeans who are not married and wondering why,” Leong observes. “Even my friends – one of them called me up the other day and asked, ‘Why am I still single? Is it my looks?’ and I told him to come see the play. At first he was like ‘Aiyah you and your theatre things.’ But then he went to Google it and called me back saying, ‘That is my LIFE!’ So I think a lot of people will think the same. Why not stage it now rather than 20 years later when everybody will already be married?”
Working closely together with Leong is the 41-year-old stage veteran George Chan, who is also Director for The Hossan Leong Show. To Chan, choreographing Company proves to be an interesting project: for one thing, he admits that he has never actually watched or staged the production before; for another, he made it very clear right from the start of our little chat that, “Company is not like Chicago or Mamma Mia! where you have these big dance scenes. This is not really a dance show. It’s more about the acting and the songs. So it’s about doing just enough to tell the story.”
That said, Chan does know the score of the musical extremely well, having used the famous Being Alive as his go-to audition song numerous times in earlier days to bring out his high tenor voice.
“Usually [when I’m choreographing] I would listen to the music and see what pictures come to mind, then quickly jot it down,” says Chan. “But in this case, because I’m so familiar with the songs, I already had some ideas in my head. The rest is about the cast – how to shape them as a group, getting everybody on the same wavelength, and what they are comfortable with – and how to bring out the humour.”
Chan has previously worked with a number of the show’s 14-strong cast, including Karen Tan and Tan Kheng Hua, but most of them are trained as professional actors and singers rather than dancers.
“There are only three of them who are more technically trained, so I’ve given them a bit more to play with in the songYou Can Drive A Person Crazy,” Chan says, referring to Mina Kaye, Glory Ngim, and Seong Hui Xian, who play Robert’s girlfriends. “But it’s really fun working with everybody. Everybody’s crazy!”
He is also grateful for the suggestions that the actors have made throughout rehearsals, even for seemingly little things like how their high heels or dresses are making it difficult to do a particular movement. In order to ensure that everything comes together as naturally and seamlessly as possible, Chan tries to stay in contact with the people in charge of lighting and costumes at all times. But there are also other challenges.
“In a way, I have it really easy with Company because everything is there. When I did my last show, Lao Jiu [the musical adapted from Kuo Pao Kun’s eponymous play], it was a totally new production so I could go back to the composer and tweak it anytime, but with this one I can’t do that,” he says. “I feel like I am boxed in a little, so I have to look for other ways to interpret it creatively, mostly by playing with the pacing.”
So what should we be most looking forward to in the show?
“Definitely the songs,” Chan replies without hesitation. “I’m blown away the vocal talent every time I hear it, especially from Peter Ong when he sings Being Alive. It is just so beautiful. I’m never using it as my audition song again after hearing him sing it!”