Jonathan Lim’s newest production is a musical dedicated to Singapore’s youth – the writer, director, actor and comedian talks to Gwen Pew a not-too-distant Singapore, where dreams have been outlawed.
8 May 2013: When the Singapore Lyric Opera decided to make its first foray into youth musicals, they couldn’t have found a better person to bring on board than the local director, writer, actor and comedian Jonathan Lim, who is known for being the creator of parody sketch series Chestnuts.
How did you come up with the idea of Pursuant?
I think it’s a story I’ve been waiting to tell, ever since I became aware of two things: that our country is really changing and the next generation needs to have a vision to inspire them; and that our youth are in danger of becoming too focussed on KPIs rather than dreams. When I was asked to write something new and local featuring the youths, I immediately leapt at the chance to send out a challenge, a call to action – this show dares the youths of Singapore to dream big and to pursue those dreams passionately.
The setting is not unlike Orwell’s 1984 – was that an important influence?
Not directly. The SingaCorp we’ve created is not terminally dystopian and certainly nowhere as bleak as Orwell’s imagined future. We are Singapore, after all. We’ll never become a grim and grimy city. We will always be slick and profitable. Too much so, perhaps. It’s very virtual, our SingaCorp. There is no wear and tear when everything is digital. It is the world beyond Google glasses and e-books, bio-tagging and QR coding. It’s inspired as much byMinority Report and Wall-E as it is by George Orwell. And it’s not truly totalitarian – the real horror is that everyone buys into the country’s master agenda, the way it is in a corporation. The pursuit of prosperity and progress has become the idée fixe. In fact, it is extremely recognisable; It’s only a decade away and we are halfway there! This is what disturbs me the most – that our darkest social fears are almost reality already.
Orwell wrote 1984 in relation to the Cold War. Is there any special relevance of showing Pursuant in Singapore at this time?
Is it post-GE11 Singapore – a country wondering where change will come from and who will lead it? Is it the Singapore Conversation – desperately trying to define (or redefine) what our country can and should mean? But events like these only serve as reminders of questions we should always have been asking ourselves but have forgotten to; and every needful reminder is a timely one.
How long did it take you to write the script?
The idea took a while to take shape – I was dreaming about it for half of 2012. But once I started seeing it in my mind and hearing the words, the scenes fell into place within a few months. In some cases, the lyrics came first and the scene took shape around it. In other scenes, the songs only made sense after the scene achieved full detail.
Why did you choose to make it a musical instead of a straight play?
Musically, the show is a hybrid – there are songs that follow the musical theatre mould and songs that draw their inspiration from operatic forms. The rest of the score also dances between classical music and contemporary film scoring. A musical is more appealing and accessible to a wider audience – and I wanted to share this with as wide an audience as possible, both young and old It’s easier to attract families to a musical than to a play, and kids will enjoy songs more than dialogue. The music and songs also give wings to many of the sentiments in the story. Not everyone will appreciate a soliloquy, but everyone loves a moving ballad.
Is Pursuant one of your more ambitious projects?
Musicals are always ambitious; it’s the nature of the beast and Pursuant is additionally challenging because of the mixed community it draws together – the theatre professionals, talented youths and the SLO children’s choir. Also, it’s an ongoing challenge to maintain the right balance between opera, musical and popular music and between commentary and parable, satire and dream. At the heart of most of my work, there is the same longing, which is to connect with the audience as frankly, truthfully and enjoyably as possible. The comedy I do is always brutally honest, however wacky it is and the stories I like to tell are very homegrown and blunt, yet inspirational and, yes, a bit sentimental. I think society needs more affection and passion and I try to let those things drive my work.
What are some of your favourite lines from the play?
The Old Man who once inspired the nation says, ‘It’s only your dream if YOU pursue it. With your heart and soul. Not with obedience.’ And one of my favourite lyrics is from a song called ‘Grandfather’s Road’: ‘Are you ready to shoulder your forefather’s load? Are you worthy to walk your grandfather’s road?’
If the audience were to take away one thing from the show, what should it be?
That dreaming is the only way to shape the future and Singapore’s future lies in our children’s dreams.