PenTAS Exclusive: A Chat with Christopher Ling of Marrying Me

*This is the first of a three-part feature about Marrying Me by Yasmin Bathamanathan. Read the second part here and the third part here.

Being the theatre newbie that I am, I asked Christopher Ling, in quiet earnestness, what had attracted him to adapting Marrying Me into a musical. You see, I took the “Book by Mark Beau De Silva” part quite literally. So, Chris, being the awesome friend that he is, proceeded to school me in the ways of musical theatrics. “A book in a musical means the entire story and script. It does not mean a pre-existing “book” that has been adapted into a musical,” chided a well-meaning Chris over Facebook chat.

Say what? A book that is not a book but is the story and script? Sounds quite like a “book” to me. Okay, since I was aware by then that I knew next to nothing when it comes to musical theatre, I turned to my best friend – the almighty Wikipedia.

“Musical theatre is a form of theatre that combines songs, spoken dialogue, acting, and dance … yada yada yada … book musicals …”

Wait a minute. Book musicals? What in fresh hell is that? This is how darling Wikipedia explains it:

“Since the 20th century, the “book musical” has been defined as a musical play where songs and dances are fully integrated into a well-made story with serious dramatic goals that is able to evoke genuine emotions other than laughter.”

Hey, that’s my definition of musicals (re: not Bollywood) also! Looks like I am heading in the right direction after all. Upon further reading, Wikipedia starts filling up my musical gaps. There are three components to a book musical – the music, the lyrics and the book. Once again, the book here denotes

“… script of a musical refers to the story, character development, and dramatic structure, including the spoken dialogue and stage directions, but it can also refer to the dialogue and lyrics together, which are sometimes referred to as the libretto …”

Got it, children? Right. Now let’s move on to the musical in discussion here; Marrying Me.

The two musicals of yours that I have watched are The Last Five Years and Kiss of the Spider Woman. Why did you choose Marrying Me this time?

I wanted to direct something Malaysian in nature, something that Malaysians would connect with. It is a script that was written specifically for this show.

Did Mark already write it or did you approach him with the idea?

I invited him to write the book for my musical, which I had commissioned Onn San to write for me in April. We had just finished working on Ruby Moon in March (if you remember, Onn worked on the soundscape for that production). The idea was conceived by Onn and Mark. EllaRose Chary was brought in after a few initial meetings. The three of them worked on everything before handing over to me in late September.

Why was Ella approached? Have any of you worked with her before this?

Onn and Ella were classmates at NYU.

Ah, that makes sense. In terms of visual aesthetics, the heroine of Marrying Me does not look like the conventional one – she sports cropped hair and in the poster, she looks quite androgynous. From this I gather that Marrying Me is a musical that, in many ways, defies social conventions. This is after all a tale of a woman who refuses to lose her autonomy and independence.

You hit the nail on its head. In fact, allow me to go one step further to say that with everyone around Stephanie trying desperately to change her, she remains steadfast in what she believes is right. In doing so, she becomes the catalyst for change in everyone around her. Quite an interesting reversal of circumstances, don’t you think?

In terms of casting, what is it that you saw in Stephanie Van Driesen that told you she was the STEPHANIE? Did she crop her hair for the part? Did you “make” her do it?

No, the cropped hair was on her part. She cut her hair much earlier in late September. Stephanie has charisma and presence as an actor. The musical is technically her journey, and thus it was important for the actor to be able to ground the show. Stephanie (the character) knows what she wants. And she tenaciously sets out to get it.

And that includes escaping getting married? Or do we have to watch it to find out?

The question should be more: getting married to whom?

Oh.

The getting married happens, but the “to whom” part is the interesting thing.

Nice. If you were asked to describe Marrying Me in 3 sentences, how would you describe it?

Marrying Me is pure unadulterated musical comedy at its best. But what makes it more appealing is its distinct Malaysian flavour contained in Mark’s characters and scenarios. It is very much like the quintessential Mark Beau De  Silva play musicalised – NOT a play with music BUT a MUSICAL in its own right.

I obviously know nothing about directing a musical. Is there anything particularly tricky about it?

The balancing act between all the many departments and people I need to engage with creatively. There’s music. There’s set. There’re props. There’re costumes. There’re actors. There’re musicians. There’s follows spots … AND the buck stops with ME!

Yikes. So, as a director, which do you find trickier to direct: plays or musicals?

Musicals are definitely more challenging. So many things could go wrong at any one time. I am always kept on the edge of my seat with worry. Plays are considerably easier. All the elements are more controllable. A musical must speak to you – not only through the dialogue but through the music – sung and played by the band. The choreography must lift the production and the story we are all trying to tell. If not, it is just clutter.

I bet. Someone once explained to me how complicated the process of coming up with a 10-minute musical for Short+Sweet is. No wonder you’re all stressed and whatnot.

YUP! But Marrying is 2 hours long (with a 15 minutes interval). 1 hour for Act 1, 45 minutes for Act 2.

What was it like working with this set of cast for Marrying Me?

Marrying Me features a cast of ten actors that come from two distinct camps – experienced musical theatre performers and young actors. For Muhaimin, this is his 2nd show with me; he did Spiderwoman last year. Yi Qing, Ho Lee Ching and Aaron Lo are all from T4YP.

It is a joy to work with people like Stephanie, Sandra Sodhy, Chang Fang Chyi and Tony Leo. They bring a wealth of experience to their characters. So do Benjamin Lin and Joel Wong in the supporting roles that they are playing.

Lastly, why should people come watch Marrying Me?

A musical has the ability to move an audience like no other live performance can with its three-way combo of Drama, Song and Dance.

Thank you, Chris for sharing your time with me. All the best with Marrying Me and I’ll see you when you get here.

You’re welcome.

Marrying Me takes place at stage 2, penangpac @ Straits Quay (3H-3A-1, Straits Quay, Jalan Seri Tanjung Pinang, Tanjung Tokong, 10470 Penang) from 5 - 7 December 2013 @ 8.30pm and 8 December 2013 @ 3pm. For information on ticketing, check out penangpac.

Marrying Me takes place at stage 2, penangpac @ Straits Quay (3H-3A-1, Straits Quay, Jalan Seri Tanjung Pinang, Tanjung Tokong, 10470 Penang) from 5 – 7 December 2013 @ 8.30pm and 8 December 2013 @ 3pm. For information on ticketing, check out penangpac.

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