PenTAS Exclusive: A Chat with EllaRose Chary of Marrying Me

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

You would think that to come up with something “quintessentially Malaysian”, one would need to be a Malaysian or have spent a fair amount of time in Malaysia. But have you ever thought of how one can learn about a foreign culture through speaking to people of said culture? Ah, ha. Thought so.

In the upcoming production of Marrying Me, the lyrics of the songs in the musical were penned by an American – one EllaRose Chary, to be exact. Mind you, EllaRose (oh my god, so in love with her name!) is no calang-calang (translation: ordinary) lyricist. Her extensive CV states that she is “a writer, performer, dramaturg and activist based in New York City” and has seen her work featured all across the US, in Australia and now, Malaysia. EllaRose was just recently named a 2013 Fellowship Finalist by the New York Foundation for the Arts in the Playwriting/Screenwriting category.

Intrigued by the very idea of this trans-Atlantic-and-Indian (oceans, la) collaboration, PenTAS does a bit of that emailing biznes with EllaRose to pick her brains on Marrying Me, writing and cross-cultural pragmatisms. 

In a few short sentences, how would you describe Marrying Me?
At its heart, I think it’s the story of a woman who is trying to balance her responsibilities to society, her mother, and herself. It’s also (I hope) a funny and poignant show that mixes a traditional musical theatre sensibility with a Malaysian flair. There are a lot of fun moments in the show, but there’s also something deeper going on, which makes it really interesting.

How would you describe the music of Marrying Me?
It’s a contemporary musical theatre score with a pop sensibility. We’d try to make the songs melodic and hook-y, without making them cliched, and so there a lot of styles working together. I think the melody Onn (San) wrote for “Marry Me” is  just beautiful, and it was easy to write lyrics to that one because you can just feel the emotion coursing through the song.

How did your involvement in Marrying Me come about?
Onn and I were in the same class at NYU’s Graduate Musical Theatre Writing Program. We worked together a bit in the program and really liked the songs we wrote together, so we knew after we finished we would keep writing together even though he was in Malaysia and I was in New York. When the opportunity came up to write Marrying Me, Onn asked me if I wanted to write lyrics, and of course I did.

Have you had any prior experience with Malaysian theatre?
My only prior experience with Malaysian theatre has been through Onn; I know what he’s been working on the past few years because of our collaboration and friendship. But, the real answer to that is no, I had no prior experience and I’m so excited to have had the chance to get to know everyone working on this project and really look forward to connecting with other Malaysian artists when I visit in December.

Could you share with us how did you pen the lyrics for the musical?
Coming up with the lyrics definitely grew out of a strong collaboration with Mark (Beau De Silva) and Onn. We all started writing around the same time, and we came up with a lot of the ideas for the show as a team, so when Mark would give us an outline, we would start to decide what the song moments might be. Sometimes we were right, and sometimes we were wrong and would have to change things as the script developed. The first song, “I Don’t”, which is one of my favorites, was the first thing we wrote and it was before we really knew a lot of the details of the story. We knew the basic idea that everyone around Stephanie was saying “I do” and she was resistant to that, and so it just seemed natural to me that she would say “I Don’t” which felt like a strong hook for a song. Once we decided on the title Marrying Me and we knew what the show was going to be about, both Onn and I knew that Stephanie had to have an 11 o’clock number called “Marrying Me”, but that ended up being one of the hardest songs to write because it felt like I had to capture what we were trying to say in the whole show in one lyric while keeping it specific to the story and the character.

What was the process like?
The process was actually really fun and sort of easy for me because I was 12 hours away and so all the fighting happened while I was asleep and then I would wake up in the morning and everything would be resolved (just kidding). Seriously, though, it was great because Mark, Onn and Chris are all real professionals and so everyone was focused on getting the work done in the short time we had to put everything together. There were certainly stressful moments, because the deadlines came very quickly and I knew I had to get Onn the lyrics as soon as possible so he could work on the music. The basic process was that Mark would write the scenes and we would figure out what the songs were, then Onn and I would decide whether we wanted to start with lyrics or music depending on what seemed right for the song. After we started having drafts of the show, we would meet on Skype with Chris and read through it and give notes and make adjustments based on what we had.

Were there any challenges in coming up with the lyrics for Marrying Me?
Having to generate a lot of material very quickly was sometimes challenging, because I would feel like I was running out of ideas. I would look at a blank page and feel really stuck and just tell myself in 3 months, in Malaysia, this is going to be on a stage – you haven’t written it yet, but that’s happening, so you have to write it. And that helped, but it was funny because it also felt surreal and very far away. Another challenge was trying to not sound too American in my lyrics. I know there are some things that are commonplace here that sound odd in Malaysia, and vice versa, so I tried to be mindful of that, but sometimes I just didn’t know. Luckily, I had Onn and Mark, so they would tell me if something didn’t sound quite right. For example, I wrote in one lyric “50 pound dress” and Onn said we have to change that, and now it’s “10 kilo dress.” I also tried to learn from what Mark was writing and from listening to Mark, Onn and Chris talk, and incorporate that in, so I would put “lah” in – because it’s easy to sing and it rhymes with a lot, but I kept using it wrong and Onn and Mark would say “no, no, that doesn’t work,” but now I think I got the hang of it, lah.

How was it like working with the folks of Marrying Me?
I had a great time. It was really funny because for about a month and a half, Onn, Mark, Chris and I had this “WhatsApp” chat group, which is how we’d communicate. Because of the time difference I could tell what time everyone got up and started working and they always knew that about me. For example, Mark is an early riser, because it would be early evening here and I would get text messages from him before anyone else was awake responding to the things I had written at 4 in the morning Malaysia time. Then a few hours later, my phone would just explode with messages and I knew everyone was up and chatting and then I would go to bed and wake up in the morning with 50 text messages from a whole conversation the three of them had while I was asleep. And, I know that Mark and Onn also felt like they would come back to their phone and find they missed a whole conversation. Mostly it was very rewarding because I felt like I learned so much from watching everyone’s process and being involved with an arts community that is totally new to me.

What kind of experience can the audience expect when they come to see Marrying Me, especially in terms of the musical aspect of it?
I think the audience can expect to have a good time, but also to have their heartstrings tugged a bit. There are definitely some big, toe-tapping musical numbers that people will be singing when they leave, but there’s also some darker elements to the plot and that is reflected in the music. They did a teaser of the song “Superhero” and you can tell just from the little bit you hear in the video that that’s a song that goes for the heart. I don’t think anyone will get bored, there are some elements to the plot that are kind of zany, like the song “Win, Win.” We tried to structure the songs so that the energy stays high for most of the show.

Any message you’d like to give to those coming to see Marrying Me?
Give it a chance! Anytime you have a new musical, it’s a bit scary (for the audience and the writers) because nobody knows what to expect. But Chris and the cast, Stephen and Lex, the musicians, and of course Onn and Mark, everyone’s just been working so hard on the material, and I think that’s really going to show in the production. And, like with any new show, there are some parts that if you just hear about them, you might be uncertain if it will work, because it’s not a tried and true show that you are familiar with, but I think if the audience goes in with an open mind and is ready for something that hasn’t been done a hundred times, they will find something pretty exciting.

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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