Musicals are some of the most complex art forms since they require a talented cast, with the ability to sing, act, and dance in unison.
So how can a theatremaker create good musicals? We speak to Malaysian theatremaker, Terence Toh, who shared with us several useful insights.
The art writer has written award-winning musicals in recent years, with the latest such as The Working Dead selling out to nine full shows and bagging Best Original Score, Best Musical Director, and Best Original Book at the BOH Cameronian Arts Awards in 2020.
Oh wow! This is a walk down memory lane.
I’ve always had a deep abiding love for musicals. My parents enjoyed listening to Andrew Lloyd Webber’s soundtracks so I listened to a lot of those of a kid. That is my earliest memory of them. The experience that made me truly fall in love with musicals, however, was obtaining a copy of the Les Miserables: 10th Anniversary concert in DVD from a friend when I was a college.
My goodness, I watched that and was completely blown away. The sweeping story, the amazing music, the remarkable performers.. it was like nothing I had ever seen before. And that experience truly turned me from a casual fan to a passionate die-hard.
As for the first live musical experiences, the one that comes to mind is Broken Bridges by Teng Ky-Gan and Lim Chuang Yik, produced by The Actors Studio. That was when it first premiered, in… 2006 I believe? It was a very well put-together presentation, and I recall being very impressed with it. It also made me realise Malaysians are capable of creating great musicals as well.
I think for me and my creative partners at KULT Productions, the biggest challenge is first finding a good story.
This is not just a good story that engages and evokes emotion, but one that is suited for a musical: does our story sing? And how do we create something different from what people have seen before?
The next challenge, after that, is creating good music that fits the mood and themes of the story. You can’t just throw in a couple of songs into a script and make it a good musical: the songs all have to fit together somehow.
I think a good musical is one that either makes you feel something or made you look at the world in a different way while giving you terrific catchy songs you can snap your fingers to!
I think you can have musicals without dance, and a musical without music can still make a pretty good play. But without a good story in your script, I think everything falls apart.
I think one major mistake budding theatremakers do is doing too much.
When you’re new, you’re excited, you’re enthusiastic, you have a lot to say, so you put everything you know into your script and songs. This can result in extremely long and draggy scenes, where characters take a whole scene to establish something that could actually be done in one line.
Some stories actually become more powerful if you choose NOT to include certain scenes. But learning how to trim and edit yourself takes time and experience.
Another common mistake in making musicals is putting songs in the wrong place. Again, this takes practice and experience and is something I am still learning myself. Songs usually mark heightened emotion or a crucial story point: care should be taken when deciding when exactly you want to have them in your musical.
You should not have a song if it is just to fill up time or show off a cast member’s great vocals. They have to contribute to the overall story in some way.
The theme of Fortune Kooky is the silly things people do when it comes to money. And I think it’s a good theme to explore because managing money is something that almost everyone in the world has problems with. I think the scary thing is that it can be really easy to make a financial mistake, but the consequences of these mistakes can change your entire life.
So we looked into some of the things we’d experienced: spending to impress relatives, for one thing. Making unwise business decisions to chase profit. Going into debt after overspending on one-off occasions.
At the time, there was also a lot of news about loan sharks and financial scams like The Tinder Swindler, and that also made it into the show.
We’d also like to thank MyCreative, Cendana, and Penjana, for helping us in bring this musical to life.
I think Fortune Kooky might be a little more grounded compared to my previous musicals like The Working Dead.
There are still some fantastic elements (we have a god as a character for one thing!), the plot elements are a little more ‘realistic’ this time around. We have a slightly smaller cast than normal, who will be taking on multiple characters, the first time we have done this.
Apart from all that though, you can expect the catchy music, dramatic moments and crazy jokes we like to think our productions are known for.
Watch good musicals. Watch bad musicals. In fact, just watch as many musicals as you can. There’s something to learn from each one of them.
Be bold and be unique. Tell your story the best way you can. Sometimes the weird approach works wonderfully.
Revise, rewrite, redo. Your first version of your script is rarely the best version. Work on it, get feedback from others, try to take the story in a different way. Tweaking your story can do wonders.
Cover image for 3 Ways To Create Good Musicals According To Terence Toh supplied by KULT Productions.