What do Cher, Jimmy Buffett, Bob Dylan, Meat Loaf, the Grateful Dead and Alanis Morissette have in common? They have all had their music set to musicals in the last couple of years. Rock-themed musicals are riding a wave with no end in sight.
And after a two-year period of relative silence, Dama Asia is set to make its return to the big production stage with Rocking Broadway — Through the Annals of Rock Musicals, which will take in the early days of rock and the original works that embody its wild spirit.
Rehearsals had just started when Options visited Dama for a chat with artistic director Pun Kai Loon, music director Khor Seng Chew and cast members Tan Soo Suan, Michelle Tan and Iz Sulaini.
“When Kai Loon suggested we do rock musicals, I was hesitant,” says Khor, admitting that he is not a fan of the genre — especially since he comes from a classical music background. “But I went ahead and did some research and, in the end, I came back and said it was a project we had to do.”
His change of heart stems from the music itself. “I have seen rock musicals without attributing them to the genre before, but it’s the energy. Recently, I saw Jesus Christ Superstar at the Barbican in London — the energy was so amazing, it’s damn syiok!” Khor grins.
In the vein of its past productions like Larger Than Life and The Legends, Rocking Broadway takes a linear approach in the style of a musical concert, offering over 20 songs that chronologically cover the 1960s until today.
“We are charting the history of rock from its emergence to how rock music and musical theatre converged in the present day,” says Pun.
Rock musicals are popular today, not just among theatre audiences but they have been accepted by performers and fans alike, says Pun. The lucrative success of musicals like Rock of Ages, family-friendly School of Rock, Jersey Boys and more have enticed more rockers to come on board, no longer shunning the theatre stage. “If you look at Tony Award-nominated productions now, many are rock musicals. It is a way to contemporise theatre and draw in a broader audience as well.”
The spectrum of the genre is also wide enough to encompass vastly different sounds — from rock ballads to glam and pop rock. The latter has been particularly popular in the last decade, as seen in critically and commercially acclaimed musicals such as Next to Normal and Dear Evan Hansen.
Pun says that, historically, the genesis of a rock strain in musicals first appeared as far back as the 1920s, in the form of Showboat, which then heralded a new form of musical theatre, before the golden age of Broadway in the 1940s brought in the likes of Oklahoma!. But the first full-fledged rock musical that found success was Hair, in part due to its socio-political slant that spoke to the “tribal love” and “make love not war” movement during the Vietnam War period.
Jesus Christ Superstar was possibly the first standalone commercial success with an undeniably rock score. It spearheaded a period of innovation in the 1970s, one momentarily eclipsed by romantic British musicals à la Andrew Lloyd Webber in the 1980s, before Rent fanned the flames of rock musicals again in the 1990s. Once again, its success was connected to the social condition of the times.
“The millennium has been defined by the jukebox musical,” Pun says.
There is a reason why not many rock stars have crossed over to performing on a musical stage in a full-scale production, as we learn from vocal coach and long-time Dama star Tan Soo Suan. “You’re singing in similar octaves pretty much throughout the show, which can really strain your voice.”
Iz Sulaini — a recording artiste who has transitioned to the English theatre stage in the last two years with productions like Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo, The Working Dead, Adam The Musical and a restaging of Nick Choo’s The Edge — agrees that it takes tremendous stamina to perform live.
“I have done rock songs because I do ad jingles and character singing for animations. But this is live on stage, in a full concert. There is no drinking water and recording line-by-line,” he says. Michelle chimes in, “Because the music in rock musicals carries you, it is so big and key to the genre — more so than the traditional musical orchestras — that it is very easy to lose yourself in the music and go all out, without realising the strain and toll it’s taking on you.”
Pun adds, “Rock in musicals is really an adulterated version of the concerts you may go to — the gutsy attitude and full-on energy, really belting it out — so if you have eight shows a week and a contract for one year, you need the discipline of musical training to sustain that.”
Soo Suan points out that for the performers, there is also work to be done in terms of vocal expression, as well as capturing the feel and essence of a rock singer. “When Seng Chew said I should be in the production, I said no at first. A lot of homework needed to be done,” she admits. “You have to understand the tone and the style. Even if you don’t have to sound like rock, you need to taste like it.”
Nevertheless, the trio are excited, to say the least, about taking on the challenge. “I can’t wait to perform this one duet with Michelle, Night Letter from Two Gentlemen of Verona. I am also performing a song from Hedwig and The Angry Inch. Sometimes the easiest songs are the hardest,” says Iz.
Michelle will be performing a duet with Soo Suan, I Know Him So Well from Chess. “I am also really looking forward to Mama Who Bore Me from Spring Awakening. It’s such a ‘girl power’ and strong kind of song. Of course, there’s the classic Seasons of Love as well from Rent,” says Michelle.
Meanwhile, Soo Suan has a solo, Love Will Stand When All Else Falls from Memphis, but she says the nine ensemble songs will be the most difficult to perform, as they consist of eight individual and unique voices trying to harmonise. Other members of the cast are Freida Ooi, Imran Rauf, Izen Kong, Nabilah Hamid and Pryanka Rasa. They will be backed by a five-piece band.
“Since it is Dama’s 25th anniversary, why not shake up our audiences a bit? I hope they will get on their feet,” says Pun. Consider this your permission to get your rock on.
This article first appeared on Oct 14, 2019 in The Edge Malaysia.