He’s been compared to Shakespeare and named one of the (if not the) most important figures in American Musical Theatre while his extensive list of Broadway hits has had a generational influence. More importantly, at 88 years old, Stephen Sondheim is still working.
But this time around, PAN Productions is taking a trip back to 1970 with his musical comedy Company, a pioneering work that was one of the first in the genre to explore adult themes and relationships. The multiple Tony award-winning musical — which coincidentally will be revived in London’s West End late this year with a gender-swapping female lead — will be premiered in KL this week for a short run.
Starring Peter Ong as Bobby — who also played the character in a Best Production-nominated version in Singapore in 2012 — the story shows the bachelor celebrating his 35th birthday with friends, all of whom are married. Over a series of dinner parties, first dates and conversations, Bobby contends with his own singlehood, even as he attempts to understand the pros and cons of marriage from his diverse — and frequently hilarious — group of friends.
Sondheim’s ingenuity is inseparable from his music and lyrics, and so it is apt to talk to the two music directors who helm this production, which is directed by PAN co-founder and artistic director Nell Ng.
A winner of this year’s Best Musical Direction Boh Cameronian award, Loh Ui Li is one of the most sought-after music arrangers and producers in KL’s musical theatre scene. The talented 28-year-old, who is also well-known for her commercial music production work, is joined by Khoo Khe Sin, 36, who has been busy building a solid repertoire in the performing arts scene since returning from West Virginia University with a doctorate in musical arts.
Both agree that Sondheim’s work has a complexity that needs to be looked at in tandem with the story and the character’s emotions. “My experience with Sondheim’s music is usually like, ‘What is he trying to do?’ If you don’t understand the music and play it, it will just be bland. But when you look at the lyrics, which he also wrote, and the entire storyline, it makes sense. And it sticks with you for a long time. His music is not in the background, as a supporting role ... here, it is as important as the singing and the lyrics itself,” observes Khoo.
“Particularly, in Company, the audience is never bored, because there’s always something new happening. Even if the words are repeated, something is always different — a different range, a different person singing, different instrument playing, so you’re always entertained and kept on your feet,” Loh chimes in.
The monumental task for the music directors was to condense the orchestral music to fit the five-piece band that will be performing it. Loh confesses that it was a challenging process, especially in making sure that with just three keyboards, an electric bass and the drums, every single line in the music can be portrayed well. “In an orchestral setting, there are the strings, woodwind, percussion … you just have to imagine how those sounds will come out, to re-create them realistically. Another challenge is to make sure the instrumentation and sound doesn’t come across as dated since this was set in 1970,” she says.
Interestingly, Company is written in “little episodes”, in that each set of the characters’ scenes is distinctive. This allowed Khoo and Loh to play around with unique musical cues for each that would bring to mind their characters and stories.
Khoo also focused on working with the actors and the vocal coach, ensuring that the music’s tone complements their individual singing tones, as well as their expression of the songs.
If you don’t understand the music and play it, it will just be bland. But when you look at the lyrics, which he also wrote, and the entire storyline, it makes sense. And it sticks with you for a long time.
The duo say that is why they enjoy doing musical theatre work, in which the music is an equal component of the performance. Loh observes, “The story element is the main thing that separates a musical production and a concert. So the music has to tell the story, and that’s why we work closely with the director, the choreographer and actors as a team.”
“It’s not separate. The music director is the medium between the director and the performer. We are there in between to try to pull everything together, to complement the director’s vision and set the mood for the singers,” says Khoo.
Company also stars Junji Delfino, Nikki Palikat, Alizakri Alias, Ashley Chan, Joshua Gui, Brian Cheong, Dina Nadzir, Iz Sulaini, Lynn Tan, Michelle Tan and Mae Elliessa.
'Company' is on from July 12 to 14 at Pentas 2, klpac (8.30pm, 3pm). Tickets are priced at RM158 and RM178. Call (03) 4047 9000 to book. This article first appeared on July 9, 2018 in The Edge Malaysia.