We review the hotly anticipated LKY Musical, which celebrates the life of Lee Kuan Yew and Singapore’s 50th anniversary.
The LKY Musical’s greatest strength – and weakness – is that it covers the life of Lee Kuan Yew from his time at Raffles College in 1941 through Singapore’s Independence in 1965. It accomplishes its goal—I left feeling as though I’d received a primer on LKY and the birth of modern Singapore. It was enjoyable to see the pivotal moments from those 24 years brought to life by a talented cast, but ultimately felt like a live action recitation of my daughter’s History textbook.
But in writing a show that ticks off all the important events, Tony Petito (book) doesn’t have time to fully explore pivotal moments in depth. When Harry Lee, an English speaking Chinese boy raised in close proximity to the colonial British elite, decides to abandon the name Harry for Kuan Yew, it signals a major identity and ideological shift. Instead, it’s reduced to two sentences in a conversation with his wife. The constant references to a previous scene as being two or more years ago made it easy to lose track of which year a scene took place.
Adrian Pang and Benjamin Chow are two of the most talented actors in Singapore. I had expected that Lee Kuan Yew would be portrayed as a hero, full stop. However, Pang does a brilliant job of portraying LKY in all of his complexity. In the same way that Jesus Christ Superstar turns a familiar story into something new by making Judas the narrator, Chow’s portrayal of Lim Chin Siong as he journeys from friend to victim of LKY might have made the musical more compelling were it told from his point of view.
However, the show is at its strongest when these two share the stage. Lee first recruited Lim to join the PAP to deliver the Chinese speaking vote. The song “Look At Him There” in Act One begins as a song of bromance. Each sings about the qualities he admires in the other. Over the course of the song/1955 campaign during which Lee ran in Tanjong Pagar and Lim in Bukit Timah, they begin to question each other’s motives, asking “who is the hunter and who is the prey?” Lee appears jealous of the adulation Lim receives. After winning the Tanjong Pagar seat, he crows to his wife Kwa Geok Choo (referred to as “Choo” in the show) that he won with more votes than Lim had. When Lim breaks with the PAP to create the Barisan Sosialis (Socialist Front) in Act Two, their clash is riveting.
The sets are cleverly designed by London-based performance designer takis. Wooden boards cover three levels of staging, allowing for pieces to move up, down and sideways to create up to 9 boxes. Video is projected onto the boards, which show video clips, newspaper headlines, the outline of a house, and more. This enables the flow of the production, helping visually create the narrative approach of vignettes. A panel on the bottom slides open for a scene, then closes while another on the third level opens for the next scene.
While the show is a musical, the music is forgotten moments after it’s been sung. I’m not sure if Dick Lee (music) and Stephen Clark (lyrics) are really to blame for this. The pace of the show means that songs are so short that they never really develop into anything memorable. There isn’t time to develop the kind of motif that helps create a cohesive musical. In the few extended musical numbers, such as “Whose Side Are You On,” the music is constantly interrupted by dialogue.
If one were to enter the musical with little to no knowledge of Kwa Geok Choo, you might think that she went from beating LKY in several exams at Raffles College, to winning a scholarship to study law alongside him at Cambridge, to helping found the PAP, to being LKY’s secretary/housewife. While acknowledging that Choo rewrote LKY’s speeches and her frank assessment that joining with Malaya was a poor idea, it glosses over the fact that women were eventually banned from PAP meetings. Choo just seems to stop attending without explanation. There is no acknowledgement that she helped write the PAP Constitution in 1954 or gave a Pro-PAP speech in the 1959 election. Unfortunately the Kwa Geok Choo role is not only weakly written, but miscast as Sharon Au does not have the vocal chops to carry the role. (Also of note, Choo is the only woman in the show.)
Lee Kuan Yew would later say he was only able to pursue his political career because he had a wife who could be the main breadwinner. Kwa Geo Choo was a brilliant legal scholar who graduated alongside her husband at Cambridge, although she’d started a year later. A founding partner of the prestigious law firm Lee & Lee, she practiced law for over forty years. While working full time, she also raised three children, making her one of Singapore’s most prominent Sassy Mamas.
The LKY Musical is an enjoyable night of theater. Singaporeans and expats with an interest in history will enjoy seeing it come to life. The theater was full during the Tuesday night performance, so buy your seats as soon as possible.
The LKY Musical is playing through 16 August at MasterCard Theatres at Marina Bay Sands,10 Bayfront Avenue, Singapore 018956. Buy tickets through Sistic.