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Is this Bangkok’s Year of Musical Theatre?
Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Our Arts Editor trills: It won’t have escaped your notice that, in Thailand, music blares from dusk to dusk, and every opportunity is seized to transform mundane reality into a bit of a show. Security guards, bell boys and street vendors all have their solo routines - mini-parodies of the rites of their trades. Off duty, when Thais gather on a street corner with a couple of Leos and a bucket of ice, they’re soon gurning and wisecracking like the cast of a sitcom. Theatricality is everywhere: exhibitionism for the fun of it, not egomaniacal showing-off. Guys don’t so much nip to the toilet as sail in there to give a virtuoso performance of self-grooming for the amusement of Milady Mirror. And this is not to mention the elaborate choreography of local superstition, where even the simple acts of entering and leaving a building are accompanied by carefully executed bobs to the resident spirits. So, the big question is, with all this song and dance going on, why has Thailand never taken musical theatre to its heart? After all, the kingdom is relatively gay friendly, and musicals – though by no means exclusive - are a relatively gay art form. Western delights such as Hollywood movies, TV formats and even rap have been embraced: why not the greatest of all 20th century inventions in theatre?

Students at Mahidol University’s College Of Music might just be the ones to help Thailand learn to love musical theatre, if their memorable production in June of Willy Russell’s Blood Brothers was anything to go by. And the young hopefuls will shortly be taking on the no less daunting Into The Woods by the Tony Award-, Olivier Award-, Grammy-, Oscar- and Pulitzer Prize-winning Stephen Sondheim, presiding giant of American musical theatre. For all their talent and commitment, though, the students may have their work cut out for them - if not now, then when they progress to the professional stage.

But it’s not as if the capital has been starved of fine musicals in visiting productions. A full-scale staging of the classic West Side Story, with lyrics by Sondheim, enjoyed a brief excursion in 2006, for example. A couple of years later, Lea Salonga graced the title role of the less demanding Cinderella. This wasn’t a Christmas panto, but the stage version of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s musical first seen on American TV in 1957 with Julie Andrews, when CBS claimed an audience of over 100 million.

Stopovers in Bangkok such as these have been relatively short-lived, though the musical in which Lea Salonga made her name, Miss Saigon will occupy the Muangthai Rachadalai Theatre for almost a month from late September. Heaven knows what local audiences will make of this pseudo-operatic travesty of recent Asian history, the horror of the Viet Nam war filtered through the slick sensibilities of the musical production machine known as a Cameron Mackintosh production.

Surely of more value are locally-originated productions featuring Thai performers. A decade ago, an American director called Dale Gutzman initiated with Thai colleagues a pioneering venture, United Bangkok Artists, which seemed set to bring musical theatre to new prominence and popularity.

In particular, Gutzman’s staging of Joseph And The Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat at the Bangkok Playhouse in late 2003 was perfectly judged, restoring this most bearable of Andrew Lloyd Webber shows to its original, unpretentious scale. It was also very well performed by the pro-am Thai cast.

Subsequently, Gutzman was full of tantalising plans, including a production of West Side Story that would (prophetically, as it turned out) have reflected tensions between different communities within Thai society. Sadly, these bright ideas came to very little. Gutzman now spends much of his time running the Off The Wall Theatre in Milwaukee, self-styled “biggest little theatre in the midwest”.

Mulling over his Thai experience, Gutzman told me last week: “The problem was not lack of desire, or finance. We made money on each show we did. The problem was finding and keeping a producer. The wonderful people who did Joseph and my earlier production of Jesus Christ, Superstar just didn't feel they wanted to repeat what’s needed to produce a show: getting sponsors, finding rehearsal space, organising musicians, renting a theatre, as well as co-ordinating schedules and catering and costumes and props and lighting and so on.”

For all that, Gutzman hasn’t turned his back on The Land of Smiles. If interest and sponsorship were forthcoming, he says, he would definitely be “on board for something in the future”.

Meanwhile, musical theatre aficionados must look to the groves of Academe, and the eerily remote Bangkok Salaya campus where Mahidol University has its College of Music, complete with attractive auditorium. Although the demands of the haunting score taxed one or two of their voices, it would be hard to exaggerate the students’ achievement in Willy Russell’s Blood Brothers, under expatriate British director, Richard Ralphs. It was certainly one of the most accomplished nights in Bangkok musical theatre since Gutzman’s Joseph, and a much tougher challenge for the performers.

Premiered at the Liverpool Playhouse in 1983, Blood Brothers is the heartrending story of twins separated at birth and brought up on opposite sides of the track. It has become one of the UK’s longest running musicals ever, still going strong in London after 24 years. And it is essentially about class, seen from the very British perspective of Thatcherism and the deprivations it brought. Some might say all this harsh reality would have little appeal for Thais, but Ralphs says the opposite was the case.

“I think the theme of the class system had the strongest appeal for the students. Their own society is similar in many ways. They also were very interested in the role of women in the society at the time and in the musical.” The pivotal character in Blood Brothers is Mrs Johnstone, mother of the ill-fated twins, originally played by the great Barbara Dickson.

On the night I attended, the stand out performances were those of Korawit Sittisakornslip and Panurat Pongpitakkun as the brothers, Mickey and Eddie. They grasped very cleverly the contrast between the two – one an authentic scouser, the other a bit of a posh git – also suggesting their unrecognised fraternal love better than any other performers I've seen. (And I’ve seen this best of British musicals many times.)

Ralphs liked the “Shakespearean” sweep of the show, and says audiences responded to the dimension of melodrama they also enjoy in TV soaps. That said, the gritty if wry world of Blood Brothers could hardly be further from the fantastical, Brothers Grimm-style setting of Mahidol’s next choice, Into The Woods. The show is easy to enjoy, but wickedly difficult to perform.

Sondheim and librettist James Lapine rework the stories of a cluster of fairy tale archetypes, adding a couple of their own invention, and mingling comedy with themes of family, belonging and community. In this very grown-up rendering, Cinderella doesn’t lose her slipper as she departs from the palace at midnight; she leaves it there deliberately, hoping to snare the Prince.

Rather than having the show foist on them by their instructors, the Mahidol students themselves were eager to do Into The Woods, according to Ralphs. Theirs will be the first ever complete production in Thailand of a show with both music and lyrics by Sondheim, and the Mahidol crew’s enthusiasm echoes the huge popularity of the musical with schools and colleges across the US. As Sondheim puts it, since its first production in 1987 – with Bernadette Peters as the Witch - royalties from Into The Woods have gone on to provide him and Lapine with a “modest annuity”.

It is widely described as one of his most “accessible” scores. That’s partly because of the instantly memorable title song, but also the ballads, No One Is Alone and Children Will Listen, which manage to be pointed and poignant at the same time.

Still, the fact that this is a kind of Thai debut for the 82 year-old Sondheim is a salutary reminder of the kingdom’s odd resistance to musical theatre. He is, after all, the gay man responsible for – in no particular order - Sweeney Todd, Follies, Assassins, Passion, Sunday In The Park With George, Merrily We Roll Along, A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum, Company (which includes Being Alive, the anthem adopted for many AIDS/HIV campaigns) and A Little Night Music (Send In The Clowns), not to mention Madonna’s numbers in the movie, Dick Tracy. You don’t know whether to laugh or cry. Come to think of it, that response might appeal to Sondheim, the master of ambiguity set to music. And, even if Into The Woods doesn’t usher in a brave new era of musical theatre in the kingdom, you’re bound to admire the chutzpah of Richard Ralphs and the tyros at Mahidol.

Into The Woods will be performed on 29 August at 7:00 PM and on 1 September at 2:00 PM and 7:00 PM. Reservations (0) 2800 – 2525-34 ext. 153/4. (0) 8758 – 17995 or (0) 8769 - 74772.

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