Theatre buffs, listen up – Sondheim is in season. COMPANY, the musical comedy about a bachelor’s struggle to settle down and get married, will be staged from 1-11 November at the Drama Centre. The Tony Award-winning musical is staged by Dream Wolrd Productions and stars favourites like Tan Kheng Hua, Petrina Kow, Karen Tan and Brendon Fernandez. Malaysian actor Peter Ong stars as the lead Robert/Bobby, with Mina Kaye, Glory Ngim and Seong Hui Xuan playing his love interests. (Yup, he has three.) Greats such as fashion director Daniel Boey and choreographer George Chan will also be involved in setting up the play.

We chatted up with director Hossan Leong and actor Peter Ong regarding their roles in the musical, the key themes of believability, love and commitment, plus one particular gay-themed scene that has a different affirming message than the ones out-and-proud scripts usually show. Below are verbatim quotes from the two members in the musical.

Hosaan Leong

My Nespresso starts me off, but I think why I can manage so many productions this year is due to time management and being able to pre-plan. Company was already in pre-production since January with photo-shoots and all that. We got the set design out way before we got anything else done. Music, scriptwork, adaptation – everything was done even before I started La Cage. I had the time to concentrate on La Cage and relax a bit, then after La Cage, I started The Hossan Leong Show (THLS) on Monday. I only had a break between THLS & Company rehearsals. I had to get everything done in that short span of time before we started rehearsals. By the time we started on Company rehearsals, I already knew what we wanted, which direction to go for the show and I briefed my creative and marketing teams so they knew exactly where I was going with this show. We all were on the same wavelength.

For me, personally, Company started in 1996, when I heard the London revival on CD. I didn’t see the production because I didn’t have money back then to go to London to watch it but I was immediately drawn to the lyrics, the music, the power of the whole performance just by listening to that CD. He moved me just by the songs. (I thought) wow, we should do it here in Singapore. I thought it was very relevant – being 35, single, forced to make a decision to get married. Back then, there was no way I could have done it because I had no support in terms of a production house or a theatre company. Last year, Selena (Tan) said “So, what would you like to do this year?” I said my dream was to direct Company. She said let’s just do it. We did Into The Woods last year and it was Sondheim so, here we are! We all know that Sondheim is not mass-market. It’s not Disney, Mary Poppins or Wicked.

Editor: If you are amongst the theatre community and you know musical theatre, you know Sondheim.

Sondheim started the whole revolution of breaking the mould of musical theatre from the jazz hands. Company was the first non-linear musical and it was before its time. Now, I think it’s very relevant to Singapore and being given the opportunity to stage it: I’m so lucky and it’s a wonderful team behind me. I’m so happy to be able to do it. Whether we’ll be able to make money or not, we don’t know. (laughs) I always tell people: learn to drop your guard a little bit. Take a risk and say “I don’t mind spending $60 and come and watch a musical, even though I don’t know what it’s all about”. People tend to see the stuff they want to see or know about, so if you don’t know who Sondheim is or what Company is all about, just be rest assured that it’s a damn good musical.

I’ve adapted it by taking out the word “New York”. So, every time you go “Oh, here in New York”, the line will be replaced with “Oh, here”. It’s universal, but in order to make it relevant and for people to identify with it, it has to be set here. I don’t have to keep banging on the fact that it is Singapore because there’s no necessity for it; the script speaks for itself. There are some points when a character says “the center of universe is in  42nd Street”. I changed it to “the center is in Orchard Road’. I just changed little bits and all references to New York are taken out. I only put one reference to Singapore in.

When Sondheim wrote in in 1969, it was so relevant then. Fast-forward to today and it’s so relevant now because we are busy, we are urbanized, we are living amongst strangers. We don’t know who our neighbours are. Who do we mix with? Our bunch of friends; we don’t mix with anybody else. That’s what Bobby (the lead character) is facing.

The message hits home very hard because everyone needs to find love but yet how do they find love if they don’t reach out in the first place?

I knew I wanted some of my cast prior to castings, like Brendon Fernandez, Karen Lim. Who played what, I had to audition. I had (Tan) Kheng Hua in mind as Joanne because I felt she had the physicality and gravitas. Plus, she could sing. This is an actor’s musical, not like A Chorus Line where it is a dancer’s musical. Peter has got a beautiful voice, which is an added bonus. I’ve got new people from LaSalle who just graduated. It’s a nice range of people: some old, some new, all nationalities – New Zealand, London. The most difficult part of putting the cast together was to find Bobby. I went to Sydney and Kuala Lumpur to audition and I met Peter Ong (at the latter location).

The scene I played about Peter & Bobby’s homosexual inclinations is very, very real. Peter and Bobby have been friends for a long time. The reason for Peter’s divorce is not stated in the show. As we rehearsed it, we found that Peter and Susan’s journey is very interesting because they’ve divorced but they still stay together because they have that responsibility to take care of the kids. We discovered by ourselves that either Susan found out he was gay or he came out to her – something very serious happened in the marriage. There are some wives I know who are still with their ex-husbands or are friends with them even though they’ve found out that they were gay. It’s so hard for a person to come out, especially when they’re in Singapore. Peter’s been hiding behind a mask all his life, and then suddenly Peter turns to him and says “What about us?” Peter asked Bobby straight-up if he has had a homosexual experience as an adult and he said yes. Bobby asks back “Are you gay?” Peter says he’s not and so does Bobby. What if friends like us could suddenly find that level of intimacy? Bobby realizes but you know how people are in denial but in a way where they don’t want to confront it now?

It’s all in the moment. Some people cannot handle it now and say they’ll deal with it later. Some people may not even want to deal with it. At this point in the play when this revelation happens, Bobby’s plate is full. He has to deal with so many issues now: his friends’ marriages are all torn apart, he’s having affairs with 3 girls – his best friend coming on to him with his sexuality is the last thing he can handle right now. What happens after the play, we don’t know. During that point of time, that’s how Bobby handles it. I don’t think it will offend the LGBT community because why should it? We all face it when someone comes out and you go “No lah, you’re kidding lah”. Some of them retract and say “Yeah, I’m kidding” and hide the reaction. This is something very important to know: that this is real. It’s not trying to skirt the issue or insinuate that Bobby isn’t married because he is gay. He is straight. So what if he had a homosexual experience as an adult? No big deal. Doesn’t make him gay. He pushes Peter away and in the last part on that scene, Peter’s face has the “Well, I tried” look. I think Bobby knows all along; it’s just that he doesn’t want to deal with it right now.

On Bobby’s gay-themed scene with Peter: “It’s not trying to skirt the issue or insinuate that Bobby isn’t married because he is gay. He is straight. So what if he had a homosexual experience as an adult? No big deal. Doesn’t make him gay.”

Well, there’s one number that will be ra-ra: the one with the 3 girls. That is a big dance number and we have three amazing actresses who can do all that. Most of my actors aren’t real dancers, so it’s hard for them to do real ra-ra dancing. If you can’t do a kick, you can’t do a kick. George has been crafting the choreography to suit them so they won’t look ugly or out of place. There is a lot of play on shape and movements. I think our Singapore adaptation would be the most choreographed version of Company in the world. It’s not Chorus Line but it’ll be “wow”. If they get it right, lah. (laughs)

So far, the company has been wonderful. They go and see shows and eat together after rehearsals. Everyone’s been very nice to one another. I don’t want to get involved in making them cohesive. I’ve laid the rule down on the first rehearsal: the vision I had for the musical comes from one line of the show – “Love is company”. You are the company, so I want the word love to pervade in rehearsals and when you’re together. I’m strict. I have to, it’s a big show. If you’re slack, I tell it to your face. I email you and I tell you “This is supposed to be done, please.” I’m not scolding you because I don’t believe in that; we are all adults here. I’m just saying pick up the pace. I don’t mince my words. I tell it to you straight to your face – in front of people, if I have to. Don’t tell me you’ve got a job outside. I know you’ve got this and that but so do I. I’m directing three other productions at the same time. What’s your excuse? You have no excuse. I want your 100% at 10 o’clock. That’s all I ask of you. We upload videos of the dance steps online for you to learn the moves. Rehearsals are not meant for you to learn the steps but for you to clean them up. That’s where I’m coming from: encouragement, love, nurture and in return, they would love and respect one another. When we come on stage and give our first opening number, the audience would feel the love. I don’t want it to be just another show.

This show is multi-sensory as well. For the first time ever, this theatre adaptation of Company will have the sense of smell. The whole set is a cross-section of a loft apartment. When you go into someone’s house, there is always a smell, right? Even if Bobby’s a bachelor, I don’t think his house is smelly. He may have a candle or aromatherapy. That smell is what you will be greeted with when you come into the theatre: this masculine, leather, tobacco smell, which we will infuse into the aircon system. The smell is so subtle that the audience won’t really recognize it until you see the set. It’s dark but lit from the “windows” and you hear the muffled sounds of vehicles on the road. Suddenly, you are a fly on the wall looking at Bobby’s life.

 

Peter Ong

I received a Facebook message from a mutual friend who’s an agent in KL and she said Singapore is going to produce Company and Hossan, the director, is coming up to KL and is looking to audition people. I was very interested. Sondheim is one of my favourite composers and I’ve always wanted to do a Sondheim production. I immediately jumped on it – name the date and time, I would cancel anything just to be there for the audition. I met Hossan in his hotel room for the audition. We did a read-through and a sing-through. A few months pass and I get a call asking if I want to come down to Singapore to meet Selena and the rest of the cast? Sure! I’m very grateful to Hosaan for putting his faith in me.

peter

It’s been a dream cast. Company is an ensemble show and there is no minor role. I feel very safe and secure with these people. There’s this sense of camaraderie during this process. We’ve all taken the “love” keyword to heart. It’s about relationships and loving yourself. Some projects that you do, you get the sense that the purpose is because of the pay or the status. Everyone who’s in this project is doing it because they love the project.

It’s such an ensemble-heavy show. We have no set changes, flying chandeliers, pyrotechnics – the weight is on the shoulders of the cast. That adds to the challenge and the draw of why we are all here. It r5eally is a test of our skills as actors and singers. Hopefully, it goes “boom”.

I first saw Bobby’s role when I was a teenager. I was blown away – Sondheim’s music is incredible. It was one of those things where I said “if I ever get to do this, I will die a happy man”. There is a Bobby in every single man, whether you’re gay, straight or bisexual. If you’re in a relationship and you want to take it further, there will always be doubts. I can’t say that Bobby is a unique character like Sweeney Todd or the Phantom. He is a very real man. Bobby has to get his head around the idea of commitment. That is a scary word – commitment. I don’t even think about my meals next week and you want to commit to loving someone for life? Err, let’s take it year by year? (laughs) Girls like that kind of idea of settling down. That’s why Sondheim is such a genius – you get the male and female perspective from the way the show is done. They’re not the same thing.

Hossan has made a very safe environment, especially when I have to find the Bobby inside of me. Bringing him out can be very daunting. It’s safe to let it out during rehearsals. Bobby has different relationships with each character. Hell, he has different relationships with each of the three girls. It’s just about being very truthful. I enjoy the internal parallel of relating what Bobby has gone through to what I have gone through. I’m hoping none of my exes come to the show. (laughs)

I enjoy the internal parallel of relating what Bobby has gone through to what I have gone through. I’m hoping none of my exes come to the show.

If I were to do something like the Phantom, it would have to be completely separate from myself because I’ve never gone through what this psychotic, demented person who lives in the sewers has gone through. With Bobby, I can because it’s an honest portrayal. You can’t divorce yourself from it. It’s not a fictitious personality. If it’s about the truth, you should be brave enough to look inside.

You can take it and plonk it in any major city in the world and it will be relevant. We all know people like that.

Honestly, I didn’t know what to expect. I came in with a blank canvas because Company is one of those shows which is show pliable. I didn’t want to come in with any preconceived notions. I just wanted to listen to what Hossan and George had to say, form bonds with the cast and take it from there because it’s so open to interpretation. Hosaan has a very real vision for it: he told us not to deliver our lines, but to converse. It’s like the TV show Friends, except it’s being set to music.

It’s good that you’re worried. Go into a commitment without expectations. When you expect something, it will all fall south. You’ve got to take this person every day as it comes. People change: it’s ridiculous to think that the person I’m marrying now is going to be the same person 40 years later. We’re not taught about relationships. So, just enjoy the journey down.

Malaysia, to me, is home. We’re going to face one of the most crucial elections this year. I have a lot of friends who have migrated and they say “You should migrate too”, “It’s corrupt in Malaysia” et cetera. I feel if I don’t stand up and fight for what I think is right and just run away, then I shouldn’t complain and just shut up. No country in the world, no place, nothing is perfect. It’s what you make of it, being responsible and cleaning up your house. I grew up in Malaysia, my friends and memories are there. Living in Paris or London is running away.

To thank all our readers for your support thus far, we have a pair of tickets to give out to the award-winning musical, Company. For more details on the giveaway, click here.

Tickets prices for the November 1 preview are from $37-$77. Standard tickets from November 2-11 are from $57-$97. All ticket prices are not inclusive of the $3 SISTIC booking fee. Tickets are available at SISTIC.

[Update] Editor’s note: Check out our review of the play here.