She is 17.
And she’s writing and producing her first original musical entitled, Firefly in the Light, a story about chasing dreams, bright lights and the big city, and two teenagers (Wendy and Jake) whose paths intertwine as they journey towards success.
Her name is Shayna Toh.
A girl with a dream, who dived into this independent project with nothing but a bravado only we can dream about, a tinge of youthful naivety, and a reassuring nudge from Smash.
She’s a normal girl.
A girl whose playlist spans from Tchaikovsky to Taylor Swift (“I wanted to hear [the leaked album], but I was like, ‘No, I have principles.’”). A girl who shamelessly references Shake it Off during this interview.
She’s a normal girl.
Except she’s really a prodigy who composed her first song (a two-pager called My Very First Waltz) at six while others recited the alphabet, and penned a play (Where Your Dream Takes You, staged by Singapore Repertory Theatre) at 11 while others sorted out grammar issues. Did we mention she’s a published author and virtuoso vocalist/musician as well?
She studies at Raffles Institution.
Despite being more than qualified for any arts school in the country. With a desire for an academic education, she’s unwittingly pulled an “Emma Watson”. Coincidentally, she’s also eyeing Brown University, the alma mater of a certain on-screen witch.
It is 8:30pm.
We are at Shayna’s house. The cast have gathered for a rehearsal. And while they warmed up their vocal cords in the living room, Shayna and I snuck off to talk about her fearless venture.
Popspoken: What motivated you to write “Firefly in the Light”?
Shayna: What inspired me was more of the concept rather than the plot. It was this whole idea of the reversal of fate and the tables turning. I wanted to explore something in that vein and also about the topics of staying true to yourself and never forgetting who you are or where you came from.
How long did you take to write this musical?
I thought of this whole story when I wrote a pop song called Left Behind when I was 14. It featured a similar story of two people’s paths crossing more than once. But when I started to conceptualise this show early in January this year, I started to develop the story and develop more characters and themes.
I wrote 12 songs over six months, which is really slow. But the first draft of my script was done in two days. I wanted the script to link the songs together, so I had to focus on the songs first.
What’s your writing process like for songs?
I always start with an idea because I was told every song in a musical had to either move a plot or develop a character. I actually had to figure out what each song was about before I wrote it. Once I had an idea of what I wanted the song to do – for example, if the song’s supposed to escalate the conflict between Wendy and her mother – then I would start to write it.
I think I write the music and the lyrics at the same time. It’s easier for me because I already have an idea of how I want the song to climax and which parts should heighten and which parts should not.
Did you compose the music with the piano?
No, I did it on my computer because I was in my room and I was too lazy to walk down…
Isn’t it harder to compose on a computer?
It is! But I didn’t want to come down… I use my keyboards sometimes, which normally is in my room, but I use it mainly to figure out the harmonies, to see when different notes are sung together, whether they clash or sound good. I’ve been using it more for the orchestrations.
What’s the first musical that left an impact on you?
I think it was… Gees, I have a few!
Alright, top three?
Cool. Oh my god, I love this. I think the first one, which really made me sit down and think, “Wow!” was Phantom of the Opera. It was during the time it came to Singapore when I was 10 in 2007. I saw it and I was like, “This is amazing. This is what I want to do with my life!”
The second time I had that feeling was Les Mis in 2009 and I saw it in the West End. I knew about Les Mis (Les Miserables) since I was two years old, but I’d never seen it before so the first time I saw it, it was everything I’d thought it would be and more.
The last time this feeling happened to me was in 2012 when I saw Newsies on Broadway. Newsies was so good man. It was everything a show should be. I got really emotional with Newsies.
You’re currently in Raffles Institution, right? What subjects do you take?
I’m an Arts student, so I take History, Economics, Literature and Math.
So, how are you doing?
I’m actually okay. I thought I would do so badly for my exams, but I didn’t fail anything, which I’m very relieved about. It was really crazy because once, there were a lot of rehearsals going on during the exam week. So, I was so stressed out and literally thought I was going to die.
Going back to the musical, any challenges so far?
Yeah, the whole thing has been a huge challenge, and trying to put everything together because I went in there with not much idea of how to create or produce a musical. I thought that producing a musical was very feasible because I watched Smash. Smash is this NBC show that traces the production of the musical from the conception. I watched and I thought I knew everything about it, but no.
My first challenge is when I was writing the songs because I tend to always write in one style. I’m always writing a ballad for a solo person. During this show, I had to add chorus numbers… I had to write songs of differing styles. There are fast songs, Latin songs and rock songs. They’re all in the pop vein, but there are some variations along the way.
Other challenges were trying to teach the cast the songs because it’s an original musical, so they’ve not heard it before. It was a lot of working out with them the harmonies and trying to get everyone to blend together.
What was the most surprising thing you’ve learnt?
How many aspects are involved in a musical. That, I didn’t see on Smash. Also, the set and the lighting. It’s just getting everything together and trying to think of common themes, which will bring all the aspects together.
What I didn’t know was everything had a certain colour code to it. You see that in the costumes and the lighting. I learnt that each act had a separate colour palette. For example, Act One represented the warmth and the comfort of a small town, so there were sepias, and Act Two was a lot of vibrant colours like red and orange.
What keeps you going through all these challenges?
I think it would be the end product. What all of us are working towards is a really good show on the 15th of November. We just all want to see that end result, so despite all the challenges, we have the show in mind.
Don’t miss this really good show on Nov 15 if you want to cross paths with this 17-year-old prodigy.
When: Nov 15, 8pm
Where: The Art House (Chamber)
Admission: $25 (Free seating)
Photo credit: Jon Cancio