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Singapore’s Swingin’ Sixties: Tropicana

Written by
Rebecca Liew

Gaudy flashes of skin and colour are the least of what to expect when Tropicana the Musical opens. Based off the popular namesake of the swingin’ sixties – a lavish, Las Vegas-style nightclub in Singapore that featured international class topless revues – is a comedy-musical about a nation of dream makers and catchers, thanks to The Necessary Stage’s resident playwright, Haresh Sharma. We quiz the Cultural Medallion recipient on the process behind penning his first musical.

Photo: The Necessary Stage

Tropicana the Musical is based off the real-life nightclub that opened in 1968. Tell us a little more about what viewers can expect.
Tropicana explores the highs and lows of Singapore's music and entertainment scene in the ’60s to ’70s, and we go on a journey with some of these characters over a span of 20 years. There’s a sense of the conventional – character relationships, love and break-ups – but just as much, the unconventional: characters speak directly to the audience, a mix of languages is used, and underlying it all is some form of social commentary.

What inspired you to pen a script surrounding this?
The idea actually came from Tan Kheng Hua. She and Beatrice Chia-Richmond approached me in 2015 and asked if I’d like to be involved in this musical as the playwright. At the time, we knew we wanted to create something about the ’60s and about Tropicana [Niteclub], but we also wanted to celebrate the spirit of the time – the artists' freedom to compose and perform original music, their creativity and derring-do. There was innovation and vision – the fact that  people came together to build Singapore's first entertainment complex and present world-class topless cabaret acts. 

In session: The cast backstage
Photo: Tan Kheng Hua

Take us through the research process for Tropicana.
In creating the script, I wanted to employ The Necessary Stage's style of devising a play. I spent a week with the cast during Phase I – we researched, created characters and improvised scenes. Phase II was a dramaturgical phase where I worked closely with Julian Wong, the composer. We spent hours talking about the script, the narrative flow and the marriage of song and dialogue. There was also a particularly meaningful session where we met pioneers of the music scene like Wilson David, Larry Lai and Vernon Cornelius, and ex-Tropicana staff.

It seems the ’60s and ’70s were Singapore’s golden years – at least, for the arts and local music scene. How did you attempt to capture that spirit in Tropicana?
While writing [the script], I’d constantly listen to songs from the ’60s and ’70s that we’d compiled to get myself in the mood and rhythm of that era. I also watched musicals on YouTube, just to get a feel of the kinds of musicals that have been produced over the years. I also tried to capture the spirit of the times with multiracial and multilingual characters. 

As a playwright with over 20 years’ experience, how different was it writing a musical as opposed to a play?
The initial process of writing, researching and devising wasn't that different from writing a play, but the exciting bit was working with [composer] Julian Wong. We discussed the narrative and the dynamic relationship between music and text extensively.

How do you think the theatre scene’s evolved since you started out in the late ’80s?
There's so much more going on now, in terms of both performances and platforms. The ecosystem’s more developed, with different levels of support for artists. But I think we’ve still got some way to go where arts education is concerned. We need to introduce local arts and theatre to primary school students by exposing them to performances, poems and familiarising them with local artists.

Tropicana the Musical is at Capitol Theatre from Apr 13-30.

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