The LKY Musical review: the closest this generation will get to experiencing the road to Singapore’s independence
On 9 August 1965, Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew was driven to tears in a rare display of emotion as he announced Singapore’s separation from Malaysia.
For most of us, that moment is simply a sentence in a social studies textbook or an anecdote occasionally recounted by a nostalgic older relative. But what is the actual story behind this “moment of anguish”?
The stoic first Prime Minister of Singapore had, up until this point, weathered not just one but two foreign occupations. So why did the country’s short-lived union with Malaysia drive him to tears?
To answer this, you could scour the internet or your library references – or catch The LKY Musical, presented by Aiwei and the Singapore Repertory Theatre (SRT).
Returning seven years after its first run in 2015, the musical follows a young Lee Kuan Yew from his days as a student (during the colonial rule in 1941) until Singapore’s independence in 1965.
This year’s run is the largest local production since the pandemic and features a revamped musical arrangement with new songs.
Brought to life by an international team of artists, the musical is based on the book written by the late SRT founder Tony Petito and novelist Meira Chand. Veteran London West End director Steven Dexter helms the show, with local music legend Dick Lee composing the score and lyrics by the late British playwright Stephen Clark.
The saga unfolds against a beautiful, modular set which transforms seamlessly into law offices, rally stages, housing units, school canteens, and more. Transitions between scenes, whilst dramatic, were smooth and often accompanied by multimedia projections of real newspaper clippings, maps, and radio announcements.
An unexpected takeaway from the musical was the lesson on the economics of Singapore. As the supporting characters try to survive and make a livelihood over time, audiences get some insight into how war, colonialism, and independence had changed the economic climate for locals.
Lee’s use of music keeps the production captivating – from heavy, emotional pieces to energetic ditties and cheeky acapella numbers in between, the soundtrack artfully balances out the serious subject matters explored in the musical.
In this restaging, theatre veteran Adrian Pang reprises his role as our nation’s founding father. He does a fantastic job at mimicking Lee Kuan Yew’s mannerisms and speech patterns, cutting a convincing figure on stage. At the same time, Pang tempers the iron rhetoric in the production by injecting some youthful hubris into his portrayal. This brings some believability to the musical’s more idealistic and romantic moments.
Joining Pang on stage is singer and actress Kit Chan, who steps into the role of Lee’s wife, Madam Kwa Geok Choo. No stranger to the stage, Chan previously worked with Lee and Dexter on Forbidden City: Portrait of an Empress – another homegrown classic.
Chan does an excellent job of portraying Madam Geok Choo. She’s formidable, gentle, and elegant all at once and, unsurprisingly, her arresting vocals shine bright in the musical. While Pang holds his own in his solos, his voice takes a backseat in the romantic duets with Chan.
One of the standout performances came from Benjamin Chow, who plays prominent trade union leader and left-wing political activist, Lim Chin Siong. From idealistic freedom fighter to radicalised rebel, Chow’s portrayal humanises an often-villainised political opponent. The show’s major arc centres on his performance and he delivers a very likeable figure that has the audience, at times, rooting for him.
Another standout performance is Hatta Said as Tunku Abdul Rahman. Playing his character with style and cheek, Said’s performance brought out the duplicitous nature of politics in the post-colonial era, where playful natures can hide powerful agendas.
While it is amazing that the show squeezed 24 years of history into 2.5 hours of song and stories, there are some stories we would have liked to see more of.
Lim Chin Siong’s experiences during the Japanese occupation would have added more colour to the tense struggle between himself and Lee Kuan Yew. The musical also consistently hints at Madam Geok Choo’s role as the wind beneath Lee Kuan Yew’s wings – from speech editor to advisor. But not much is shown about her experiences during the occupation or her perspectives on the unfolding events.
Despite this, the musical offers an eye-opening snapshot of Singapore’s social and political growth through the lens of the then-Prime Minister, Lee Kuan Yew. It brings to light all the players, pressures, and betrayals that ultimately culminated in the historic “moment of anguish”.
The LKY Musical runs till 2 Oct at the Sands Theatre, Marina Bay Sands.
(Photos: Singapore Repertory Theatre)
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