Veteran stage practitioner Tan Kheng Hua has a folder on her laptop labelled “Dreams”, filled with passion projects. One of them was Tropicana The Musical. By KIMBERLY SPYKERMAN
<b>PHOTO</b> WILFRED WEEGEE STUDIO & THE STRAITS TIMES
Tan Kheng Hua dedicated most of 2015 to Singapore: Inside Out – directing performances in what was essentially a travelling showcase of the Republic’s creative talents. The project – which oﬀered a multisensory experience in areas that included food, architecture and the arts – wound down in August 2015. After being immersed in so much local creativity, she felt compelled to produce an original musical.
It was time to open her folder of dreams – a collection of ideas the 54-year-old keeps on her laptop. She has nursed the folder for more than 25 years, adding ideas and details along the way that delve right down into characters and plots, ready to be turned into projects at the right time. In fact, some of these ideas have taken shape – in the form of food-variety show Table for Three!, infotainment programme Heartland Getaways, as well as the gritty stage drama Do Not Disturb, which was later adapted for television.
But for eight years, Tropicana The Musical existed only inside that folder until Singapore: Inside Out stirred a longing in Kheng Hua to produce a musical about what she feels is one of Singapore’s most dynamic and creative eras – the ’60s. She then began assembling her dream team of theatre heavyweights to bring the musical, based on the famous local topless revue of the same name, to life. It’s directed by Beatrice Chia-Richmond, scripted by Haresh Sharma, and features a cast of recognisable names, including Lim Yu Beng, Siti Khalijah Zainal and Karen Tan.
The spirit of the ’60s
Kheng Hua is a fan of the ’60s. “I love the colour [of that time], it’s aesthetically pleasing to me,” she says.
That colour, she says, extended to the way people lived. “We’re talking about a creative spirit in the ’60s that was very dynamic, and really quite an amazing time in Singapore.” The nightclub Tropicana, says Kheng Hua, captured the exuberance of that bygone era. Its opening in 1968 hailed the introduction of topless entertainment to Singapore.
“Tropicana is one-of-a-kind. Inside this place, there was such acceptance of all sorts of people. You could be who you were. Race was not so politicised, and everyone could speak at least two languages and a dialect. What a gorgeous time.”
Bringing a vision to life
But even as Kheng Hua breathes life into her dreams as producer of this musical, reality is never far from her mind. It’s not her first rodeo as an independent producer – her repertoire includes big-name blockbusters like Dream Academy’s Dim Sum Dollies franchise and Little Shop of Horrors, and she was a consultant producer for Pangdemonium’s rendition of The Full Monty. Kheng Hua knows she has to bring the crowds in, to break even.
To do that, Tropicana The Musical is adopting a new ticketing model – a method known as incentive pricing. What that translates to is big discounts the earlier you buy, with prices getting steeper closer to opening night.
But while incentive pricing may help sell tickets, what Kheng Hua really wants to do is capture her audience. Browse the musical’s website (http://www.tropicanathemusical.com), and it’s easy to lose yourself in the gorgeous sepia-toned photos, production music, and videos that allow you to get to know the cast better oﬀ stage.
It is a carefully calibrated move that closes the gap between cast and audience. “If people don’t know and don’t respect the process, the artist, and the work that goes into making the art, it’s very hard to connect at a deep and long-lasting level,” she says. This intimate knowledge is what she hopes will prompt people to come and watch the show.
Being a producer requires Kheng Hua to flex a diﬀerent muscle from acting, and she is very clear about the role she plays. Acting is “selfish”, she says, and necessarily so. “Acting is about organising and preserving myself and my body as my instrument.”
Producing, however, is about giving. “You give all the time. Your job is to keep everybody working well together, to ensure an environment that helps everyone create optimally, as well as to make sure everybody gets paid on time, and adequately.”
The work of a producer, Kheng Hua adds, never really stops. And that’s why she is so selective, choosing to only take on producing work that she can be happy to live and breathe 24/7.
Tropicana The Musical is an $800,000 production – comparable to the cost of staging other popular musicals. Even as she sourced grants and sponsors, Kheng Hua was aware that she would have to dig into her own pockets to fund the start-up costs, which include paying actors, photographers and graphic designers.
She had never taken such financial risks in previous producing ventures – either on stage or on screen. Some of them were largely funded by grants, and others backed by big theatre companies. In all those projects, the financial liabilities did not lie with her – and revenue- generating ticket sales didn’t need to be her top priority.
But with this musical, Kheng Hua says the risks to her bank account are worth it. “I have always wanted my own production of this scale, and on my own terms – my own story, my own team.”
“It’s why I’ve waited until I’m in my 50s [to do so], and my mortgage is all paid up [to embark on it]. Now that I have some savings, I want to do this. This is number one on my work bucket list.”