From Miss Saigon to Broadway Beng, Sebastian Tan takes us through his incredible career – and tells us why the role of S.K. Loo in A $ingapore Carol is a real departure for him.
© Mark Teo Photography
The first time I ever set foot on stage, I was forced into it! I was very shy as a child, but my kindergarten teacher made me take part in a Chinese storytelling competition. I was so nervous that I just went on stage, grabbed the mic, told my story and walked off. I forgot to greet the teachers or even take a bow. As a result, I didn’t even get a consolation prize. When I went home, I didn’t dare to enter the house, because I thought that I had shamed the Tan family. So, as you can see, I was so shy, but also so dramatic!
Growing up, I thought I wanted to be a lawyer. I actually went to the High Court to watch a murder case in action. And it was so boring. The lawyers were all straight-laced and solemn, and they didn’t display any emotions at all! Nothing like all those TV shows I watched. What happened to Matlock and Perry Mason?! That’s when I realised it was the drama I liked, not the law.
I finally caught the acting bug when I was 15. I was a smart aleck who always had something to say in class. So, one day, my literature teacher said: “If you’re so smart, why don’t you join our drama club?” At that time, my school was selected to put up a play for the Young People’s Theatre Festival. I was named Best Supporting Actor for my efforts. And that’s when I decided that this is what I wanted to do.
Still discovering and learning about his voice with A $ingapore Carol music director Elaine Chan!
I didn’t realise I could sing until I joined the SAF’s Music & Drama Company (MDC). Up until that point, I had only ever acted and sung in the privacy of my own bedroom, in front of my fan. Because the blades of a fan give you a natural vibrato! I guess you could say that fan was my first fan. 😂 I still remember the first solo I ever sang with the MDC: a Jacky Cheung song called 祝福 (Blessing). And that’s how I discovered the blessing of my voice.
I’ve never had any official vocal training or a private voice teacher – it was all on-the-job training for me. I’ve been lucky to work with many good music directors and actors, who have helped me to discover my instrument. And I’m still learning as I go along, even after all these years!
Making a living in the performing arts is tough. For a while after I started working in the industry, it was very much hand-to-mouth. At age 30, I actually wanted to quit performing altogether because my so-called career didn’t seem to be going anywhere. That was a very low point in my life – my father had recently passed away, and I was in debt. I love to eat, so I even contemplated giving it all up to become a chef!
Sebastian as Thuy in Miss Saigon
Landing a role in the UK tour of Miss Saigon helped me realise that performing was still what I wanted to do for the rest of my life. I had to make it through six intense rounds of auditions in order to get the part. In my time with that production, I played the principal role of Thuy as well as understudied the lead role of the Engineer, and was earning a good, stable pay. That experience allowed me to call myself a working actor for the first time ever – someone who was actually earning a proper living through acting.
I eventually returned to Singapore because there are more opportunities for me here. As an artist, I want to keep trying different things, and I wouldn’t be able to do that in the UK. It’s slightly better now but, at the time, casting directors in London would only have seen my race, my skin colour, my nationality. And even then, I was auditioning to play roles like a Thai a-go-go boy – I’m so pale, how can?? In contrast, I have the freedom to try so many different things in Singapore. Here, I can perform in up to six productions a year, compared to just one in the UK - if you're lucky. I learn more, I grow faster, and become better as a performer. Of course, I’m also Singaporean through and through. Coming home meant I could tell my own story – my Singaporean story – on stage.
With his chio bus for Broadway Beng!
© Dream Academy
Becoming Broadway Beng has taught me to be proud of my Hokkien heritage. Growing up, my family spoke Hokkien at home and we listened to Hokkien songs quite a bit. Hokkien is actually my mother tongue, not English or Mandarin. But I grew up with all the ‘Speak English’ campaigns, and dialect was basically banned on mainstream media. It made me feel that using dialect was crass, and I used to be ashamed of singing Hokkien songs. I’ve come to embrace it again through Broadway Beng. I actually pick up Hokkien songs quite fast, because the dialect is so much a part of who I am.
I want everyone to know that Broadway Beng is not the only thing I can do! In a way, it’s just a label for me. But Broadway Beng is not entirely me. He’s a character that’s heavily based on me and my life story – but he’s still a character!
I’ve never played a character like S.K. Loo in A $ingapore Carol. He’s our version of Charles Dickens’ Scrooge – a mean, miserly billionaire who’s all frozen up inside. It’s a real departure for me as an actor. I usually play characters who are appealing and likeable, but S.K. Loo is the opposite of that. It’s a challenge, too, because I’m quite young at heart – it means my own energy is very young. S.K. Loo, on the other hand, has a far older energy, because he’s so miserable and negative. At the same time, I want the story and the character to connect with the kids in the audience, so I also have to work on finding the humour in this rather awful character. You’ll have to come see for yourself if I can pull it off!
Catch Sebastian Tan in A $ingapore Carol at the Victoria Theatre from 23 November to 15 December 2018. Book your tickets here today!