Finding Neverland in Serangoon Gardens

  • Shawne Wang
  • 1 December 2019
Creating a musical like “Peter Pan in Serangoon Gardens” is truly a team effort. Take to the skies with playwright Thomas Lim, lyricist Joel Tan and composer Julian Wong, as they share their challenges and inspirations in setting the stage for this year’s holiday musical!
Thomas Lim, Julian Wong and Joel Tan!

Tell us about creating Peter Pan in Serangoon Gardens. What was it like for you to collaborate in putting this show together?

Thomas Lim: It has been an inspiring and fantastic experience working with Joel and Julian. We exchanged many drafts, sending them to and fro, and – with our director, Ivan Heng – it felt like we were building the world of the show together bit by bit. It was a magical process in which our individual experiences and perspectives of the story of Peter Pan came into contact with one another and became Peter Pan in Serangoon Gardens. 

Joel Tan: Working with Thomas and Julian was a delight. By the time I received the book from Thomas, there was already so much detail to work with that the lyrics just flowed quite naturally. And then, when Julian came in with some musical prompts, laying the ground for his ambition with this piece, it was another great moment because it gave me permission to write the lyrics with a sense of whimsy, scale, drama and magic that I rarely get to do. Week after week, I would look forward to receiving demos and musical sketches, and then respond to them on the train, over dinner, in the parks (I live in London, by the way, and wrote these lyrics during a gorgeous summer). The whole process has been a dream. Julian has really outdone himself with the music, and Thomas’s first panto is so full of delicate wit and heart.

Julian Wong: I’m a fan of both Thomas and Joel’s work, so collaborating with them has been a treat for me! I particularly loved how Thomas distilled J.M. Barrie’s story (which I always felt had too many sub-plots) down to its essence, even as he brought out Peter and Wendy’s differing perspectives about growing up and adventure. That really inspired me as I started thinking about the score. As for Joel – we first worked together on WILD RICE’s The Emperor’s New Clothes, and I was thrilled by our musical chemistry then. Peter Pan in Serangoon Gardens marks our third collaboration, but the process was no less exciting for that. Working across time zones, we bounced ideas off each other – sending melodic sketches and lyrics back and forth. After all the music had been written, we continued to work with Ivan to tweak, throw things out, rewrite and integrate the book, lyrics, and music into one coherent whole.

Way With Words! Joel’s handwritten lyrics for That Wendy

What inspired you the most as you were working on Peter Pan in Serangoon Gardens?

Thomas: I read and watched many different versions of Peter Pan, including the original play written by Barrie. (Did you know that Peter Pan was first a play before Barrie adapted it into a novel?) I was particularly interested in what the story says about growing up, family and the endless possibilities of a child’s imagination. 

Joel: I tuned in to a lot of personal memories writing these lyrics. Memories of that transition between childhood and early teenhood (“whatever happened to Wendy?”), the heady rush of a first crush (“oh my god, you’re doing that thing you do again!”)…  but also things like the specific mood of Singapore at night (“the evening breeze, the amber lights!”). For some of the more emotional songs, of parting ways and saying goodbye, I tapped into some of the very difficult goodbyes I’ve been having to say lately since I’ve moved to London and am now dividing my time between there and Singapore.

Julian: Peter Pan has always been close to my heart; I’ve seen countless adaptations – movies, cartoons, plays, musicals, ballet, parodies! Working on Peter Pan in Serangoon Gardens has helped me understand why I love this story so much. I’ve realised that it’s because we are all Peter and Wendy at some point in our lives, in a constant tug-of-war between growing up and staying a child, imagination and reality, flying and staying grounded, adventure and inertia, loving and letting go. The tension between these opposites is so multi-layered: as you are pulled towards one world, you long for the other. It’s that wistful quality of longing that inspired me most in writing the music. I wanted the music to sound more classic and timeless, as opposed to something too ‘pop’. It was also important for me that the musical elements had a through-line: everything in the score grows out of something from before. In particular, I had a lot of fun writing the Captain Hook songs, with their Rossini and Gilbert and Sullivan influences; and the Mermaids’ song in the style of the Ziegfeld Follies.

Top Score! Julian’s sheet music for That Wendy

What was the most challenging thing for you in working on Peter Pan in Serangoon Gardens?

Thomas: While many people know the story of Peter Pan, it is originally set in the UK. One of the most challenging parts of writing this version was to think about how the story would work in Singapore, which is a vastly different world from the UK in the early 20th century. Of course, as with every WILD RICE pantomime, there was also the challenge of writing not just for the children in the audience, but to create a story that resonates with the adults as well. 

Joel: Being away from Singapore! It takes some extra effort to plug into a creative process over an eight-hour time difference.

Julian: I composed the score for this show over half a year, without anybody (except Joel) hearing a single note. Everything was in my head. Letting go of it was scary, because you never know how the performers, designers and production team will take to it. I’ve been doing this for so long, but going for the first table read has never gotten any less frightening! It was also quite challenging to imagine the show in my head as I composed the score – I had to picture the theatre, choreography, blocking, flying, sets and how the music moved in and out of the dialogue, singing each part out loud as I composed. It was great to finally share some of these ideas with Ivan during our meetings and rehearsals.

The team that brought Neverland from page to stage!
(L-R) Thomas, Joel, Ivan and Julian

Do you have a favourite song or lyric in the show?

Thomas: This is really difficult to answer! I love all the songs so I have the cast recording on constant repeat on Spotify. I have been singing Captain Hook and the pirates’ My Own Little Colony to everyone in the office because the lyrics are simply brilliant. I also love the Mermaids’ By The Sea; that one is such a big, fun number. If I had to choose just one, I would have to say it is the immensely bittersweet Goodbye between Peter and Wendy. 

Joel: That Wendy, a solo sung by Wendy early in the show, about growing up and leaving behind a more magical version of herself. It’s one of the first I wrote! Julian has scored it beautifully. And I’m very proud of some of the rhymes in that one.

Julian: I wrote the melody to Goodbye first, and when Joel came back with his lyric and I sang it to my music, I cried. It came as such a huge blow to me. It is a truth that is so difficult to articulate in words, but Joel manages to put it so simply.

Sometimes in life the ones you love can only go halfway (with you)
Down the path and round the bend, wishing they could stay
And you think goodbye is awful
And you wish you never said it
’Cause you never ever want it to end

In the show, Peter Pan needs a wonderful thought – and fairy dust – to fly. What wonderful thought would you use to fly?

Thomas: I have very fond memories of playing at the playground with my neighbours before I started going to school. The playground was always teeming with the screams, energy and life of children with too much energy pretending to be police and thieves and playing all sorts of games. After running off all our energy in the hot sun, nothing was more shiok than the 10-cent ice pops we would get at the minimart. It’s more a wonderful memory than a wonderful thought, but I hope it works!

Joel: Oh, plenty, but most are not kosher to share in a family-friendly environment!

Julian: The thought of my students and godchildren growing up to be people who are kind, responsible, and compassionate.

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