Sugie Phua’s Journey To The West began a long, long time ago. His deep personal connection with the character of Sun Wukong can be traced all the way back to his childhood. It has even surfaced time and again in his professional career. Sugie tells us about the joys and challenges of finally getting to play the Monkey King in Monkey Goes West.
Tell us about your character in Monkey Goes West.
My character is Sun Wukong – probably the most popular and well-known character from Journey To The West. In the traditional story, Wukong plays the role of the guide, leading Tang Seng, the monk, and the other disciples to fetch scriptures from India. He has things to learn himself, like humility, but he’s also the one who protects everyone on the pilgrimage. He’s the spirit of the entire tale.
In Monkey Goes West, I play Monkey, who meets Ah Tang – played by Joshua Tan – in a colourful imagined world, and guides everyone on an epic adventure.
How familiar were you with Journey To The West before being cast in this production?
I’m very familiar with it! I’ve watched at least four versions of it, including the classic television series starring Liu Xiao Ling Tong that people really loved. In that version, I especially related to the character of Wukong and the journey he underwent during the show.
But I have a lot of personal ties to the story and its main character too. A long time ago, when I was a kid in primary school, my family would place offerings on an altar and there was a Sun Wukong statue that I had to pray to every day. A few years ago, I participated in One Million Star, a huge singing competition in Taiwan. I’m still very proud to this day that I got into that competition. In the process, I was nicknamed ‘Mei Hou Wang’ [Beautiful Monkey King], which stuck in people’s minds. More recently, I played the title character in a musical by Theatre Practice, Lao Jiu. Lao Jiu just wanted to be a puppet master, and his favourite character for puppetry was actually Sun Wukong.
So, the moment I was told I’d be auditioning for Monkey Goes West, I immediately felt that I had to nail that audition! [laughs]
So what can we expect from Alfian Sa’at’s twist on the classic tale?
I think Alfian did a very, very good job with this adaptation. You can see the journey undertaken by each character. Monkey really comes alive in the show, and it’s so funny as well! The music is great too; Elaine Chan really explored so many genres of music for this show. I’m doing a rock number, and I think there’s some flamenco, cha-cha and Oriental-influenced music in there too!
You’ve been quite active in our local Chinese theatre scene, performing in the likes of Lao Jiu and Glass Anatomy. What’s it been like taking on your first English-speaking role?
It’s been hard for me, I must admit! I have not performed in English before, although I’ve used English while hosting some events. I learnt English and Bahasa Indonesia as a kid in Indonesia but, after I came to Singapore and started singing professionally, I was working primarily in China and Taiwan. So I spoke Mandarin almost exclusively for nine years.
Monkey Goes West, of course, is a full-fledged English musical. So I’ve been reading English newspapers every day and practising speaking it more. Irene Jansen, our vocal coach, has been drilling me on diction and enunciation, especially when it comes to singing.
What other preparations have you been making for the role?
It’s actually a really physically challenging part. As Monkey, I literally won’t be able to stand up straight, and will be moving about all the time. There’ll be all the wushu stunts to think about too. I’ve suffered some injuries before, so I’ve been working out and physically conditioning myself to ensure I can do the part. As mentioned above, the journey for Monkey Goes West really did start a long time ago for me!
Are you familiar with W!LD RICE’s pantomimes?
It’s really a first-time experience for me, being in a pantomime. I’ve never watched a pantomime either. I’ve checked with some of my friends – actors who’ve been in a pantomime – to find out what it’s like. The idea of the show changing every night, as the actors engage with the audience members and vice versa, really excites me. I’ve mentally prepared myself for it, but you never know. I love the idea of audience interaction and am very much looking forward to it actually!
What’s it been like working with the Monkey Goes West team so far?
It’s been fun! Knowing who I’ll be working with, I got very excited for this production. Irene has been very helpful. She actually gave me a private lesson today – she’s going to do that for everybody. And the cast is fantastic. Everybody is hilarious and sings so well and they’re really helpful. They’ve been great. I’ll definitely be upping my game for this show!