Tailor-Made For Success

You may have seen Benjamin Kheng of The Sam Willows sing, act, dance and play an instrument – but, in The Emperor’s New Clothes, he’ll be doing it all at the same time! In this in-depth interview, he tells us about stitching up his role in this year’s pantomime and explains why, despite his growing success as a musician, he will always return to the theatre.
Image courtesy of Pavane Recording Studio

How did you get involved with The Emperor’s New Clothes?

It was really Pam Oei’s fault. She tricked me into joining the cast, luring me in with different tactics! [laughs] But, seriously, we’ve known each other for a while and I have a lot of respect for her and what she does. Pam brought up the panto and I loved the story. It’s timeless and also timely – it’s one of those stories that can be applied to any generation, but also makes sense and is so relevant for modern Singapore.

Tell us about Nate No-Surname, the character you play in the show.

Nate is one of two kids who grew up together in an orphanage and eventually become the tailors for the Emperor’s clothes in the biggest New Dress Parade ever. Nate and Khai [played by Sezairi from Singapore Idol] are the storytellers who thread the entire story together. And it’s a great story – hilarious and heartwrenching at the same time. I’m working really hard to do it justice!

This show has everyone playing instruments on stage. How have rehearsals been for you?

Playing instruments live on stage is really complex and challenging! Musicians for live gigs don’t just play chords – they have to concentrate on getting their notes right and coming in on time, with the right tonality and rhythm. For this show, we’ll have to do all that while dancing, singing and acting with our instruments! Our instruments are extensions of our stage personas.

As a musician, it’s a dream come true… and my greatest nightmare as well! When I’m doing my own music, I’m in my element. This is a totally different ball game. I’m scared, but I’m really excited too. There’s an amazing quote that goes: ‘Sometimes, you have to take the leap and build your wings on the way down.’ It’s true – we’re all taking that leap right now!

How has Julian Wong’s music inspired you?

Julian really is the best at what he does – there’s no comparison! The music is just mindblowing. You’d think that, for a kids’ musical, there’d be some kind of limitation on what can be done musically. But Julian is tapping on so many different genres, and to such amazing effect. He manages to make you feel sympathy for the Emperor through his music. That’s crazy! While learning the scores, we would stop and go, “This is so good!”. It really makes us want to perfect it, because we really connect with every single song.

Working on getting the perfect shot at the Emperor photoshoot
with art designer C.K. Chia and photographer Mark Law

What’s it been like working with Pam as a director?

Pam is so motherly to me! She keeps asking me, “Do you really want to drink that? Are you sleeping enough?”. [laughs] As a director, she makes very sharp choices, and is very good with timing and comedy. She knows how to play with space and silence too. She’s an actor’s director, because she’s a performer herself, but she can also macro-manage the entire production, which is something not all actors can do. She’s very open to collaboration and ideas, which means that everyone in the cast is included in the creative process and it feels like a team effort.

You and Sezairi are rising stars on the local music scene. What’s it like working together on this show?

I’ve worked with Airi before, but mostly for music. We’ve travelled and toured and jammed a bunch of times. But this is his first time doing a musical, and it’s so fun to see him in this mode – to watch him get into it and work on understanding a different musical language.

What are some of the challenges you’ve encountered in rehearsals?

I’ve seen pantos before, so I know the incredible amount of sacrifice and hard work it takes to get one off the ground. Pam talked me through it beforehand. But this is particularly intense! Even though I’ve done musicals before, I still have to code-switch and compartmentalise when working on this. I’m also in rehearsals until 6pm and then have band recordings at night. The Sam Willows will be releasing its first full-length album, Take Heart, on 30 October. So I’m tired as hell. But I wouldn’t trade it for the world. I’m enjoying myself so much!

Audience interaction is a key element of any pantomime. Are you looking forward to that aspect of the show?

From an academic standpoint, I know that people are going to shout things at me and I’ll have to react. So I can see that coming already. But I honestly have no idea what to expect. At the end of the day, I’ll try to ensure that I serve the story when I respond to them! It’s going to be really fun, I’m sure – I love kids, and I’ve worked with them a few times via ACT 3.

Driving us around the Ben!
Emperor’s three Bens (L-R): Benjamin Chow, Benjamin Wong & Benjamin Kheng!

As an audience member in the theatre, is there a particular show that was special or memorable for you?

W!LD RICE’s Animal Farm. I grew up with theatre – my parents fed me a steady stream of theatre while I was growing up. But Animal Farm is one of the plays that really made me sit up and see how imperative theatre is in society – how we need it, not necessarily to effect change immediately, but to be that question, to be that voice. I was very, very moved by it.

How about as a performer?

In 2012, I did this piece called National Broadway Company with TheatreWorks. It was really a baptism by fire for me. I’d done fringe work since 2010, but National Broadway Company was big – it was the only show I’ve ever done where we did a sitzprobe at the very start. It was the scariest thing ever! I knew the entire cast, obviously, and had looked up to them for ages. But to see all of them in one place at one go, it was just really surreal and scary for me.

But the experience taught me that theatre is a very revered art form. People across the years have bled for this – they have sacrificed so many hours and so much of their lives just to serve this art form. I learnt that, if I wanted to do the same, I’d have to put in the work too.

What is it that draws you to acting?

When I was young, I had a bunch of issues, like every neurotic, self-doubting kid. So acting was always a wonderful form of escape for me.

I’m also a person who’s very easily moved. I remember struggling so hard to make my friends feel the same way about things I was passionate about. When I first heard a song that really got to me, I’d be, like, ‘Did you guys not get it? Why are you not crying? Is it not moving you to the moon and back?’. I’m such a sensitive new-age guy. [laughs] And I figured that I wanted to dedicate the rest of my life to trying to make people feel that same way. Because people can get so uptight, and that form of escapism is so healthy sometimes. It’s about telling stories. I get to do that to a certain extent in my music and, when I’m tired of telling my own story, I get to tell other stories. It’s the best job in the world; I can’t complain.

What’s your favourite musical?

Right now, it’s The Book of Mormon. I watched it in London and I just died. I’m a modern-musical kind of guy – I love Rent, Once, The Bridges of Madison County… for me, it’s very hard to go wrong with Jason Robert Brown. Take The Last Five Years – it’s not afraid to go to very ugly places, and that’s what, I suppose, makes it beautiful. That show is willing to reveal the scariest parts of humanity, which is the most important thing about musicals and theatre. It’s about holding a mirror up to people and getting them to really accept themselves and not try to shun away. So many other forms of media are about perfecting and filtering things, but theatre is this wonderful place where you get to be naked, where you get to perfect yourself. It’s where you challenge people to take a leap, and when they take it, it’s so powerful. You’re affecting lives, you’re changing things.

Is that what keeps you coming back to the theatre?

Absolutely. I love doing commercial music, because you’re casting such a wide net – I can talk to kids or adults who all listen to our music. That’s great. But musical theatre is so raw and personal, in a different way. It’s such a privilege to be able to do both. It’s every musician’s dream. I keep telling people that I need to do at least one theatre thing a year, because it’s so therapeutic and cathartic. It really centres you again as a performer, and reminds you of why you’re doing all this. You can get very jaded and very tired doing commercial work sometimes, although it does pay the bills. You can forget why you’re doing it in the first place. But, in the theatre, no one gives a crap about how many followers you have or how famous you are. It’s about how well you serve the story and how good a team player you are.

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