The Music Man

Don’t take your eyes (or ears) off Julian Wong – this multi-talented musician, composer and musical director is going places! We chat with Julian about coming full circle in his career, from his debut as Pam Oei’s opening act to working with her to create an original score for The Emperor’s New Clothes.

How did you come to be involved with The Emperor’s New Clothes?

Ivan called me last year and asked if I would be open to the idea of composing for the pantomime. We met a couple of times to talk about the show, and, gradually, I felt that it was the right time for me to come on board.

What can we expect from the music you’ve composed for the show?

I’d like to think that the score has something for everyone. What drew me to The Emperor’s New Clothes was Pam’s vision for the show – that it would be a musical about music. The townsfolk are all musicians in one way or another. For an eclectic musician like myself, a project like this is a blessing! It gives me a lot of freedom in terms of genres and stylistic choices. The actors play instruments too, so that’s been very exciting to see.

Your score is eclectic. Tell us a little about your composition process. Do you have a favourite number in the show?

As with all my work, I do a lot of listening and research, try to absorb it all, and then begin to create a musical landscape piece by piece.

My favourite number in the show changes every day. Each morning, I come to rehearsal with a particular favourite but, by the end of the day, after seeing the actors work their magic on another song, I have a new favourite!

Julian working with the FIRST STAGE! Kids,
as he pulls together the cast recording in the studio!

What was it like to work with Pam and Joel Tan in developing the music for the show?

Pam has always been one of my favourite people to work with. In fact, I made my debut at the (now-defunct) Young Musician’s Society as her band’s opening act in 1999. So you can imagine what a thrill it is to work alongside her in this capacity. I’ve always appreciated her strict, no-nonsense approach to work. Her musical instinct is consistently on point.

Joel is a fine lyricist. You can tell from the way he writes that he is extremely musical. It’s a gift to work with someone like him – you get what he’s trying to say instantly, what kind of metre and structure he has in mind. Some of his words practically composed themselves – I didn’t have to do very much. I think Joel is a natural at musical theatre.

The three of us met to discuss new drafts over the past year. In terms of music, Joel and Pam planted seeds in my head by telling me where they felt a certain song could go. Joel would say, for example, “poncey waltz” (after which I would have to go and look up what ‘poncey’ means!). And Pam would say something like, “Listen to Mumford & Sons.” I take it all in and, somehow, make sense of it.

You’re also the musical director for the show. What does that involve?

This just means that I’m the hard taskmaster, really! I arrange the music and communicate my vision to the actors and musicians through the score. If there are adjustments to be made to better suit the performers or the scene, I do it on the fly. All the while, I strive to make sure the score, Joel’s book, and Pam’s vision all work as one.

At initial rehearsals, I always try to lay a strong foundation – encouraging everyone to listen critically to themselves and one another, paying attention to the tiniest details. I think most of my work will be done on the day that the cast no longer needs me.

Tell us about your first encounter with the W!LD RICE pantomime.

I was the rehearsal pianist and show musician for Cinderel-LAH!, composed and music-directed by Elaine Chan, at the Esplanade Theatre in 2010. I’ve always loved Elaine’s work, and working with Elaine. She is the one of the most prolific composers in Singapore’s theatre scene, and certainly the most patient music director I have ever worked with. I loved playing in Cinderel-LAH! – Elaine’s music was romantic and charming. Never did I expect to step into her shoes and write a panto! After all, she has almost singlehandedly defined the sound and musical concept of the Singapore pantomime. So you can imagine it’s pretty daunting for me!

How did you find your way into the theatre industry as a music director and composer?

In 2007, W!LD RICE was looking for a pianist for an audition. Pam recommended me for the job when everyone else they called was not available that weekend. I met Ivan at the audition, and he invited me to play for the callbacks too. This was for his 20th-anniversary production of Beauty World.

My mentor, Mr. Iskandar Ismail, came on board as the musical director, and he asked me to stay on as his assistant, rehearsal pianist and show pianist. He showed me the ropes. Next month will be his first death anniversary, and I think it is fate that I am doing a show now with W!LD RICE that’s all about music. I think Iskandar would have enjoyed it very much.

When I took the job in 2007, I didn’t think twice about it – I just needed the money. I thought that, afterwards, I would go and study Pharmacy. But one thing led to another, and now I have been doing this for almost nine years! I am extremely grateful.

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