The Sound of Music

She’s been there from the very beginning. Musical maestro Elaine Chan has worked on all nine W!LD RICE pantomimes to date, composing original music for eight of them. In an in-depth interview, Elaine tells us about taking on the challenge of creating a brand new score for Jack & The Bean-Sprout!. We also give you a sneak preview of one of her compositions.

What can we expect from the score for Jack?

As usual, a lot of colour and a variety of styles. This year, it’s more musical theatre – there are more showtunes. Unlike other pantomimes, which have about two ballads on average, this one has four beautiful, romantic ballads – which works because this pantomime has a lot of feeling and heart.

What factors do you consider in creating the sound of a pantomime?

Each pantomime is different depending on who’s in the creative team. As a composer, I need to be inspired by the people I work with. That’s very important. In a sense, I’ve been the regular in the pantomime crew, but the show always turns out differently. Last year, Pam really wanted something in the style of Avenue Q, so I wrote Hansel & Gretel accordingly.

My gut feel for what Joel and Ivan were going for was very much in the vein of showtunes and musical theatre. In fact, when we first met earlier this year, Joel really wanted to write a musical, and so did I. So we thought: ‘Why not lah, try lah!’ We egged each other on! We need to push boundaries where we can, because as a writer, you want to keep writing new things.

So you can’t just write anything you like…

If I want to write hip-hop and you as my boss/director don’t like hip-hop, whatever I give you, you’re not going to like. It’s a give-and-take. For example, if I know you like showtunes, I can give you a different type of showtune! These are my little joys. I like boundaries – because that’s where the challenge is. If a project has no boundaries, something’s wrong!

How did you go about writing the score?

Working on Jack & The Bean-Sprout! has been a really fun experience because Joel is both the playwright and the lyricist. So he could immediately give me the gist of his story and songs. His lyrics had a great sense of rhythm and timing, which inspired me.

The writing process is very collaborative between myself, Joel and Ivan. I sent them some demos throughout the process, which helped crystallise the ideas and discussions we’d had and gave everyone a sense of what works and what doesn’t.

The score of Jack is quite eclectic. There’s a song that’s clearly influenced by the Viennese waltz.

Oh yes, Le Buang! I had actually written another big number called In The Sky to open Act Two. The song was completed, but we had made deep cuts to the script and felt that it didn’t fit.

Le Buang, a song about Widow Neo’s new condo home in Buangkok when she becomes rich, was written to take its place. It was done last, about five days before the CD recording. Before that, Ivan had mentioned that the show needed a big, uplifting number like Let’s Go Fly A Kite in Mary Poppins. Coupled with Joel’s new lyrics, I thought of Ascot Gavotte from My Fair Lady, and I realised the tune could work as a waltz. Musically, I enjoyed the ‘pretentiousness’ of it. Waltzes are not usually easy to do or feature unless there’s a particular reason for them. It’s got to be very big. The last time I wrote a waltz was for Beauty & The Beast – the very last grand dancing scene.

How do you integrate the script with the score?

In pantomimes, songs are usually kept very short: one verse, one chorus, and out you go! But the first draft of Jack was very long. So, when we tried to look at what could be trimmed, we also decided to take a risk and try telling the story of an entire scene in a song.

Casino Rhapsody – our parody of Fried Rice Paradise – is the result! There are three things happening at the same time in that song, with many verses that each tell a story. We gave Joel the idea, so he had to work out who sang in which verse, then I had to think about the melodies so I could stack them all up. It’s like Les Mis, because of all the counter melodies, but with our own unique sound.

Elaine working with the FIRST STAGE Kids

What’s it like to work with the children in the cast?

I’ve learnt some stuff in the years I’ve been doing pantomimes! You have to be very careful how you say some things to kids. I once realised that, if I tell them not to sing so loudly, they think their voices are lousy. They overthink it. It can be a logistical nightmare dealing with kids too. But, as the years go by, we get better at it. We’re much more efficient in dealing with large numbers of kids now.

I think the kids do grow and they do learn. We don’t treat them like kids, we treat them like adults. In essence, it’s a discipline that they pick up. When we see their progress, we put them in a lot more scenes. The kids are doing more than ever in Jack.

You are both the composer and musical director (MD) for the show, which isn’t always the case.

It’s very satisfying to start with both roles and carry them through to the end. The upside of the two roles being taken by one person is that there’s no conflict of interest. For this show, I’m in-house as rehearsal pianist and MD, which is good because I can interact with everyone and adjust the score along the way. Maybe it’s the woman’s intuition in me – I prefer to play up to your strength if I know what it is. It makes everybody’s job easier, and makes the actors sound better!

Did you write Jack with the cast already in mind?

For this show, I knew who I was writing for from the start. I tailored songs for Caleb and Ethel and the entire cast that play to their strengths. I worked out the highest notes they’re able to reach so they can show off their range comfortably. That’s especially important for a relatively long run like this one.

As a child, did you envision yourself doing what you’re doing now?

When I was young, I could play the piano but I didn’t want to be a pianist, because you had to play other people’s songs. I always thought it’d be better to be a composer – your music will live longer! So I didn’t know how to get there, but I knew I wanted to write music. I didn’t know what it meant to be a musical director either, but I knew I wanted to be one.

But, because of that passion, I just kept asking around and opportunities presented themselves. I’m happy that W!LD RICE promotes local talent – I’m very grateful to have had the chance to work on the pantomime for so many years.

Do you have any advice for aspiring musical directors?

I’ve never been mentored by anybody – for me, it was sheer observation and sheer desire. That’s what I have been doing!

My advice after years in the industry is this. Number one, persevere. Number two, talk to people who are in the industry, and ask questions. Be humble. Don’t be motivated solely by money. Fulfilling your passion is what matters. If you think only of money, you’ll have to consider other options, because it’s never about the highest-paying job – not in theatre.

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