Humbling The Musical (What Puteri Gunung Ledang reminded us)

A theatre production is a massive undertaking. A musical, I am sure, is a mammoth task.

Months before Puteri Gunung Ledang The Musical was staged last weekend, an equally excited cousin SMS-ed me in Canada to let me know of its staging in the Esplanade. Unfortunately, we couldn’t secure any seats by the time I got here. But I persevered, and at the last minute we managed to get 2 tickets out of sheer luck, and watched the production last night.

But this is not a post about my journey to watch PGL. Neither is it about Tiara Jacquelina, the producer and main actress of the musical – who befittingly wrote in the musical’s programme booklet that the journey to make the musical has been a dream come true for her, and that if one lesson can be drawn out of this – it is to be brave in chasing what you dream for. I second you Tiara.

This entry is about the journey of my own people, who sometimes I think, are a tad too quick to be awed and hummed by anything massive, in size and form. Tiara has never actually claimed that the production is world-class, although I am sure she would like it to be. It is the numerous comments and reviews by those who have seen it, mostly Malays, who claimed that it is fantastic! marvellous! world-class! superpowered! You get the idea.

PGL The Musical is good, but it is not great. It has a long way to go before it can even be in the realm of an international musical standard. Tiara, I am sure, is a brilliant businesswoman. She would have the acumen to revisit the production’s viability to proceed internationally, before jumping the gun. But I worry effect of the many accolades that have been showered onto this production. It may blind the producers and the team. More importantly, my worry is what we have not learn from our own history.

For those of you who have not watched, here are the reasons why I think the musical has not crossed the mark:

1. Casting – Stephen-Rahman Hughes is a great singer for a musical, but not being a Malay-speaking person incapacitated his ability to emote well. None of his lines stayed with me, except that he ‘performed’ the lines and that’s it.

Tiara J is a beautiful lady, and I love how Javanese she looks. But her singing ability needs to be improved, because this is after all, a musical. Unforgettable heroines in musicals are all singing nightingales. With much prowess, I must add.

2. Lighting – Sadly, the lighting design is too flat, and not very creative. The best scene in the musical is a night scene where Hang Tuah and Puteri rendezvous-ed on a hill, and 3 backlights flashed from the back to give them a nice shadow. But err, that would be a 101 on theatre, no?

3. Story
– Call me a sucker for history, but I so love the story. The writers did well with the flow too, as it was very apt that the 2 chapters in the musical were cleverly divided geographically – Majapahit and Melaka. But I wanted more from Hang Tuah, who is the main man. He is after all, the epitome of a Malay warrior – all heart and soul, all brains and brawn. I was hungry to explore his dilemma between his loyalty to the King and his love for the Puteri, but I was left vacuummed. I was hungry for my real Hang Tuah, very famished in fact.

4. Music
– Ah, Dick Lee. With all due respect to his talents, I do think he is the wrong choice. Listen to the music score intensively, and you will notice the rhythm and melody is way too modern for a musical, set on an ancient manuscript. There were moments when I was looking into the musician’s box (I was sitting in the Circle seats) and watched the musicians instead. A theatre friend aptly commented there should have been live gamelan to supplement. The music score lacked the ethnic elements – the resouding thuds and throbbing gongs of our ethnic musical instruments. And Roslan (Aziz), you cannot replace them with electronic PSRs. They sound too hollow.

5. Set
– The ‘hill’ reminded me of Lion King but more importantly, it is too simple. There were good use of the white satin drape and the majestic Malaccan palace door, but only sparingly. Scrutinise the top part of the ‘palace’ facade and you will feel like you are looking at a cross between a Guangzhou temple and a Minangkabau house.

6. Off-tangent scenes – Top of the list is a scene where Sultan Mahmud of Melaka and his entourage danced the night away. Let me correct that – he samba-ed his way on stage, complete with the flipping of his long hair, and shaking his booty in front of the easily-excited audience. That must have been the scene that plummeted the musical from a good effort, to a high-school one. It was so campy and unbecoming of the character, that the audience were either shaking their heads or screaming for more. You know immediately who appreciate fact and fiction from the reactions alone. Someone needs to remind the producers that Sultan Mahmud IS a royal character, and dancing pop-jazz style, regardless in a yellow tanjak and expensive songket, should be reserved for a Britney Spears video.

But all these did not matter as much to me, when compared to the many compliments showered on the production. Just Google or Technorati your way online on the reviews, and you will read nothing but praises and compliments for the show. Yes, I do want Tiara and her team to bring this to the world. And yes, I will support it in any way I can. My way of doing it is to be honest with what I think.

How did my community get to this point where everything big, grand and colourful is great? It disturbs me that there was something unlearnt from our days of being awed by those massive British ships sailing into Singapore, the long tailcoat that Raffles wore to convince the Temenggung, the very easy way we can be fooled on what is the best and what is not. The PGL musical is a good effort, but we would be doing a disservice to the producers if we say it is great. How can they improve when we are comparing it only with what we have, and what we don’t have?

It is very easy to say the first is the best. This is not the first time that Singapore or Malaysia watch a musical – but this is a first publicly marketed event with a glossy poster that has Malay characters. That to me is form, and not substance.

I am not from the theatre circle, I am merely a member of the audience. If I put PGL The Musical against other musicals like Les Miserable, Cats, Phantom of the Opera and Lord of The Rings – PGL is not even close. And deep down I know Tiara and her team know this.

It is the audience easily-awed praises that disturb me. Surely we have learnt from our history not to be fooled by size and grandeur, or maybe not?

Don’t compare yourself with the rest, compare yourself only with the best. I wish PGL The Musical a good journey ahead to better itself, and I WILL watch it again and again for the sheer courage the producers have in forwarding a Malay story.

After all, that was what my standing ovation yesterday was for.


  1. oh my gawd!! finally someone agrees with me!! to put PGL the musical in perspective- it’s like watching National Day parade.

    although stephen rahman-hughes can sing musical standards he is just bland as an actor! tiara has excellent showmanship/business acumen/whatever and i give her credit for that… but she can’t sing.

    ..but i have to disagree on several things

    – abt your Hang Tuah comments – the title of the production is not called “PUTERI GUNUNG LEDANG” for nothing lady 🙂

    – the music; hallo, this is a modern musical dah. if you want gamelan, go watch a wayang kulit. i think sometimes it’s excellent to have a non-malay involved in “malay things”. ok i have mentioned this to you but let me mention it again. familiarity either breeds contempt or overly-sentimental, shallow thoughts/concepts/senses 🙂

    – the lighting & sets; i love most of it and i think it’s dramatic, but i hate the malaccan port set/scene, really. looks like a malaysian national day show. i think the mountain/rock stone set is brilliant but cannot help sometimes to compare it with the lion king too.

    – the Sultan Mahmud song and dance routine; i think it sets his characterisation bulleye!

    – the historical arch; although the purist will disagree with the treatment, i have to argue that if one wants to see/watch/read real history, go read history books and not take point of reference from a 2+ hour musical 🙂

    otherwise i agree with you on what you have written on the rest 🙂 it’s just over-rated and not to be taken seriously!! argh!! Chingay anyone?

    yes it’s me. the one who actually enjoyed quarelling together!

  2. Oh Sanif, cari gaduh lagi?! I see baggage from my comments on your lost soul…I mean Lost Sole 😉

    I disagree on your disagreement though, so if I re-but here, nanti berjela-jela our debate. But alas, I knew you’d won’t be too impressed, albeit the disagreements.

    Then again, have we ever agree on anything creative? ;)See you Sunday !

  3. I don’t go to see musicals on a weekly basis. Apart from PGL I’ve only seen Cats,Avenue Q, Phantom of the Opera, LOTR, Mamma Mia, Oliver Twist during my travels and locally Beauty World if I remember. Hence I don’t really qualify to comment how good PGL is (unlike most others). So my words can be taken lightly if I say PGL pales to those other foreign shows I’ve watched in terms of technical aspects like lighting, backdrop, storyline, talent, music and coordination. The gap is still considerable. However if you were to evaluate PGL as theatrical entertainment, then I’d say its a damn fine piece of work and very entertaining. The cast has delivered.

  4. kancil alaska: Thanks for your comments.

    You must have seen LOTR in Toronto, didn’t it have its staging only there? LOTR’s musical, btw, is brilliant in my books. I really enjoyed it.

    Yes, PGL pales in comparison. I am convinced the producers know that,I just hope the out-of-this-world compliments would stop. Then again, this is only my opinion, like yours – they can it out of the window if they want to.

  5. I very much agree on your sentiment – that we should not look at this (nevertheless theatrical masterpiece) with much over-awe.

    But let’s not dampen this positive, excitable spirit among our community, who I reckon have only seen such well-publicised Malay theatre for the first time!

    Because if indeed we move away from being the epitome of the ‘Melayu mudah lupa’ mindset, I think we can actually graduate from making tacky Yusof Haslam movies featuring Rosyam Nor/Erra Fazira or theatre pieces stuck in the art-obsessed alternative.

    More collective appreciation of proper art, please.

    My two cents. Cheers!


  6. Aziz: Thank you for your comments, and I have the same hopes as you.I think only when we are critical of ourselves, and allow for self-reflection – that we will move on and go to higher levels.

    Onwards and upwards!

  7. anonymous: I didn’t know that a personal self-reflection and review is an elitist mark.

    I have been told, however, that the elites only exist in the minds of the dented. Food for thought.

  8. The Malay elites, sigh, how do I describe or stereotype them? We are reminded many times of the our community social problems, drugs, pre marital sex, high divorce rates, etc. We have, our Malay elites, doing the talks or put in my words, critizes, this is not enough,that is not enough, that folk is so much. Now, you want to solve social ills, please take a look at yourself too. Is your sedekah enough? Did the Lord accept your solah? Was your fast, in the name of Allah or for Eid celebrations. Many of the talks are just NATO. If you reflect back for the past 16 years, we have many social ills, so what has the Malay elites have done for the best part of 16 years?

  9. anonymous: Thanks for visiting. However, your comments is a bit off-topic, as the post is on PGL. But you have just raised 2 questions in my head:

    1. Do you really think Malay elites exist? I am really curious to know who they are, profile specifics pls – and better still – name them. This me vs ‘others’ mentality is a bit passe for me. Let’s move on. Literally – onwards and upwards!

    2. Sedekah, solah and other spiritual matters. I hope you dont mind, but its really not up to you to question anyone where they are in their spiritual movements.

    3. Curiousity kills the cat, but here goes: What have YOU done for the past 16 years? No need to reply, you may want to blog about it. Do invite me, I would love to read it and hear your thoughts.

  10. 1. It was in the pre NS days, when the Cikgu will always says, our students are lazy, good for nothing, blah, blah. I always wanted to work hard and as a result, I seek Cikgu’s help but what did Cikgu do? He just proved that he was NATO. You need names, place? Too many to mention, sigh. Anyway you mentioned to move on, that we shall do. Maybe one day if times permit, we can do this.

    2. No need to comment? If you happens to know a penzina, would you smile to or advise them? The thinnest of iman is when you spoke against them in your heart.

    3. Yes, I will blog it. But care to explain to me, why everytime you do good, a knife will be thrown at your back? Not once, but many times and the last knife was too big for this fragile body but yet this man has his feet on the ground again.

  11. dear kid

    what on God’s earth are you on about. Your elucidations on the Malay elite is bizarre, to say the least. My definition is equally peculiar: an elite is one chosen to enter paradise without question. Hence the Malay elite doesn’t exist:) So let’s stick this label to Azza, Sasha, Watie, Abby and Linda, eh?

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