Malaysian actor and singer Peter Ong plays Bobby in Dream Academy Productions' 'Company'. Photo: Zaki Jufri
It’s the final week of rehearsals before Hossan Leong’s take on the Broadway production ‘Company’ takes the stage at the Drama Centre on 1 November. The cast and crew at Dream Academy are getting pumped, and could not be more ecstatic to translate Stephen Sondheim’s musical into great Singaporean theatre.
The cast of 'Company'. Photo: Zaki Jufri
The musical comedy first opened on Broadway in 1970, and was later made famous by the 1996 London revival and most recently the 2006 Broadway revival. It follows the journey of a single man by the name of Bobby, played by 35-year-old Malaysian actor (and bachelor) Peter Ong. He learns, through his friends and relationships, the true meaning of love and commitment in a busy world where most people reject and fear the perennial question of “Should I get married?” Peter will be accompanied by familiar faces like Tan Kheng Hua, Petrina Kow and Seong Hui Xian.
During an interview with inSing, Leong confessed that he strongly identified with Sondheim’s music and lyrics, and was especially compelled to recreate ‘Company’ since the very first time he saw the 1996 London revival. He did not veer much from the script at all, and only tweaked it slightly to adapt to a Singaporean audience. “That’s the beauty of Sondheim and the writer George Furth. They don’t give a lot of direction – they just give the script,” he says. “For example, there’s a line that says ‘When I used to live in New York’. I just changed the words ‘New York’ to ‘here’ so it becomes ‘When I used to live here’. So this places the show in a context that it can be anywhere in the world. But of course there are certain references that definitely have to be Singaporean. For example, ‘Orchard Road’ appears, and ‘MRT’ is used instead of ‘subway’. You see, we are living in a city of five million people where we don’t even know our own neighbours – which is what New York was, and is, still. I think Singapore is at that point now.”
The 43-year-old director also hopes that the audience will be able to identify with the pressures and challenges that young people face from parents (and the government) to tie the knot, “Opening up themselves to someone else takes a lot here in Singapore because we’re so caught up with accomplishments and our bank accounts. Then you suddenly realize at the age of 30-something that ‘I’m very lonely – I’ve bought my apartment, I go home, I’m alone. Who do I talk to? So I hang out with my friends’. I guess some people choose to be like that because they are afraid of commitment, but I always tell them: If you don’t open up your heart to give love, how are you going to receive love? Nonetheless, whatever choices you make and if you’re happy and content about it, I think that’s most important – not whether you’re single or married.”
Leong describes the whole production as a collaborative effort by the actors as well – who give him “insight and suggestions” on how to execute roles that are so complex and multi-layered. “That’s why this piece is so organic,” he says. “I’m really enjoying this learning process as well for me as a young director because Sondheim is not simple to do. Approaching the script and the lyrics, for me, was one of the most difficult things in this process.”
Actor Peter Ong also finds that one of the hardest things was being completely honest with himself and his cast members in order to personify these characters, “It’s not like ‘Ok, I’m going to play Macbeth – let’s kill this fella and proclaim myself King!’, it’s not that sort of role because there’s nothing to externalize. Hossan has been such a wonderful director that way because when you need to be so brutally honest, that’s when you need that very safe environment that he has created.”
He adds: “Everyone who does Bobby does it differently because we all have different life experiences. But the beauty of it is that we can take these life experiences and flesh it out into Bobby because I think there is a Bobby in every man, regardless of your sexual orientation, to varying degrees”
Classically trained in opera, this will be Ong’s first time doing musical theatre in Singapore, and he so far finds it both stimulating and inspiring. “It’s not like watching ‘Phantom of the Opera’ or ‘Les Miserables’ where there are all these fictitious characters. Company is about real people and very real issues that we go through. Like, is this the right person to settle down with? Do I really want to settle down with this person? Do I really want to settle down with this person for the rest of my life?”
Word of advice from Ong: “Go into a relationship with no expectations. Don’t expect happily ever after, don’t expect the person to be perfect, and don’t expect to be happy 24/7 for the rest of your life. That’s not a relationship, that’s renting a DVD.”