By Izyan Nadzirah
‘We were ambitious, I must admit. But we pulled it off,’ shared an amused Harold Tan (RI, 1976) on putting up Great Expectations in 1975. ‘The first thing you need to hold a successful performance is good leadership—to direct and to filter the ideas that everyone will suggest time and again that may be unbeneficial to the development of the performance. The second thing is possibly healthy stress. Of course, some of us were stressed to our wits’ ends, what with juggling multiple extracurricular activities and our academics. But the stress of holding a play all on our own at the age of 17 was a challenge that enabled us to discover our personalities. It was worth it.’
Harold was the musical director of Great Expectations performed by Raffles Players and is currently the Director for Real Estate Advisory at VestAsia Group, a company that provides real estate consultancy and executive training.
In 1975, a group of Pre- University students in RI broke with theatrical tradition to stage a student-written and student-directed performance to a national crowd comprised of youths from various schools. Instead of the yearly Shakespearean play in RI, the Raffles Players, together with some choir members, staged a musical adapted from one of the greatest Victorian classics, Great Expectations.
To write the musical, the Players combined two centuries’ worth of entertainment—a 19th century bildungsroman novel focusing on the moral character of society with adaptations of 20th Century love pop songs (most of the lyrics were changed to suit the scene). The cast also borrowed the idea of a Greek chorus, with a 29-member strong choir singing the adapted pop songs that formed the narrative backbone of the musical.
They even introduced new characters not found in the novel—the Wanton Sisters— who provided much hilarity, glamour and an Asian context to a quintessentially English text. The resultant musical was uniquely Rafflesian, and held much appeal, particularly with Literature students.
As Harold had let on earlier, staging the musical was no mean feat. Gloria Lewis (RI, 1976), who resides in Perth, Australia and who is also an amateur watercolour painter and a beauty therapist with her own business, recalls dividing her time between softball, Raffles Players and academic work. In the period leading up to the national tournaments, her days would start at seven in the morning in the school field (at the Grange Road campus) to train for softball. After running laps and practising her throws, she would head for assembly and then diligently bury her head into her books before rushing off to Great Expectations rehearsal in the afternoon.
In the evening, when the sun was not too hot, she would continue her softball practice. ‘It was quite funny sometimes. I would be playing in the field at around 4 pm and I could hear the Players practising the songs at the music room next to the field. Often enough I wished I could be at both places at the same time!’
Gloria, who was a recipient of the Colours award (an award given to students who excelled academically and in sport) for her dedication to softball, admits that her grades suffered for a considerable period of time. The many hours put into both softball and Raffles Players left her feeling drained by the time she reached home, and she spent less time revising. Harold agreed that it was hard to force oneself to persevere with studies at times, especially after a draining rehearsal: ‘There were moments when we were all just ready to give up. There were hours when all of us would be sullen, tired, and half-hearted. But those moments, thankfully, were rare. What kept us going was the Rafflesian spirit to never give up without giving it our best shot.’
That same year, two out of t he four literature teachers left RI. The teachers that remained had to juggle extra classes which affected their dedication to the Raffles Players. When asked if the lack of teacher contribution and direction at the start affected the morale of the Players taking part in Great Expectations, they each gave a momentary pause. ‘I think we did great, no matter. What help they gave us we valued greatly, but looking back it was an opportunity to step forward and take charge,’ said Dr Richard Tan (RI, 1976), currently an aeromedical doctor with the Singapore Aeromedical Centre, and the director of the 1975 musical.
‘Initially, one of the teachers did not welcome the idea of scrapping the Shakespeare play. He questioned us a couple of times on our decision to break with tradition but we were clear—we were a batch that was inspired by the changes we saw over our years in RI.’
When asked to expand on these changes, Richard smiled and leaned forward. ‘1973 was a unique year for us. The cohort was very much involved in the mass display for the opening ceremony of the National Stadium that July. We spent long hours practising in the hot sun to the extent that we were straggling behind in our studies. Can you guess what the teachers did?’ He paused for dramatic effect before continuing conspiratorially, ‘They gave us major hints on what was coming out for the exams! Here we were furiously copying down notes, cramming last minute points into our heads in class before rushing off to the stadium for rehearsals, and there were the teachers at the blackboard writing and underlining key phrases and going through the same few topics over and over again.’
‘That was change to us. That incident showed us how we needn’t be bound unnecessarily by tradition, and how we could adapt to any situation. After considering many factors, we “readapted” Great Expectations and didn’t look back.’
But the Raffles Players (RP) did not stop there. Not long after they decided to put aside Shakespeare for the year, they were determined to stage a musical instead of a play. This idea was the brainchild of the RP’s Executive Committee, of which Harold, Richard, and Gloria were members. Their explanation was simple—there were many hidden talents within RI and staging a musical would allow the school to unearth such talents.
‘Mr Philip Liau, our principal then, was very supportive of our new direction. In fact, he challenged us further. Great Expectations wasn’t our first choice; initially we wanted to borrow a musical directly from the operas but Mr Liau suggested writing an original musical. We took two weeks to crack our heads to come up with a musical and when Mr Liau gave the go ahead, the rest, as they say, is history,’ Richard revealed.
In fact, the second page of the programme booklet archives for posterity how the musical came about. Titled ‘How It All Started’, the page provides a brief history of the Annual Play and how they arrived at the decision to stage Great Expectations. It also explains how the musical was one the Players could ‘truly call their own’.
When Performance Day came around, all the drama unfolded. One of the Players had a breakdown, crying uncontrollably throughout the last rehearsal, and many members suffered a case of last-minute nerves, suddenly doubting their ability to go through with the play. Fortunately, when the curtains were finally raised, they had calmed their nerves and the show proceeded apace.
Things, however, did not proceed wholly in their favour. For starters, the hall was not airconditioned and the month of August, as Singaporeans know, is notoriously humid. As the audience packed the small hall and waited for the play to start, complaints were voiced about the heat.
‘We also had to deal with the acoustics in the hall, which were horrid,’ claimed Harold. The back audience could barely hear the actors who were attempting very hard to project their voices louder and louder. ‘It was an open hall, without any doors to contain the sound. Multiply that with the grousing of the audience and the whirring of the fans and you can only imagine the chaos.’
Additionally, the external audience who came for the play was unaware that the musical did not entirely parallel the literature text that they had come to know. The Players admit it was their own fault—whilst hawking musical tickets at other schools, they had portrayed the musical as a must-see to better comprehend the text! Instead, the audience was surprised by pop songs with refurbished lyrics, and a trio of goofy sex-bomb characters inserted into the adapted text of Great Expectations. In their defense, Harold and Richard admitted that they had been over-zealous in their efforts to get bums on seats.
Richard and Gloria agreed wholeheartedly that the musical was ‘uniquely Rafflesian’. ‘I feel that, ultimately, the audience understood that we were a group of inspired youths who wanted to showcase our talents,’ Gloria pointed out. ‘Furthermore, the audience was never privy to what went on behind the scenes—the pain that went with it, the homework piling up, the sore throats and the lethargy. In fact, all this was expressed in a nine-stanza poem in the programme booklet!’
When all three alumni were informed that the school had picked Great Expectations for its 190th anniversary theme, inspired by the musical they had staged some four decades ago, they were amused. ‘Us? Really? Why?’ asked Richard. The school had a couple of reasons, the main ones being that it was a pioneering effort, breaking with tradition when faced with the need to do so, and had done so in a creative, charming way. This much the school could glean from the review in the 1975 issue of The Rafflesian Times.
‘We certainly wish the school well. I feel that as Rafflesians, we learn the importance of hope and we strive hard to make things better, whether physically or figuratively, at every juncture of our lives. We learn how to bounce back from failures and take it all in stride, and are not afraid to question. Yes, as Rafflesians, we carry out our duty with great expectations,’ mused Richard.