Gardner & Wife present another hilarious musical comedy for the family with “On the Way to the Forum”

Stephen Sondheim’s multiple award-winning musical comedy A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum opened at the Alvin Theater on May 8, 1962, and ran for 964 performances. This was the first musical for which Sondheim wrote both the music and lyrics, going on to win a total of nine Tony Awards (the theatre equivalent of an Oscar). Inspired by the plays of Titus Maccius Plautus (254 BC-184 BC), Burt Shevelove and Larry Gelbart (creator of TV series MASH) carefully studied all 21 of Plautus’ surviving comedies and then created their own original story, drawing characters and situations from many of the old scripts.

The story’s plot revolves around the antics of Pseudolus, a scheming slave who makes a deal to help his master, Hero, woo the fair but not-too-bright Philia in exchange for his freedom, not knowing that she has already been promised to the great warrior Miles (mee-lays) Gloriosus. The fun begins as one scheme leads to another, and Pseudolus finds himself trapped in his own web of trickery and deception.

Now, thanks to the intrepid team of Gardner & Wife, we can get a taste of this hilarious comedy of errors as the musical makes its Asian premiere at the Malaysian Tourism Centre in Jalan Ampang from April 19 to May 11, 2002. Directed by Richard Gardner with musical director Simon Gray and choreographer Farah Sulaiman, it promises to be a show to remember.

Taking on the lead role of Pseudolus is none other than celebrity chef turned stage actor, Chef Wan along with Jason Cheong of the Selangor Philharmonic Choir as Hero and newcomer Olivia Anne Goonting as the lovely Philia. The production also features Gani Abdul Karim, Reza Zainal Abidin, Lim Soon Heng, Edna Tan, Brian McIntyre, Fuad Tengku Ahmad, Jodie LaRiviere, Joanna Saw, Farah Ashikin, K’ma, Yves Yap, Melvin Koh, Llewellyn Marsh and Krystle Chow.

Kakiseni managed to speak to Richard Gardner at a recent press conference for the upcoming musical.

Kakiseni: What made you decide to stage “Forum”?

Richard: It’s very funny. It has many connections with bangsawan (a form of Malay opera). The roots of bangsawan go back to the turn of the century. And the roots of this (play), in a literary point of view, go back to Plautus. The style is reminiscent of burlesque and vaudeville. Basically pre-television. This belongs to an era when television had not yet changed the face of entertainment. Especially variety entertainment.

Kakiseni: And that’s in keeping with the whole Gardner and Wife concept?

Richard: Yes, just fun. Anything worthwhile, no matter what it is, always has underpinnings of something. Nunsense had underpinnings of concepts of love, duty, charity. Not necessarily Christian concepts, but it had very, very good underpinnings.

There are always slight moral elements to all comedy otherwise it’s not funny. Just in the same way that satire is not funny if it doesn’t have a basis of truth. Which is why, of course, in repressive regimes, satire is always the first thing to be squelched. So, all comedy has profound truths. The philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein said that a perfectly serious philosophical conversation could be had using only jokes because all jokes have elements of truth or essential kernels of truth. So similar with this.

Kakiseni: Did you have problems getting this past the censors because of the risque elements?

Richard: The script, no problem. But they have now clarified the system, so that in fact permission is given at the dress rehearsal. Which makes life challenging for theatre companies. However, from my knowledge of Malay comedy, there is nothing in this, which is in any way more offensive than that kind of humour. Nothing more offensive than say a P. Ramlee (late famous Malay artiste from the 1950s) comedy.

Kakiseni: So, it’s something for everyone in the family?

Richard: One of the first questions that people ask when they call up is, “Can I bring the children? Can I bring my family? And we make sure that the answer is always yes. Family entertainment.

Kakiseni: How did you put the cast together?

Richard: We auditioned the cast. We had a general open call. One of the problems with theatre at the moment is that people always use the same group of actors. So, what we’ve tried to do is reach beyond the usual suspects by holding open auditions and by using people who are not necessarily famous for doing English language theatre like Azean lrdawaty, Benji, Sofea Jane, Chef Wan.

Some people, of course, we know the work of … Reza, for example. Gani, we’d seen on stage. Chef Wan, obviously we had seen his work albeit mostly in Malay. Edna was an understudy for Nunsense. But the vast majority of the cast were auditioned in a very open manner.

Kakiseni: What made you decide on Chef Wan for the lead role?

Richard: I was editing a programme once and there was this guy cooking, speaking a language of which I understood not one word. I thought, “This guy is wonderful”. I asked who is this wonderful actor? They said, “Oh, he’s not an actor. He’s a cook.”

Then, Chae Lian and I went to watch Soal Hati, which starred Erra Fazira and Afdlin Shauki. The two best people in it were Zaibo and Chef Wan. Chef Wan just blew us away. We played phone tag with Chef Wan for about six months before we were finally in the same city at the same time and we said, “How would you feel about doing theatre?” And he agreed.

Zero Mastel played the lead in Broadway and the show was so successful, it transferred to London within a few months. And the actor who starred in that was a man called Frankie Howard. And for those of you who’ve ever seen Frankie Howard will know that there is a tremendous similarity between Frankie Howard’s rapport with the audience and Chef Wan’s rapport with the audience. So, actually, casting him in this part is not as strange as it might seem.

Kakiseni: Do you feel that there is a pool of largely untapped talent in Malaysia?

Richard: There are a lot of talented people here. The problem for theatre production companies is that we’re in a transition stage from being a purely amateur business to being a professional business. We’re in the middle.

And so you have people who are very talented, but they also have a job whereby they have to “cari makan” (make a living). So, you have scheduling problems. You don’t have many people like Gani who do this all day. That’s what they do. You hire them, they’re available. Chef Wan realised that was necessary and he cleaned off his entire schedule. But there are other people who have regular jobs. Or they’re at ASK studying. Or they’re at college studying. But as time goes by and as we develop a bigger and bigger pool of full time actors – people like Rashid Salleh, Farah Ashikin – then we will move closer and closer to a professional situation.

Kakiseni: And the partnership you’ve forged with ASK will help in this transition?

Richard: Definitely. It’s definitely a move in the right direction. Most of their students are Malay based, so there’s a certain amount of limitation imposed by that. If we were a Malay language theatre production company, our relationship with ASK would be a really big one. But, I think it will be fruitful.

Kakiseni: Why did you choose Simon Gray as the music director for Forum?

Richard: Well, Chae Lian feels that we have everything we need in this country except, possibly, Western­ experienced musical directors, so we probably are going to have a policy for sometime to come yet for bringing in Western musical directors. It was merely a matter of looking. He was recommended by a musical director we know in England. And his resume is very impressive.

Kakiseni: How has the cast taken to Simon’s directions?

Richard: Well, I think singers know when they’re being helped. So, when he says, “Don’t push this note” or “This is how this phrase goes”, there’s virtually nobody in the cast that’s more musically trained than he is, so they· basically appreciate him as a tutor. And as a tutor, he’s excellent and they have definitely taken to him.

Kakiseni: What about your choreographer?

Richard: There are actually very few choreographers in this country who can do this kind of show. Joseph (Gonzales) recommended Farah. They’ve worked together for 20 years.

Kakiseni: And who’s coming up with the sets?

Richard: A very nice woman called Mew Chong who has just graduated from the Malaysian Institute of Art. And she’s designed the sets very nicely. The same people who built the sets for Charlie’s Aunty will build the sets for this one.

Kakiseni: What was the most challenging part of this production?

Richard: I don’t think there’s anything more difficult than comedy. So, for me, the thing which you have to work the hardest on is to get the comedy. But the good news is that half of the show is singing and dancing, so I have half the work to do. When you do (something like) Charlie’s Aunty, it a director’s job from beginning to end. You’ve got nobody to fall back on.

Kakiseni: So it’s been an enjoyable experience for you?

Richard: It very, very hard work, but it’s very enjoyable because you just watch people as the process goes on and they go through different phases.


First Published: 11.04.2002 on Kakiseni

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