By CH Loh
Long long ago in a galaxy far far away there was a land whose people enjoyed a good twist or two, and whose womenfolk wore tight fitting kebayas that accentuated their curves, and original songs and movies were peppered with naughty fun. It was a bygone era — when it was all right to have a good time. (Note — the above is best viewed in scrolling texts tapering into the distance).
The tragedy recurs through the ages and those who have forgotten history can only glimpse at lessons from the past through the antics of those bold enough today to remind us. They are a breed that is fast being swallowed up by the general mass of indifference consuming our people, so much so that when we hear even one voice, however naive, attempting to speak some truth in some way, the feeling is like encountering a few drops of water amidst miles of desert.
That is how I found myself weeping at the recent Cempaka Schools musical extravaganza We Will Rock You the Musical that ran for an entire week from 4 – 12 Aug 06 at Sri Cempaka Cheras Campus. Okay, I confess, the tears came not from the touching portrayals or deep revelations, but from laughter. With wit abundant, the kids at Cempaka showed that humour was not a forgotten art in Malaysia, and I literally laughed till I cried.
Travelling to the Cheras campus was in itself an adventure — tucked away deep in fringes of the city high up on a hill surrounded by thickets of secondary forest, I followed the cryptic roadmap whispered by ear (i.e. transmitted by cellphone) that took me to the iron gates beyond which young nymphettes in silvery costumes flitted in the dusklight. I expected to be asked the password but was surprised to be allowed in unhampered. Disoriented, I ended up backstage where the nymphettes twittered excitedly in a schoolkids’ language I had long forgotten. Bizarrely costumed characters hurried about with sound technicians and makeup artists on their tails. This was no ordinary school play. There was a marketing team, and merchandise (Rock You CDs and T shirts) was being sold at the door. Press relations led me up to the circle — I joked, “isn’t this where the Datin-datin sit?” and received a matter-of-fact reply, “Datin will sit in the front row.” Right, this really wasn’t an ordinary school play.
First there was the material — We Will Rock You is basically a musical weaved together, Mamma Mia fashion, from the songs of legendary rock band Queen. Scripted by Ben Elton with vocal arrangements by Mike Nixon and Queen’s guitarist Brian May, it first rocked audiences at the West End in 2002. It was interesting to see the discreet gay anthems splashed out on gigantic banners adorning the venue. “I Want To Break Free”, “Under Pressure”, it’s the ultimate irony that songs expressing the liberation of an oppressed sexuality have come to symbolise the oppression of ideas and free expression today. Freddie Mercury will be proud.
The matter of sexuality cannot be underplayed. In a nation where homophobia is still rife even amongst the supposedly educated, (don’t take my word for it, just check out the comments that were posted to a review of some gay plays in this very website) it is heartening to see one of the greatest gay rockers of all time being held up as an icon for world liberation.
Then there was the premise — a rebellion against the obliteration of all original thought and personal expression in a world where consumerism has taken over government, where everyone marches to the same beats from the same tunes churned out by some corporation. This is Cempaka’s vision of the future, an Orwellian “1984” world programmed by Windows and powered by iTunes and lorded over by Killer Queen, a Big Brother-like (Big Sister?) tyrant who controls every copyright and every consumer.
It’s not a vision born purely out of fertile youthful imagination and a rock culture, but one that is closer to home than is obvious — just pay attention to the scrolling Star Wars styled introduction to see where Malaysia fits into the creation of Planet Mall, the all-consuming binary world of the future.
The inhabitants of this awful (and awfully tacky) world called Planet Mall are the factory-made asexual Ga Ga Girls who live on a diet of Boybands and Girlbands (it’s the same nightmare I once had after watching American Idol) and by the Yes Things, mutants who must have come from the rat racers, pencil pushers and newspaper reporters of today.
The musical opens with more pomp and ceremony than I have ever witnessed from a real commercial production, which goes to show what can be achieved when students are given a free hand and allowed to have a good time. Queen’s latter hit “Radio Gaga” opens the set with the nymphettes doing the approved dance steps to a digital backdrop of computer-generated dancers — very cool. From amidst the conformity emerge two wrinkles in Planet Mall’s perfect world — Galileo Figaro and Scaramouche (characters taken from the infamous anthem “Bohemian Rhapsody”, banned nowhere in the world except Malaysia), who despite careful brainwashing continue to hear fragments of lyrics emerging from a distant past.
They are lines from “Bohemian Rhapsody”, and they lead the duo into the underground rebel world of the Bohemians, who, having discovered relics from a golden age of rock long erased from memory, try to rescue their future by rediscovering the lost religion of song. Their scriptures are fragments of ancient magazines (“like websites, only made of paper”). I think I have a copy of Movie News or Fanfare somewhere in my storeroom.
Led by the muscle-flexing Britney Spears (a name he adopted from one of these “paper websites”), the Bohemians await the arrival of their prophet, who turns out to be the unwitting Galileo. Their attempt to rediscover their individuality through rock leads to a fatal clash with Killer Queen and her creepy deputy Khashoggi. Predictably, Galileo and Scaramouche stumble upon a guitar long-buried by Freddie Mercury for posterity, and with the help of some hot licks unleash the waves of originality that devour Planet Mall’s virtual reality world like a computer virus.
Despite the simplistic ending and a slightly sluggish second half, We Will Rock You the Musical is well executed, and the sheer gutsiness of the Cempaka team compensate for any deficiencies expected from a school production, especially one as ambitious as this. High on entertainment and rich with allusions to our aversion to long hair and our own slowly receding intellectual and spiritual freedom, Rock You may on the surface look like an innocent rock fantasy, but underneath, it signals that our kids have a mind of their own after all, and that knowledge certainly offers a shard of hope for our future.
CH Loh is no longer the young man hard man shoutin’ in the street gonna take on the world some day, but he enjoys seeing others do it.
First Published: 24.08.2006 on Kakiseni