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Writing Musicals



by Kenneth Lyen

Writing musicals is my hobby. It has become my passion, and occupies much of my leisure time. To date I have had a dozen musicals staged in Singapore, and have recorded several of them on compact discs.

I inherited my musical interests from my parents. My father sung with a rich baritone voice, and played the saxophone in a university band that he formed. My mother played the piano and also loved singing. I was taught the piano by my aunt when I was four years old. She soon discovered that I had perfect pitch. Further piano lessons were with Mrs Aitken, who was very strict, and I was a little afraid of her. In contrast, Goh Soon Tioe, who taught me the violin, was like a kind uncle, always encouraging and inspiring me. Thus, my musical training was largely based on Western traditions.

I wrote my first piano piece when I was ten. At thirteen, I collaborated with Professor Khoo Oon Teik’s son Christopher, who was my classmate, to write a musical. This was based on the travels of Marco Polo in China. I wrote the music, and he wrote the Iyrics. It was never completed. Today Dr Christopher Khoo is a consultant plastic surgeon in England.

My parents had always advised me that music should always remain a hobby. I think this is sound advice, because music remains a precarious profession, even today. At school I played the violin in Goh Soon Tioe’s string orchestra, sung in Benjamin Khoo’s choir, and directed four musical revues.

I watched the film musicals of Rogers and Hammerstein, and attended live performances of Andrew Lloyd Webber, Claude-Michel Schonberg and Alain Boublil, Stephen Sondheim, Marvin Hamlisch and Stephen Schwartz musicals. These composers influenced me the most.

However, when I started my housejobs, I had little spare time. Hence, for the next fifteen years, I was busy with postgraduate medical training, and composed very little music during this period.

When I went into private medical practice, I found that I needed an outlet to express myself. Playing music alone was not enough. I wanted to write music, especially songs. Quite by chance I was introduced to the choir director of Seagate Technologies, Desmond Moey. The choir had volunteered to sing at a dinner during a conference for disabled children. I learnt that not only was he a songwriter, but that he was also the father of one of the children that I had seen in my clinic. I therefore asked if he would be willing to collaborate with me in writing a musical, to which he agreed.

My first musical was entitled “Big Bang!” It was based on the life of the disabled genius, Professor Stephen Hawking. We were lucky that one of the local theatre companies was willing to stage it, and it was performed for one week in July 1995. For a first attempt, I was generally quite happy with the results, and we cut a compact disc of the music. We used this musical to raise funds for disabled children at the Rainbow Centre, where I am the current president.

My second musical written in 1996 was also a collaboration with Desmond Moey. It was specially written for Bukit Batok Secondary School. Entitled “Orchard Square”, the musical followed four teenagers who had personal problems including drugs, teenage pregnancy, poverty and a broken family.

Dr Tan Hock Lim, the paediatric surgeon, joined Desmond Moey and myself in writing my third musical. This was the “Musical Extravaganza” performed for the National Day Parade 1997. It had a cast of 10,000, was seen live by an audience of 60,000, and it was also televised nationwide.

The mechanism for staging a musical is far more complex than just composing music. It is a collaboration with many professionals. It involves dramatic acting, singing, music arrangement, choreography, set design, costumes, sound engineering, and lighting. Weakness in any one of these areas can adversely affect the show.

I am often asked about the creative process. For me, writing a song starts with writing the music. A melody line may occur to me at any time. It could be while walking along a road, driving, taking a shower, or just before dropping off to sleep. Because of the unpredictability of my musical ideas, I keep a notebook with me at all times. If I do not jot down my ideas immediately, they will be lost forever. I can compose music with or without an instrument. Nowadays, computer technology has enabled me to write music directly on a keyboard, and this is instantly converted into musical notation that can be printed out. I can change the melody line looking at the musical notes on the computer monitor, or cut and paste any portion of it. Furthermore, I can change the musical instruments, and do my own orchestration. If Beethoven had today’s technology, I would predict that he could write several hundred symphonies.

Writing music allows me to relax, and it acts as a safety valve to release my emotional tensions. It also enables me to explore feelings that cannot be expressed by any other art form. Creative activities can consume you entirely. It becomes an obsession. You just have to write. Fortunately, writing comes very quickly to me. I can complete an entire song in less than ten minutes. However, arranging it may take several hours more. Once I get started, I cannot stop.

People often ask me how I find time to write. The answer is quite simple. I start writing after my wife and four kids get to sleep, which is usually after midnight. I often stay up to 4.00 a.m. composing and arranging a song. I am probably my severest critic. The majority of songs I write do not see the light of day, because I have deemed them unfit for general release. Of course there are periods of frustration, especially when a melody line resembles too closely a more well known tune.

When eventually a song is completed to my satisfaction, and sung by a good singer, there is no greater joy. I can wholeheartedly encourage all of you who like music to try this form of creative writing. But first I would like to offer you a health warning: it can be highly addictive!

And oh, I almost forgot. Don’t give up your day job. I realise in today's currency, this is a politically incorrect thing to say. But let's face it, it’s really tough to survive just writing musicals!