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Malaysian musicals rock

WHATEVER anyone wants to say about the Malaysian theatre scene, when it comes to musical theatre, I think we are getting somewhere.

PGL promo pic
PGL the Musical promotional picture (source:

I have seen three different musicals at Istana Budaya — P Ramlee the Musical, Puteri Gunung Ledang (PGL) the Musical and lately, Cuci the Musical — and have been impressed by all three. These three productions have demonstrated that we are capable of high standards and that Malaysians, at least the Kuala Lumpur crowd, can appreciate such productions. Of course there have been musicals that have bombed but that is true of West End and Broadway productions as well.

Doing theatre is not easy in any setting but when it is a big stage like at Istana Budaya and when one has ambitions for a Broadway-type show, it gets even harder.

Cuci‘s challenges

cuci poster
Cuci the Musical (source:
Let’s take the example of Cuci the Musical. Although based on Cuci the movie, just as PGL was based on the big screen version, this does not necessarily translate into instant success.

For one thing, as with many things in our country, the movie scene is divided by language. Those who go and see Malay movies may also watch English movies from overseas. But those who frequent only English movies do not necessarily show the same interest in Malay movies. So to translate Cuci into a theatre production creates special problems.

For one thing, the movie audience is not necessarily a theatre-going audience, more so, for a musical that the movie was not. Tall Story Productions which conceived the musical basically banked on movie stars such as Afdlin Shauki, Awie and Hans Isaac to pull in the crowd.

But still, to widen the audience and reach new and younger ones, it is not enough to rely on sheer star power, no matter how talented they are. Awie, for instance, probably gained a whole new audience among the older middle class who finally got to appreciate his vocal and comedic skills. But his main fan base is stlll among the younger set who cannot afford the tickets that need to be sold to make such shows viable.

Indeed, the crowd that is prepared to pay RM12 for a movie is not necessarily ready to pay anything upwards of nine times of that to go to the theatre. So the first week of the two-week run of Cuci had a relatively sparse audience. But the ones who did come were die-hard Awie or Afdlin fans who bought tickets, loved the show and then talked about it.

By the time the second week came, word-of-mouth had ensured that the cheapest seats were almost all sold out both by first-time theatre-goers and returning fans. I met a group of young people who had seen Cuci four times. Twice was common, including for me.

Economics of theatre

Theatre productions need to sell the expensive seats as well (© Kimberlee Kessler /

Theatre productions, however, need to sell the expensive seats as well. Sponsorship for Cuci from local corporations was almost non-existent, perhaps due to the recession. But it may also have been the English-speaking and movie-going Malaysian middle class factor. This crowd had not gone to see Cuci the movie and therefore had no idea what the movie or the musical was about.

Assuming that Malay movies aren’t very good (and to be fair, most aren’t), local corporations did not have the confidence in Cuci the Musical to back it. This, despite the track record of co-directors Harith Iskandar and Datuk Zahim Albakri.

painter saying 'we had an arts ministry? what did it do?'Neither, for that matter, did the Information, Communications and Culture Ministry have that confidence (perhaps this is why “Arts” being dropped from their portfolio was greeted with such disappointment). The ministry only gave the “usual” discount for the rental of Istana Budaya rather than the free ride that they have been known to give to other shows.

And even though the minister Datuk Seri Rais Yatim came to see the show and reportedly enjoyed it, he still did nothing to assist the production beyond what had already been done. As a result, Cuci the Musical will not make money this first run.

Again, it was only because of the few brave middle-class souls, who decided to see the show and loved it, that the more expensive tickets began to sell. Word-of-mouth is a powerful marketing tool but it can be unreliable, kicking in often too late. Mingguan Malaysia gave a rave review of the show but only on Sunday, 8 Nov 2009, the last day of the run.

To this end, the government has to step in to encourage local productions by providing subsidies or grants, just as they do for movies. Perhaps PGL spoilt the government by funding itself privately but producers and directors with big ideas but shallow pockets do not have that sort of leverage.

p ramlee poster
P Ramlee the Musical (source:
An investment in musical theatre is definitely needed because of the amount of skills it is able to impart. The technicalities of running a full show with music, choreography, lights, multimedia and hydraulics are complicated but time and again, Malaysians have shown they can do it. Our musical productions have even become exportable since both PGL and P Ramlee the Musical have already played in Singapore, and Cuci will, too. It would be great to also show them in Indonesia but Jakarta, for the moment, lacks a theatre with the sort of hydraulic technology needed for these big productions.

Building an audience

Building an audience for theatre, including musical theatre, needs planning and educating. Perhaps more could have been done in the way of marketing for Cuci the Musical. For example, if the stars were brought to perform short excerpts at shopping centres.

And perhaps there should not have been, when I went on the last night for the penultimate show, entertainment journalists picking up free tickets then. At the very least, they should have been seeing the show on the first or second night and filing reviews soon after.

Cameron Mackintosh (source:

The only other comparable Asian country with musical theatre expertise is the Philippines, with so much abundant musical talent that Cameron Mackintosh, the renowned theatre producer, set up an office there just to scout for singers. I have not seen a Philippine Repertory Company production in a very long time but those I saw tended to be restagings of classic musicals such as My Fair Lady rather than original stories meant for local audiences.

I do believe however that musical theatre, with original stories for local audiences, may be a genre that Malaysians can become good in. Question is, what support will production companies receive? And is the ministry willing to explore this? favicon

Marina Mahathir is an activist, writer, and blogger who constantly needs more outlets to vent because there is never a shortage of issues to vent about.

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3 Responses to “Malaysian musicals rock”

  1. Lia says:

    I didnt know there was a movie. It is too expensive for most, especially in these times. We have the talent and the creativity out there.. but too many bumps in the road or discouragement perhaps. We need more well-thought out efforts then “Artistes Villages”.

  2. Taneug says:

    “The only other comparable Asian country with musical theatre expertise is the Philippines”.

    Really? Has Marina checked out the musical theatres in Japan, HK, China (Beijing and Shanghai), Taiwan and Singapore? They are more, in the case of HK, far more, in number and quality.

  3. Nor says:

    Alas, I am among those who flock to pay and see English movies/theater and had not even bothered to see “Cuci the Movie” when it came out on TV during last Raya. Neither was I a fervent fan/follower of any of its main actors.

    Nevertheless, I bought a “Cuci the Musical” ticket anyways mainly out of curiosity, but it was not without much trepidation. Since it wasn’t a story based on a historical epic/figure, I was worried I may have spent waaay too much on a contemporary farce!
    Fortunately the cast and crew put me and my worries to shame – I first caught the show on the 27th and enjoyed it so much, that I just had to encourage the rest of my family/friends to see it too. It was like a newfound treasure that you had to share! And I am not ashamed to say that I too caught a second show (on the last day) and enjoyed it twice over!

    It is unfortunate that there are many other Malaysians who were like me, adoring foreign-made productions while shunning our own compatriots in their effort. I do feel ashamed now that our attitude towards locally made productions are part of the challeges for the growth of ‘Arts’ in this country.

    I was fortunate that I caught “Cuci the Musical”, perchance out of curiosity – and I agree with you that musical theatre, with an original story for the Malaysian audience, may be a genre we could be good at. After seeing “Cuci the Musical”, I believe that this is more than just a plausible thought.

    I for one will no longer turn my nose up at our local efforts. Give the Malaysian public time and soon more will come to realisation, as I did. But just hope that it won’t be a case of being too little too late and we see our talents fly away to greener pastures for better appreciation and support.

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