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Musicals 101: When is it religious?

Broadway (Public domain; source: Wiki commons)

IN 2005, as part of my postgraduate thesis, I decided to put on a musical, not realising the amount of work a production actually needs. With my vision of making it a large-scale song-and-dance spectacle the likes of a Great White Way or London West End production, it was an exercise in overambition. Still, it was a learning experience.

The first important lesson I learnt occurred because of the subject matter. I was keen on writing a musical that retold the Christmas story involving the whole gang: Mary and Joseph, the baby in the manger, the shepherds and the Wise Men. After all, the project was scheduled for year-end, and I was in Australia, where the audience would notionally be more receptive to the Christmas story. Indeed, Australia, as I found out later, is a Christian nation on paper but there is ongoing debate that the country is really a secular one.

There were other reasons for wanting to stage a musical about the birth of Christ in Australia, no less the niggling doubt that I would be able to do the same thing in Malaysia upon my return. That’s not to dismiss the number of performances and musical productions being staged by churches and other religious institutions around the country, many of which are entertaining and spectacular in their own right. But more often than not, they come with the For non-Muslims only stamp. Fair enough, since such church productions aim to evangelise and convert, or are held in celebration of the religious significance behind the season.

What hope, then, would my project have of being presented in Malaysia for a general audience, regardless of race, age or religious affiliation? Even in Australia, we marketed the project as a “non-religious” musical — mislabelled only in an attempt to emulate the success stories of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat (1968), Jesus Christ Superstar (1971) and Godspell (1970). The whole concept was an oxymoron, to be sure. It wouldn’t be possible to tell a story depicting a religious figure without it falling into the religious category, would it?

Jacob and Sons, from a filmed version of the Joseph musical

History and controversy

Musicals that take on religious subjects aren’t new. Composer Stephen Schwartz’s Godspell retold the story of Jesus Christ, as did Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Jesus Christ Superstar. Lloyd Webber was also the music man behind Joseph, based on the biblical tale of Jacob and his 12 sons in the Old Testament book of Genesis. Schwartz, whose other works included songs for the animated movie The Prince of Egypt (1998), also tackled the story of Adam and Eve and their descendents in the musical Children of Eden (1991).

While Joseph, which started life as a school production and whose later productions featured an ensemble of children, went largely without controversy, Godspell and Superstar have faced many a backlash. Godspell featured Christ and his followers as hippies donning clownish costumes. Superstar, meanwhile, told the story of the Jesus’s crucifixion from Judas’s perspective, offending certain quarters by making the betrayer too sympathetic. Both shows contained fictionalised elements, and have been banned in several countries. In 1999, Steven Spielberg’s The Prince of Egypt was also banned in Malaysia for “[being] insensitive for religious and moral reasons”.

My Christmas-story musical — Follow the Light — eventually happened in late November 2005 in Australia, but not without bumps along the way. The reception was mostly positive, and only a small segment of the audience viewed it as a “Christian” event. Surprisingly, for all the fictionalisation of the plot and characters to give the musical depth, we managed to avoid offending the more conservative viewers who can be sticklers for non-deviation. Perhaps a non-religious Christmas musical wasn’t an impossibility after all.

Home sweet home

In 2006, I returned to Malaysia. Full-scale local musicals were only just blossoming then as they debatably still are today, and I had hoped to revive the project for a local audience, working alongside established groups.

In pitching the show to several industry players, the primary response I received was that, perhaps, the project would be best handled by a church. When I approached several churches, however, I was told that since the project wasn’t evangelistic in nature, it defeated their objectives and would be best handled by a “regular” theatre group. Oy. It seemed as if the project would fall into a grey area — much like many of Malaysia’s religious matters.

A scene from Follow the Light (Pic by Nick Choo)

My intention of representing a religious text as a musical with universal themes was not to preach, but rather to revisit a well-known cultural and historical text, and to put my own spin on it. I had hopes — and still do — of making the project a family-oriented one, where Malaysians from all walks of life could watch a show that simply retells a story that they would hopefully find informative, evocative and entertaining. In Australia, the audience comprised Christians, Muslims, Buddhists, and those of Jewish and other faiths, even atheists. Many of them enjoyed the show, laughing, tearing up or simply bopping to the beat together.

Happily, from a production viewpoint, it looks like I may yet be able to fulfill my dream of restaging Follow the Light in Malaysia. But with all that’s been going on in recent days — from concert banning to cow-head protests — I wonder about the prospects of attracting a universal audience regardless of faith. If anything, it seems that using a musical production to promote a mutual understanding of our wonderfully different religious stories, beliefs and values may just be thwarted — not by the subject matter, but by the sensitivities of the day.

Nick Choo is copy editor and graphic designer for The Nut Graph who has largely remained behind the scenes since the site was launched. Everyone in the workplace thought it was time for him to speak up, though truthfully, he’d rather sing. He currently has the cast recording of The Story Of My Life on repeat in his CD player.

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3 Responses to “Musicals 101: When is it religious?”

  1. Nicholas Aw says:

    Good luck to you Nick. I have my doubts that you would be able to put up a musical play of this nature without having to label it “For Non-Muslims” only.

    When I was studying in Glasgow in the nineties, I visited St Mungo’s Museum where I was pleasantly surprised to see exhibits of every single religion in the world including Islam. I don’t think I would be wrong to say that if there’s a museum of this kind in Malaysia (I’m skeptical there will be!) Christian artefacts and other non-Muslim exhibits would never be allowed. That’s why we will see the Islamic Museum but never a religious museum. Also, I was lucky enough to catch “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat” staged in Edinburgh and played to an international audience including Muslims. Such a scenario will never happen here.

    It’s sad when every issue becomes political and sensitive especially to the main religious denomination of this country. What puzzles me is the fear of their followers in their worry as if they are going to be converted. Religion is a personal thing: it’s between man [or woman] and God.

    When will Malaysians learn to live in peace and harmony in the real sense of those two words, and not [adopt] something that is only skin-deep?

  2. Ida Bakar says:

    In the 1960s, my father went to the cinemas to view Ben Hur (a film about Jesus’s early years), The Ten Commandments (a film about Moses) etc. There was no angst about the overt Christian message in those films. Now the Prince of Egypt was deemed suspect. Then Muslims were treated like adults; now they are being infantilised by those claiming to act in their best interests.

    Stage your musical. I am sure many Muslims will attend it just to make a point.

  3. kennychew says:

    I don’t believe it – I saw this musical when it was staged in Perth! Had no idea it was written by a Malaysian… all I can say is, DO IT! Stage it here and share with everybody this wonderful piece of musical theater… it still sticks in my mind even till today!

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