Who would have thought that an American-sitcom obsessed fan would turn out to be a scriptwriter for a musical peppered with dialect?
Pao-Chang is a multi-award winning actor, playwright, the co-artistic director of Taiwanese experimental theatre Tainaner Ensemble, and the scriptwriter of Mulan The Musical.
With the help of composer Owen Wang and director Lu Po-Shen, Pao turned the stage play into a musical for the 10th anniversary of National Taiwan University’s Department of Drama and Theatre in 2009. In 2011, it was staged again at the National Theatre in Taipei for six shows.
Singapore is Mulan The Musical’s overseas debut. Two new songs are added “不一样又怎样” (“So What If We’re Different”) and “观世音，再給我多一奌時間” (‘Goddess of Mercy, Please give me more time’). Local flavour is added with expressions such as “Pioneer Generation” and “gancheong spider”.
During Pao’s visit to Singapore recently, we sat down with him to talk about the writing process and the localisation of the play.
RWScoop: What was the most difficult part of writing the musical?
Pao: Writing the lyrics in Mandarin.
It’s funny how I’m more comfortable writing lyrics in English. I can write dialogue in Mandarin very well but putting them into lyrics is a whole other thing. Especially Chinese speakers tend to visualise what they hear, so when I firstly wrote colloquial lyrics, some theatre critics didn’t enjoy it at all and thought I destroy the beauty of Chinese language. My belief is that singing is the extension of talking, and what one sings has to fit his characters. It makes no sense to me to write modified poetic lyrics for a local vendor who works in the market, for example. So it’s been a struggle but I believe that everything has to be done based on the story and the characters.
What’s the lyric-writing process like?
I work with (award-winning) composer Owen Wang whom I met in a previous production <Chaos>. We both have similar taste in music.
I would write the lyrics and send to Owen. He then sends his feedback and we’ll discuss if we need to tweak the song structure.
I make the changes where it fits. Using that version, Owen then composes the tunes. He bases a lot of the melody on the natural rhythmic sounds of the Mandarin language.
I used to be obsessed with American sitcoms. When I was watching them, I would pause after a funny scene. I write down the line from the scene and analyse the logic behind what made it funny.
Based on that logic, I write something new. I’m not that obsessed now. (laughs)
For me, comedy is like science. It’s very precise and it needs to have the right rhythm. During rehearsals, I sometimes use very precise instructions, for example, I’d tell the actors to pause for an extra half second after their lines or else it wouldn’t be funny.
What was in your mind when you heard that the musical will be localised for the Singapore audience?
I’m actually the last person who would want to localise a play. I think that good works have universal values so we don’t need to use another language to express that.
For example, back in Taiwan, I hate it when a foreign actor in Western play uses “Ni hao” instead of “Hello”, just to impress the local audience.
That said, I think Singapore is a unique place for localising the play.
People here have a natural way of mixing different languages so it’s not that surprising when English is used in Mulan The Musical. It makes it intimate for the audience too.
What’s your favourite part about the Singapore staging?
I really like one of the songs we added just for Singapore: 不一样又怎样” (“So What If You’re Different”).
In the show, Mulan goes to the army because she feels out of place in her village. But she is bullied on the first day of entering the army, and she is thinking if she should just pretend and act the same as the rest.
Her friend Xiao Qi sings the song to her about how important it is to stay true to yourself even if you’re different.
There is discrimination and bullying in the world now. It might sound sentimental but it would all have been worth it if there’s one kid in the audience who resonates with the scene and knows that he or she is not alone.
It was also interesting how I enjoyed the song ‘男人的世界‘ (‘A Man’s World’) more after Pierre [Png] joined the cast. He brought out the ruggedness and cheekiness of the song with the ensemble.
What’s next for Mulan The Musical after Singapore?
We have some producers from mainland China who have shown great interest in staging the show. But there’s nothing concrete yet.
We’re also hoping to stage it again in Taiwan.
Catch Mulan The Musical before it ends on 5 February.