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Arts & Culture

Agitation and Inspiration in the Music of Checkpoint Theatre

The Music of Checkpoint Theatre celebrates the mutability of words and sound.

Words by
b-side staff
Location
Singapore

Text by Leticia Sim
Photographs by Barani Vicnan (courtesy of Checkpoint Theatre)

When the universally panned movie adaptation of CATS the musical came out in late 2019, I instantly developed a strange hyperfixation with the world of its uncanny valley Jellicle inhabitants. I saw the movie twice, attended the live touring show, bought its overpriced merchandise in a drunken lapse of judgement, and misused every pocket of silence in conversations to burst out into song. Memory, all alone in the moonlight, I thought over and over again for the next few months until its lyrics morphed into a whole separate beast of its own. 

Director Huzir Sulaiman of the Checkpoint Theatre encapsulates the inscrutable mutability of the song well: “They take this one song that everyone knows about…and I encountered it through Pavarotti’s rendition of it where it is further divorced from any meaning of the English language. I think there is work that can stand alone, obviously, it gains something from a certain context, but there is a power and possibility that it can attain when taken out of the context as well.”

And then it hit me: there are certain sounds that just can’t be limited to the confines of bygone plays. Their intrinsic value lies in their possibilities for reinvention. 

In The Music of Checkpoint Theatre, weish, along with singers ants chua, Rebekah Sangeetha Dorai, and Jo Tan join an arsenal of musicians in reimagining songs from the Checkpoint Theatre songbook. Together, they created whole different lives for the music that punctuated the unparalleled and often offbeat plays that have come to define the past two decades of Checkpoint Theatre’s productions.

“Music has played a more amorphous and experimental role in the way it’s been woven into text, into performance, into physical choreography,” muses Music and Artistic Director weish.

Dynamic and emergent, the live watch party that took place at The Projector in early May transformed each rework into an object, an experience, and a set of practices. Most strikingly, the half-hour digital recording simultaneously served as a compelling document that tracks the evolution of Checkpoint Theatre while capturing the acute sense of situation, a hopeful celebration amid a period of time augmented by pestilence in an uncertain Singapore.

checkpoint theatre the projector

Music As an Emblem of Singapore Stories

“Even before we started, I remember Huzir was excitedly telling me that he asked .gif to do this really cool, really sexy version of “Purple Light” that could be played in a club,” playwright Lucas Ho recounts.

Infused with a new sense of profound meditation, the updated downtempo presentation of “Purple Light” from the 2017 play FRAGO distances the humorous army marching song even further from its original context. 

“The final song presented in the play is “Purple Light”, because I think it is literally the first song you encounter when you join the SAF. So I put it at the end as the characters are seeing 18-year-olds march into camp, who have just gotten conscripted and are singing this song as a mirror or reminder of how far they’ve come,” Lucas elaborates.

While hearing “si bei jialat” sung by weish with an airy earnesty may seemingly stand in stark contrast to the inescapable playfulness to the swansong, the bittersweet symphony of the score adds a layer of intense emotional quality. These varied points of references—the actual lived experience of Lucas and even perhaps anyone in the audience who has been in the army, FRAGO’s narrative, and the reworked jazzy treatment—all play intertwining roles in ultimately telling a very Singaporean story.

The same rings true for the new renditions of the three songs from 2020’s Two Songs and a Story. weish explains: “I think I was most anxious, out of the whole setlist that you’ve seen tonight, about the songs that weren’t originally written by me and the treatment of it, whether it would do the original song and the songwriter justice. Would they be happy with it? Would it have captured the essence of that song?”

The original online video series weaved together sonic monologues built on contradictions—strength and vulnerability, love and loss, peace and disruption. This spirit of constant negations carries over into weish’s interpretations, including that of her own.

There are sudden, incandescent moments of recognition too, particularly in Sangeetha’s memoiristic song “And Then I Am Light”. It went through a number of iterations, first modelled after the explosive ballads of Whitney Houston, the raging intensity of Adele, then the lush sentimentality of mandopop. Eventually, the final recomposition of her song was brought together more organically with the aid of the backing band, a testament to the collaborative process that weish deeply feeds off.

“I thought it was very interesting how you could take that solo and dim piano backing track [and] put that into the ensemble. So I think it was responding organically to that titanic nature of the emotions that was also so personal,” Huzir elaborates.

Perhaps it is the illuminated hopefulness born out of collaboration that reverberates through the momentous instrumentals, her soaring voice, and the very-of-the-time experience of seeing a digital concert amongst a socially-distanced audience. Weish acutely understands that the poignancy lies in these juxtapositions, and uses them as instruments in themselves.

Huzir Sulaiman weish checkpoint Theatre

Music As a Framing Device

Narratively, temporally, and spatially, the pulse of the plays are condensed and repackaged in the sonic retellings of the tracks from plays grounded in foreign lands.

For “Voices” from 2012’s City Night Songs, the revisitation signalled a nostalgic return for collaborators weish and Huzir. Having first met while working on the production, the then-undergraduate and member of NUS Stage served as one of Huzir’s three assistant directors.

“I was not actually aware of her musical genius until a cast party when we wandered into some live music bar and weish got up onto stage and did a good many of the songs on the ukulele,” he recalls.

The backdrop of the Asian Metropolis is thrust into the forefront in this new composition, making it as much about Singapore as it is about Bombay. Huzir further contextualises this: “[The songwriter Nishant Jalgaonkar] is from Mumbai, and he was actually describing his journey home from the financial district, going back to the suburb where he lives. And the CST (Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus), where the trains stop, was one of the sites of the 2011 terror attacks in Mumbai where many people, unfortunately, lost their lives. So I think there was that sense of Mumbai trying to transcend that, understand what they’ve gone through and rise again, celebrating the city at night and its potential.”

Almost a decade later, it’s a little sharper, grander, and more abstract now.

“I hadn’t heard it in nine years, and the melody was still fresh in my mind. I guess it lent itself to become very exciting by way of writing canon and harmony, it was that sort of grand song that could fully utilise all four vocalists, rhythmically, and harmonically as well,” says weish.

Spatial transcendence further becomes an open-ended conversation, a constant mediation in the medley of Displaced Persons’ Welcome Dinner.

Just as “Voices” finds power in the tradition of country storytelling, a new lyricism is forged when the medley of songs overlap, respond, and even spar with each other.

Embodying the gravitas and extremities of a continuum of emotions, weish explains the unexpected inspiration behind her affirmative and empathetic permutation teetering between magic realism and naturalism: “Something that really inspired me and helped me approach this is that with Bach, he writes not just melody on one hand and accompaniment on the other, but if you break down all of his compositions, it’s actually anything between two to eight different melodies. And each of these melodies are stand-alone melodies and refrains on their own, they tell you a story, but layered together as eight, they sound lush and coherent and every note doesn’t disturb another note.”

Huzir adds: “So it was quite complex in that there was also found text from actual humanitarian manuals that, for me, had a certain banality that concealed the fact that these are instructions for how to deal with extreme inhuman situations of starvation, of conflict, of delivering humanitarian aid in incredible crisis. And with the music, weish managed to return us back to that to an identity that is otherwise obscured by the bureaucratic banality of the language.”

This deeply rooted humanity in intrinsically inhuman circumstances further forms an inexplicable panorama of emotions while struggling in responding and learning to answer tough questions. “It’s kind of like musical Tetris, you are taking these things and seeing where the blocks fit to make a pleasing pattern.”

Music As An Act of Triumphant Celebration

“It’s that sense of something that’s in the past and looking forward to the future. For me, that’s always been an electrifying moment. But I think what you’ve managed to do was to give us the emotionality and the musicality and to allow for it to go to this large interpretation, and I’m sure many others in the future,” Huzir observes.

“Thanks Huzir, you’re very nice,” weish replies.

He is quick to substantiate, crediting her with fully realising the symbiotic potential of songs, something that is evidently no easy feat.

No, I’m not nice per say, I just meant it’s really important for all of us, especially, in whatever profession that feels underappreciated or less understood by the public at large, to actually point out and celebrate what are genuine moments of technical brilliance, of emotional authenticity, of real artistry. And I’m very much in awe of what weish has brought to our material.”

Despite this pillar of seriousness, he swings full-force into absurdity with the finale “Atomic Bomb” from Checkpoint Theatre’s first casualty of 2020, The Nuclear Family, the long-awaited sequel to Atomic Jaya.

Poking obvious fun at the ridiculousness of the set-up, Huzir leverages on what he calls, in verbatim, “a certain OGness” about him in the tongue-in-cheek reggaeton-infused sociopolitical references.

“[Reggaeton] seems to be a thing that Malaysian-born Indians really get into, I think historically there was also the influence of left-politics and Bob Marley, and the anti-war movement, all the leftovers from the 60s and 70s that fed into that Malaysian psyche, which is just a little more relaxed and vibey. But it also references the ridiculous appropriation of Malaysian government songs, taking these songs that they have no particular connection or right to,” he says.

These gestural and encoded musical nods not only offer the opportunity to challenge the traditional visual language’s monopoly on expression, but also its monopoly on meaning. They manifest into the complex quotidian theatres of everyday life, and weish’s recompositions allow them to reveal themselves in the abstract indecipherable shapes they often inhabit.

And once again, Huzir encapsulates this much better than I ever will: “Things that cannot be spoken, or when language alone is not enough to capture the intensity of the emotion, sometimes those things have to be moved, they have to be danced, they have to be done with bright or dramatic lighting, or they have to be in music. I think that’s the real joy and the challenge of a multidisciplinary hybrid artform like theatre because it brings together all these things. It’s the kind of Gesamtkunstwerk—the total work of art.”


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