Malaysian theatre company bridges the live and digital divide with musicals


  • Arts
  • Monday, 21 Feb 2022

Badrika (left) and Joshua Gui playing the roles of Orked and Jason in the musical adaptation of Yasmin Ahmad’s 'Sepet'. The upcoming restaging at PJPac this month will feature Badrika and Joshua Anthony (as Jason). Photo: Liver and Lung

It is a good sign to stay busy and motivated in local theatre during these post-pandemic times. And musicals can help lift the mood.

Last month, theatre company Liver and Lung started the year on a bright note with the release its third musical recording based on the critically acclaimed book A Little Life by American author Hanya Yanagihara.

Songs Inspired By A Little Life: The Unofficial Broadway Album features seven indie-inspired folk songs that tell the story of Jude, a lawyer with severe health issues who self harms in private. The tragic story follows Jude’s pursuit for a better life and his struggle with his own personal demons.

“We fell in love with Jude’s story the minute we read it,” reveals Hannah Shields, co-founder of Liver and Lung.

“Hanya Yanagihara is a genius and we knew immediately that her words had an evocative and expressive musicality,” she adds.

During the long pandemic "intermission" for live theatre, Liver and Lung pushed ahead with musical recording projects, which have now emerged as an important subgenre in terms of expanding theatre content beyond the live stage. It is one of the few independent theatre companies here which tackled the lockdown head-on, offering virtual and digital content to a young theatre audience.

In December 2020, Liver and Lung released its first musical recording project with Mahsuri (& Other Peculiar Tales), a six-song digital album based on the legend of Mahsuri, and followed it up with the Sepet musical soundtrack in July 2021, which featured 13 indie folk tunes. Mahsuri (& Other Peculiar Tales) was also released as a short film online in January 2021.

The recent Songs Inspired By A Little Life musical album release will now be followed by a familiar musical outing from young theatremakers Shafeeq Shajahan (playwright/director) and Shields (playwright/choreographer), who formed Liver and Lung, a Malaysian-British partnership in 2014.

Romance of the stage

This week, Liver and Lung is heading back on stage with its popular show Sepet The Musical at PJPac, 1 Utama Shopping Centre. The show series, with a few nights already sold out, will run from Feb 24-27 and March 4-5.

The musical is based on the late filmmaker Yasmin Ahmad’s Sepet, a contemporary Malaysian cinema classic released in 2005. New songs, penned by Shafeeq and collaborator Badrish Bahadur, will be a part of this upcoming stage production.

Irena Taib (from indie outfit The Impatient Sisters) will also add a bigger sound to the musical, with new instrumentation and arrangements.

Sepet’s beloved characters Jason and Orked will be played by Joshua Anthony and Badrika Baluch.

Shafeeq mentions about how this musical has also been scaled up, with the addition of new elements and interactive surprises to delight returning and new audiences alike.

Sepet The Musical was originally staged in September 2019, and it has continued to delight audiences.

“There is something special about what Yasmin Ahmad left behind for us. Over the years, we have been honoured to pay homage to her iconic film,” says Shafeeq.

“We continuously see people from all walks of life come and watch the show and they always take something away from it,” he adds.

The last two years have been a challenging time for theatre companies to keep afloat.

Yet, Liver and Lung kept going with online shows, and new projects such as musical albums. It also helped to put together KLoud Fest, a digital event collaboration with DiverseCity, which featured film, music and comedy last March.

“The pandemic may have slowed us down but I am confident that we have the ability to move the world with Malaysian-made music,” says Badrish.

Shafeeq is looking forward to an eventful year ahead, with in-person shows and digital projects. Collaborations between young theatre players in the Malaysian and British scene are also in the plans.

“We are looking to bring up the next generation of composers, actors, writers, and directors. We really believe KL can be the Asian hub for the arts,” says Shafeeq.

When it comes to local theatre, the recovery process remains a challenging one, especially in rebuilding interest in musicals and theatre plays. Each new live production is an important step forward.

Shafeeq remains optimistic about the future of the theatre scene in KL.

“Malaysia has such rich diversity in its stories, we should showcase it for others to enjoy,” he concludes.

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