Pontianak! Just the very mention of the word sends a shiver down the spine of most Malaysians.
This vengeful creature, believed to be the spirit of a woman who died in childbirth, has permeated our local folk stories and films for as long as most of us can remember.
Next week, this undead queen makes her way to our local stage, biding her time behind the curtains in Melur The Musical, a new original musical by British-Malaysian performing arts company Liver And Lung.
The show, featuring award-winning musical actor Tria Aziz in the titular role, will open at Nero Event Space, PJPAC, 1 Utama, Petaling Jaya on Feb 16.
“I am so excited to finally be able to share this with the world. The inspiration for the story actually came to me about seven years ago, when I first dreamed about Melur The Musical’s characters and the world they live in,” says Shafeeq Shajahan, Liver And Lung co-founder, who is also the musical’s director and co-composer.
“I have always been fascinated by Malaysia’s rich cultural lore and in particular, the legend of the pontianak. I wanted to explore the world of demons, spirits, and djinns and how they co-existed with more tangible threats in our history, like rifles, tanks, and dictators,” he adds.
Melur The Musical, is the 10th original musical from Liver And Lung, which was established in 2014.
The theatre company has produced shows such as Sepet The Musical and Mahsuri (And Other Peculiar Tales), while also introducing a new generation of theatre actors and musicians to the masses.
Last August, it presented its cabaret show Ganesh And Cydney’s Clinic at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in Scotland.
Horrors of humanity
This tale of love, death and inter-generational trauma is set during the turbulent days of the Malayan Emergency. It tells the story of two women, Melur and Cempaka, as they navigate the complexities of British rule. Things take a dark turn after Cempaka’s husband, the British High Commissioner, commits a murderous crime, and the characters encounter a blood thirsty pontianak determined for revenge.
A horror musical to coincide with the upcoming Valentine’s Day week is also rather timely.
“We have tried our best to capture the spirit of Malaysia and devise a story that transcends generations. Fusing horror, politics and romance, Melur The Musical is the perfect Valentine’s date. The music will leave you spell-bound, the thrills will make you cling on to your partners and the characters will make you fall in love all over again. As devastatingly haunting as Melur is, it is also an epic romance,” assures Shafeeq.
On paper, the musical promises both scares and songs in good measure.
“As a country, we love horror (stories) so, from the get-go, I wanted to create a theatrical experience that horror enthusiasts would fall in love with. In short, the musical will be terrifying!” he says.
“Yes, there will be jump-scares and (the) pontianak will be looming around the theatre and, yes, there will certainly be some creepy and unsettling moments in the show, but I think that the real terror of Melur The Musical lies in the way it blends different genres and emotions to convey some of the horrors of humanity,” Shafeeq adds.
On stage, the musical spotlights the two strong and deeply human characters – Melur and Cempaka – as they try to navigate a rapidly changing world. The real horror kicks in when their dreams and ambitions are stripped away from them.
“This is a story about the dangers of greed and corruption, and the way that those forces can twist and distort the very fabric of our identity as a country,” says Shafeeq.
He reveals: “Beyond just the supernatural elements, I was drawn to the idea of using the story to challenge societal notions of femininity and motherhood. I wrote it for my mother and her sisters, my grandmothers and their mothers.
“Melur and Cempaka are both inspired by the strong matriarchs in my own family, and I wanted to create a tribute to the women in our history and how they had to stand up to the forces that were.”
Musical with a message
Melur The Musical is produced by Su En Hoh, and made possible through a Boh Cameronian Grant for New Productions. Its music is composed by frequent collaborators Shafeeq and Badrish Bahadur as well as Vasilis Konstantinides, a Cypriot musician and pianist.
The musical will contain elements of traditional Malay music, with a backdrop of jazz, rock, and pop. The original songs to look out for include You Don’t Know The Land, Menderita and When The Jasmine Blooms.
Three-time Boh Cameronian Award winner Tria plays Melur, while Cempaka is played by Mila Mohsin, a theatre newcomer and the daughter of stage legend Puan Sri Tiara Jacquelina. Kai Chalmers (Ola Bola The Musical) portrays Wilson, while Anwar Rusdini (Mud The Musical, Datuk Seri) takes on the role of Si Aman, Melur’s silat warrior husband.
For Tria, the historical aspects were what drew her most to the musical and her role.
“The character (Melur) represents a traditional Malay woman living in Malaya during the Emergency. Someone’s grandparents might have gone through the experience she went through ... so that is exciting for me to bring this character to the stage. My own family members have such memories (of the Emergency). Their experience and stories let me appreciate history more. The history of this land and its people,” says Tria.
“I can’t say Melur and I have anything in common as she lived in a different era with a different set of social rules. She is very traditional and proud of her Malay heritage. However, there is this one time where she defies her husband and that is something out of the ordinary for someone like Melur. So in that instance, she is more like me ... because I love breaking the rules. You can ask my mum, she can vouch for this!” she adds.
As a central character, Tria admits that the scary elements of the musical were sometimes a challenge.
“It is amazing that I’m doing a horror musical. I am a scaredy cat, actually. I must admit I have been having nightmares. But it is not too worrying for me because I know it is part of the territory and you are expected to get a little spooked when you have a horror character like the pontianak involved (in a production).”
In the musical, the songs carry a lot of emotional weight, a reflection of the songwriting team’s growing maturity.
But Tria is mentally prepared to deliver them.
“Most of the songs are emotional and haunting. I just hope I will not cry too much during the performance,” she says.
According to Chalmers, his character is based on Field Marshal Sir Gerald Templer, who lead British forces during the Malayan Emergency, one of the few successful counter-insurgency operations undertaken by the Western powers during the Cold War.
“Wilson is the ‘villain’ of the show and is tasked with eliminating the communist insurgency. He is ruthless but loving. Forgiving yet cruel. I am very excited to play this character. Is he like me in real life? Do you really want to know?” says Chalmers with a laugh.
Interestingly, Chalmers’ maternal grand uncle was the late Tan Sri Dr C.C. Too, a leading authority on psychological warfare and counter-insurgency. He played a key role in fighting the communist forces in Malaysia.
“My grand uncle would have certainly worked alongside Templer as I managed to learn much about the British officer and his mindset in my grand uncle’s biography (The Story Of A Psy-Warrior: Tan Sri Dr C.C. Too). History certainly has an interesting way of playing things out,” he concludes.
Melur The Musical will play at Nero Event Space, PJPAC, 1 Utama Shopping Centre in Petaling Jaya, Selangor from Feb 16-19 and Feb 23-26. More info here.