OlaBola The Musical, the stage adaptation of director Chiu Keng Guan's hit 2016 movie OlaBola, opens on Feb 8 at Istana Budaya, Kuala Lumpur and runs until Mar 11. Directed by Puan Sri Tiara Jacquelina, the ambitious show is based on the true story of Malaysia's national football team Harimau Malaya that dreams of making it to 1980 Olympics.
The show features an ensemble cast that includes Stephen Rahman-Hughes, Iedil Putra, Douglas Lim and rapper Altimet. Star2's Life Inspired team sat with Tiara, Stephen, Douglas and Raja Malek to talk about the project. For this interview, we spoke with the show's actor and special movements choreographer Stephen – who first worked with Tiara as her leading man in 2006's critically acclaimed box-office smash Puteri Gunung Ledang The Musical.
How did you come to be involved in OlaBola The Musical and why did you take on two roles?
I became involved in OlaBola back in November 2016. I had just finished Aladdin and was going back and forth conversing with Tiara, and she mentioned that she was putting a musical together. We were talking over WhatsApp and I was very intrigued with her ideas of what she wanted to do with it.
She picked my brains to get a few tips on what to look for. She wanted to know what kind of shows are out there, and what sort of things she could utilise to make this particular musical different and that hadn’t been seen in Malaysia before.
I became very interested in the movement direction. I’d seen a couple of musicals in the UK with the idea of a football game at the centre of the story. Some of the mistakes I'd seen was that they didn’t elevate the game enough. They didn’t make the game look magical.
With that, I became very excited with the idea of how to elevate the football and make it look exciting, while giving the Malaysian audience something they’d never seen before. So Tiara and I got to talking, and she invited me for a workshop where we just played with a bunch of different movement ideas.
We had movements, some dances, and football players in the studio and we just played with ideas of what we could do to elevate the image of a football game. After that, Tiara loved the work that we were doing and I was very excited with the potential of where we could go with it.
I started working on the musical the very next month. From there, it was talked about that there was this role in the play of an English coach. With me already in town, my first language being English, as well as my experience as an actor, it made sense to ask me if I would be interested in doing the role. Then I had to watch the film to be inspired by the character and to make my own interpretations.
Soon I had ideas and very quickly I was saying yes to both roles (as actor and movement choreographer). It’s kind of tricky from one minute to the next, from one scene to the next – I’m swapping hats like crazy. But we have a great choreographic team to support the ideas I have, so it all works pretty well. All this hard work seems to be paying off and all the decisions seem to be working out.
Could you describe your role as Special Movements Choreographer? What are your responsibilities?
As special movement director, it’s taking what it says on the script, what the scene is trying to say in terms of explaining football, and then not just putting a bunch of actors on stage and kicking a ball, but trying to come up with ideas to keep changing the form and image of the game, obviously in a more magical way.
So how to get the emotional content of what’s happening in the match across to an audience? That’s via choreographing it in different ways of presenting the image of the game. There are a couple of things I can't say about that or it will ruin the surprise of the show, but we’re coming up with different ways to make the game more interesting and magical. It’s very exciting!
In some instances, the choreographer would block out the shape of the game, and then it’s my job to realise a way of making it look even more impressive, and that has to do with the physical movement of the players and other things that are in our technical resources, stuff like that which can create the magic and really elevate the image of the game.
Can you give us a description of Coach Harry and how you got into your character?
Harry is a no-nonsense kind of guy. He practices tough love in a way. He’s an experienced coach, and he has a very strong idea and strategy on how to improve his players into becoming a winning team.
There’s conflict in that because obviously the team have their own history and their own way of working, so he’s up against it from the beginning. There’s the struggle to really try and not only win the team over, but in winning the team over the team then has to win the country over.
Getting into character was not massively difficult. I watched the film as a reference point, and then looked at those kind of coaches and managers from different films like Any Given Sunday and as far back as The Best Of The Best and We Are Marshall.
What do you find most rewarding about working on this musical?
It’s massively rewarding when you try and put it on its legs, and then you see something happen, something magical, something that you go ‘oh wow’. If you take it out of your head, out of your brain and then it works, that’s incredibly rewarding. Seeing people absorb information, change and develop not only as actors but as human beings.
It’s always lovely when you have a massive cast and crew, and we’re all working together for the same goal. For that period of the project, you sort of have this extended family. We’re all trying to support and help each other in any way we can, and what’s particularly rewarding about this musical is that there's a real sense and level of commitment from all these young actors. It makes it so much more worthwhile and makes the whole process a lot easier.
How does the story of OlaBola inspire you?
The story is incredibly inspiring. We can all relate to wanting to make our country proud, wanting to do something in our lives that means something, that makes our family proud.
Each footballer has his own plight and version of that, and what’s really lovely is that it’s reminiscent of a time when all these different philosophies and races are coming together to try and achieve this one goal which was to qualify for the Olympics. Seeing all these different journeys and conflicts that these characters go through is a real story of overcoming obstacles.
What are your expectations for the musical? How would you like the audience to feel?
I’d really love the audience to come away feeling great, like they’ve seen a really wonderful piece of storytelling and had a great night’s entertainment, and just have a positive outlook. Come away from the theatre feeling like we’re all in this together, and if we have that sense of teamwork, no matter what our differences are, a lot can be achieved with hard work, a sense of drive and never giving up on a dream.
Even if you might not fully achieve a dream, a dream is there for a reason.