Musical mayhem


BY SARAH CHEW

I HAVE always dreamt of being involved in a musical. I had the chance to see Oliver Twist in London once, and was absolutely thrilled.  

I kept imagining myself as Nancy, Sikes’ wife, simply because she was the only main female character there was. So you probably can imagine how pleased I was upon discovering that the University of Melbourne’s Theatre Association was holding auditions for a student musical, Pirates of Penzance

Signing up for the auditions was an impulse. It was my very first semester in university and I was still afraid to shop for groceries alone. My musical background was (and is) not very impressive – I gave up classical piano at Grade One and till now, cannot read musical notes to save my life. On top of that, these people were looking for ‘males and females who preferably can sing English operetta’.  

The thrill of taking part in a musical is followed by lots of practice and rehearsals, says Sarah.

What the heck, no harm trying, I thought. And that was how I found myself trotting nervously to Newman College, one of those residential colleges with old English gothic architecture that immediately conjures up the image of Harry Potter. Somewhere in the hall, I could hear a female voice hitting notes I could only hope to reach if I screamed in sheer fright.  

I have never been to an audition in my life. To make it worse, I had not even seen any of the Idol series to get an idea. So there I was, in front of the directors with only my voice to hear. 

As I sang a piece from Sound of Music, I was so nervous that my voice kept cracking. Scott, the director, suggested I run around the room to calm down. Thanks Scott, I know you were trying to help. 

Perhaps they lacked sufficient cast members, but I got in! I was to be a “maiden” for the first part of the show and, in the case for all alto singers, ‘police’ for the second part.  

As the weeks dragged by, the novelty and excitement of being accepted into a musical wore off as the burden of practices grew on me.  

Twice a week on my busiest days, I had to attend rehearsals almost straight after lectures till late at night. That was when I discovered the rationale of bulk cooking. 

I would cook in bulk once a week on a weekend and eat the same stuff everyday. Come home, heat up food, eat and rush off for rehearsals. Not appetising but practical. 

Still, I wasn’t complaining. At least I had something to fill up my spare time (of which Arts’ students seem to have a lot of) at night. It is even more annoying, as most Malaysians have found, that almost all shops besides pubs close at 5pm. To top it off, I was staying alone in an apartment off campus. So, yes, singing opera was a welcome distraction.  

During the musical rehearsals, the cast members were given music scores with notes and symbols I can’t read. We were then divided into our singing parts – soprano, alto, tenor and bass respectively.  

The music director, with the help of a pianist, would sing through a song in each of these parts once, expecting us to read the notes for ourselves.  

If you had any difficulties or sang contrary to the scores, you were to raise your hand, which was the cue for the rest to stare at you while the director painstakingly corrected you. 

What would Pirates of Penzance be without swashbuckling men in tights?

Nevertheless, I tended to avoid such embarrassment by frantically memorising tunes and pestering my friends whenever I was lost. It was not only the tune and song that mattered, the music director continually hammered on our articulation “because the audience needs to hear what you’re saying so please spppittt out those consonants”. Therefore, we were to sing “climbing over rock-ky mountains, ssskip-ping rivulets and fountains?” in staccato. 

Throughout the rehearsals, we were made to engage in various buffoonery and make nonsensical sounds as part of ‘warm-up exercises’. We had to march around the hall singing “Fa fa fa fa” up and down the scales, hold each other and bend our knees, sing “1, 1 2 1, 1 2 3 2 1 ... “ in harmony, vibrate our lips and whether you believe it or not – play tag. There’s more to it.  

A musical obviously involves dancing and acting apart from singing. The maidens had to learn all sorts of dainty steps, skirt swishing, flirtatious flicking of wrists. The pirates would twirl us hapless maidens around with their equally exaggerated swashbuckling machismo. – it was, after all, an 18th century English musical. 

We were to perform for three nights at the Melbourne University Union House Theatre, which could seat 350 people at a time. As those nights drew closer, rehearsals became more frantic and all cast members had to be involved with costumes, props and publicity.  

We stuck posters on every notice board, and gave publicity postcards to friends, tutorial peers, relatives and strangers alike. We jostled, campaigned, bragged, sweet-talked and pleaded. We even had community newspapers covering our event! 

With all those weeks of preparation, three musical performance nights flew by much too fast. The degree of tension and nervousness in the air was unmistakable. Even while the musical was going on, besides curling our hair and applying our fake eyelashes, we alto singers were desperately practising our steps and lyrics repeatedly. 

Despite some minor hiccups, it was incredibly fun to be on stage. Some cast members were so bold as to add in words and actions impromptu that did not belong to the musical originally. We thrived on the audience’s laughter and to our pleasure we performed to a full house nearly every night. 

Well, what have I gained from all this? I did not get paid. But I did fulfil my dream of acting in a musical, though not professionally. 

I made many Australian friends within the first few weeks who taught me bits of their culture – such as winding down the car window, then barking ‘ar ra ra ra!’ at the top of one’s lungs and going to pubs after nearly every rehearsal.  

Last but not least, those silly musical songs are now stuck in my head.

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