Nearly 20 years ago, the musical Beauty World took Singapore by storm. Composed by Singaporean pop star and songwriter Dick Lee, the show told the story of a young Malaysian girl who travelled to Singapore in search of her father but ended up lost in a nightclub. Drawing inspiration from old black and white Cantonese movies, Beauty World combined a serious story line with a multicultural playlist that included English show tunes, Singaporean English (Singlish) and Singaporean slang.
The show kicked off a string of musical hits for Lee, whose fascination for local culture helped popularize the so-called “New Asian” genre, a mix of European pop with Asian elements, including instruments, language and/or traditional stories. With its coming-of-age story, Beauty World symbolized the wider Singaporean experience of people moving to the big city to discover their true selves.
Lee, whose father descended from Peranakan Chinese immigrants in Malaysia and whose mother was ethnic Chinese, has championed the inclusion of Asian elements in Singaporean music from his first success as a teenager with Dick and the Gang, a group he formed with his siblings in 1971. At the time, European and American pop music dominated the music scene. Lee’s breakthrough album, Life in the Lion City, won various music awards across the continent specifically because it introduced an Asian element in pop music.
Lee rose to further prominence by writing and composing songs for National Day celebrations, including We Will Get There, Our Singapore and Home, which has become the unofficial national anthem of Singapore. The elaborate National Day celebrations were almost like musicals in their own right. For each, Lee featured a uniquely Asian element that helped to bring together the many cultures and societies represented in the city-state.
With his full-length musicals, Lee, who is also known for his role as a judge on Singapore Idol, has embraced controversial themes.
Sing to the Dawn reflected his interest in bringing down racial and cultural barriers. Based on a best-selling novel of the same name, the story focused on a girl in rural Thailand who wins a scholarship to study in a city school, beating her brother, and creating a rift between males and females in the family. The story revolved around the personal anguish of Kwai, the girl’s brother, who is torn between supporting his sister and furthering his own ambitions. Lee created a soundtrack that highlighted the seriousness of the underlying story, but also shed some light on its relevance to contemporary culture.
For The LKY Musical, one of Lee’s biggest musical hits on the international stage, Lee recreated the life of Lee Kuan Yew, the founder of modern Singapore. Tracing his story from his early days at Raffles College through his declaration of Singaporean independence, the production combined thrilling drama with a little romance and humour — all set to an original score inspired by Singaporean political slogans.
But Lee’s fascination with the musical genre has produced lighthearted moments, too. In a shift away from serious themes, Lee in 2002 wrote and co-directed a dance musical that focused on Asian pop and dance music in Singapore, as well as their influence on Singapore’s younger generations. Titled re:MIX, the show hit the stage of the Singapore Repertory Theatre Young Company alongside Forbidden City: Portrait of an Empress, the story of the legendary Chinese Empress Dowager Cixi. Both of these popular musicals took different approaches to showcase the complexities of Singaporean society and the history of its people.
Singapore’s musical scene has emerged in recent years as a beacon of fusion, fascinating audiences with a mix of local and Western influences. Dick Lee has led the way in sharing Asian-inspired musical theatre with the masses, creating a genre-defying format that is expanding into new markets in Europe and North America. Lee’s East-meets-West musical blend has also helped to bring together a nation of many cultures, languages and classes. The city state’s musical scene is more than just show tunes, it is the new song of Singapore.
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