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SHOWBIZ: Princely tribute to Empress Wu


An original version of the life of China’s only female emperor by Dama Orchestra is a breakthrough production, writes Subhadra Devan

A FRESH and modern take on the life of Empress Wu Zetian, China’s first and only female emperor, will be brought to vivid life through an original musical work by Dama Orchestra.

“Every Chinese emperor, over the centuries, killed off the competition. Survival on the throne of The Son Of Heaven was very difficult, let alone for a woman. Empress Wu behaved no different from a male emperor,” says Pun Kai Loon, artistic director and scriptwriter of Empress Wu The Musical. “Yet she was reviled by historians. There’s a negative image portrayed about her — that of an usurper, a murderer.”

 Pun’s research began in 2009 when he and Dama Orchestra co-founder Khor Seng Chew watched an old Shaw Brothers’ movie about the empress who lived during the Tang Dynasty (618-906AD).

“It starred Li Li Hua, one of our favourite actresses,” recalls Pun, 54, with a grin. He is referring to the 1960 Shaw Brothers’ movie called Empress Wu, directed by Li Han Hsiang.

 “I’d not heard about the empress until then! Her defiant manner, as an empress in a male-centric era, caught my imagination,” says Pun who admits to not being able to speak Mandarin well.

He and Khor began sourcing for material, including written works by modern Chinese scholars and Western sinologists on Wu.

According to Encyclopedia Britannica, Wuhou, the empress, also known as Wu Zhao and Wu Zetian, entered the palace of the Tang emperor Taizong (ruled 626-649) in 638, at 14, as a junior concubine.

At that time, the Tang Dynasty had recently reunited China, largely through the efforts of Taizong. When he died, his heir, Emperor Gaozong, took Wu as a concubine. When he died, she killed all contenders to the throne, including her own sons, and took up the reins to the realm. At 65, she reigned in her own name.

According to the encyclopedia, Wu achieved many things including “transforming Chinese society then from one dominated by a military and political aristocracy to one governed by a scholarly bureaucracy”.

Much of what was written about her after her death in 705AD at 80, were by Confucian scholars during the subsequent Soong Dynasty, says Pun.

Confucian teachings, although with undeniable merit, are slanted with a male gender bias, he explains, adding: “Women had no place in society except in relation to men — she must marry and respect her husband or her son. So I think what was written then about Empress Wu was prejudiced.”

Their research culminated in a book by Pun, on which this musical is based.

Dama Orchestra held open auditions in April for the musical, calling for all actors, singers and dancers aged between 15 and 60, to turn up for some 50 roles, including multiple parts.

It promises to be a bundle of excitement for audience, cast and crew. For Pun: “The excitement is going through this current nightmare (of bringing it to the stage),” he says wryly.

“What’s unique about the musical is that the dialogue will be in English, while the songs and narration will be in Mandarin. There will also be both English and Chinese surtitles,” explains Khor, Dama Orchestra’s resident director and its music director.

There is a Mandarin dialect coach as well as an English one, thespian Sandra Sodhy who’s a founding member of the Instant Cafe Theatre Company. Tan Soo Suan and Rachel Tan play Wu.

Empress Wu will also boast costumes designed by Dominique Devorsine, which are “traditional with modern touches”, says Pun.

Song lyrics are based on classical poems and by Pun Kai Loon and Lim Cheng Hock.

“Our previous musicals including Butterfly Lovers The Musical (in 2010) were adaptations of existing works in Chinese. This is the world premiere of an original Dama production,” stresses Khor.

Pun adds: “It’s very different from Dama’s previous works. It’s a leapfrog forward for the orchestra.”

Empress Wu The Musical is also the largest production Dama Orchestra has undertaken to date, since its inception in 1994 as Dama Chinese Chamber Orchestra.

Dama, as it’s affectionately referred to by fans, is a homegrown, award-winning music theatre company which has made its mark in music in about 20 stage performances to date.

Its musicals are staged not just here but also in Singapore, Australia and China. Its 10-member orchestra, led by co-founder and concert master Gan Boon We, plays traditional Chinese instruments to Western harmonies.

So why do it now in English when its reputation is almost cast in stone? “For a change,” replies Pun blandly. “After almost 20 years, it’s an opportune time to do something original. As it is in English, it will reach out to a larger audience.”

The musical has a 100-strong production, cast and research team. “Khor and I have two research assistants and there are 31 actors.”

Although the English-educated Pun still calls himself a banana (yellow outside but white inside), he is today well-versed in Chinese culture. For Empress Wu alone, Pun says Dama has over 30 reference books.

Why so many books, you wonder. “I expect our interpretation to be controversial,” says Pun firmly. “This is a fresh look at a piece of China’s history.”

He feels “history purists will object to my interpretation, they will find my view of some events objectionable. I expect this. But this is an artistic point of view on the empress”.

The bottomline is, “I am just a storyteller,” says Pun, who adds that Dama is considering holding a question-and-answer session after one of the shows.

Controversy seems nothing new for Dama as Pun says critics have labelled Dama’s work too commercial.

“Would it be better to be an artistic success and not also a commercial one?” wonders Pun, a former vice-president at Citibank.

Khor and Pun say they are still “driven by fear of failure” in Dama’s numerous productions. “It governs how we work,” says Pun.

When Dama started doing musicals, Khor says he used to wake up dreaming of performing to an empty hall.

Adds Pun: “All it takes is one bad show.”

They believe Dama’s emphasis on exacting standards with production, cast and crew, and themselves, have helped make the company what it is today — a local touchstone for good shows.

“We work at putting on artistic work with a commercial approach, and that’s the way to make performing arts sustainable,” says Pun.

“But we are running a social business, not a commercial one, so tax exemptions are welcome,” he adds with a cheeky grin.

Dama Orchestra will be restaging a few signature works, musicals as well as only orchestra, next year, says Pun.

But the icing on its cake may well be the staging of Empress Wu, with its cross-cultural appeal, in other countries, if opportunity comes knocking.

Empress Wu The Musical
A Dama Music Theatre Production
(In English and Mandarin, with both English and Chinese surtitles)
Where Pentas 1, Kuala Lumpur Performing Arts Centre, Sentul
When Sept 27-Oct 21, 8.30pm with weekend matinees
Tickets RM68-RM278. Weekend rates higher, from RM88
KLPac @ Sentul Park: 03-4047 9000
The Actors
Studio @ Lot 10:
03-2142 2009
iLasso Office @ Phileo Damansara II: 03-7957 6088
Online booking

The cast of Dama Orchestra’s musical, Empress Wu. picture by Studio DL

Empress Wu (played by Tan Soo Suan) and Emperer Gaozhong (Alex Koh)


Empress Wu is a leapfrog forward for the orchestra, says Pun Kai Loon

This is the world premiere of an original Dama production, says Khor Seng Chew

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