The 51st HK Arts Festival

Peter Kam Going Modern in his Musical Hot-blooded Sun Yat-sen Ready to Rock

Text / Jenny Ip

Sun Yat-sen and rock music may be an unimaginable combination for people who visualise the "Father of the Nation" in his formal Mao suit and sporting a moustache. But to be more specific, the person enjoying rock music is indeed "Yat-sen", a young student full of idealism who will take to the stage at the Hong Kong Arts Festival next year. The production team behind the Yat-sen musical have leveraged their creativity and gone through an innovative process of creation (or a process with a crazy number of modifications) in constructing the character of Yat-sen who is different, vivid and therefore quite interesting. "We do not wish to standardise the characters and only portray Sun as a historical hero. He too is flesh and blood," said Composer and Music Director Peter Kam, one of the people who turned these two-dimensional ideas into three-dimensional characters.

Singing out internal conflicts and hope

Having composed for several musicals, Kam is particularly serious about plots following logic. "Although I am not the playwright, the plot of musicals is intrinsically tied to the type of songs to be included, which need to fit into the theme of the musical. I always request changes if I find the plot illogical." He proceeds to add with a smile:  "Luckily, Sunny Chan did not get annoyed by me, and the changes we made were worth it. After all, it was his first time writing for a musical. We all took on suggestions from one another and frequently made adjustments to the plot, music and melody. The process was quite dynamic." Kam said the plot of this musical was changed more than any other musical he had worked on. And due to the pandemic, the process of creation was exceptionally long. "We do not like to rush into anything, so the timing of this performance is perhaps perfect for us."

The process of production brought together various masters of playwriting, music composition and lyric writing, which in fact made things difficult. In musicals, decisions have to be made on when to drive the plot with dialogue or lyrics. And how can that be complemented by music? "It depends on the situation. For example, there is a song for the Four Bandits about how they came up with their group name at Yeung Yiu Kee. After the showcase of the musical, we all believed the part was taking too long and felt it could be delivered through two lines of dialogue, rather than a four-minute song."

Later, Kam read through the dialogue that came before and after this section, and identified some content that could be delivered through song. So he tried it out, placing a few lines of dialogue into the original melody. "Chris Shum is very quick-witted. He immediately understands what you are trying to do, and knew that the dialogue had to be shortened into lyrics." The final version of the song narrates why these four people with distinct backgrounds had to join the uprising, giving the song a deeper meaning. "At least the song now touches on the inner conflicts of the characters and their lingering hopes. If it only talks about how the group got its name, the lyrics would be vacant and superficial."

The creators all agree that Yat-sen is not a chronological play. "It is a play about growth and coming of age. It narrates how the young protagonist originally viewed the world idealistically, and eventually learned to accept the truth and change his attitudes." The play does not blindly worship Sun Yat-sen. "He also makes mistakes, but we want to focus on how he learned from them."

Speaking jokingly but singing seriously

The play was already full of Chan's sense of humour, so Kam felt the songs did not need to be intentionally funny. He points to the song New Path, which speaks of Sun Yat-sen's ambitions. "If the song was humorous, the audience would doubt how serious he was in making his decisions. The dialogue is more on the comedic side, while the songs remain serious. To me, they complement each other and enrich the final product."

Since it is made clear that the play is not chronological, it goes without saying that the play does not deliberately include retro songs.  "Only our opening song about Tsui Hang Village is in a pentatonic scale, carrying more Chinese elements. The other songs are all modern, including light rock songs underlining the passion and anger behind the revolution, and swing songs for parts of the play about fantasies. I remember that at the meet-the-team session after the showcase, someone in the audience asked if more songs from the Revolutionary era could be included. But I intentionally avoided adding these types of songs, because they would become too distinct."

Still, Kam is concerned about whether the audience will succumb to the charm of the songs. "In the past, after I enjoyed a musical performance, I left while humming the melodies of the songs. So I hope the songs in this musical will leave a strong impression in the minds of the audience."

Yat-sen Musical

Detail: https://www.hk.artsfestival.org/en/programme/yat_sen

Yat-sen Musical was part of the 2021 Jockey Club Local Creative Talents Series