A Love Letter to Checkpoint Theatre's Secondary: The Musical - Men's Folio
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A Love Letter to Checkpoint Theatre’s Secondary: The Musical

  • By Charmaine Tan

In a search for why Checkpoint Theatre’s Secondary: The Musical — artistic wunderkind weish’s first ever musical — stunned the way it did.

It’s quite interesting to watch a musical about life in school knowing that my actual school mates are part of its cast. But it is even more interesting to watch a musical about life in school knowing that not just the cast, but the mastermind behind this musical has taught in that very same school, and has to some degree drawn on that experience, to create this massive beast of a work.

By the time multidisciplinary artist weish — said mastermind — had started teaching, I was already at the tail-end of my time as a student there and so our paths never crossed. But by some stroke of luck, she was cast to do a shoot with us two years ago. After a brief exchange revealed this piece of shared history, our conversation quickly evolved from missing casual lunch-time concerts, to lamenting the woes of disillusioning workplace politics and the bittersweet ache of knowing that unfulfilled potential will always exist in both classrooms and school staff rooms.

Of course, no school is without its own unique set of challenges, and being a student and teacher at the same school yields its own nuances in experience. But I was meeting someone who helped care for the ever-changing place where most of my art-loving core took shape, only she a young ex-teacher and I a recent graduate; who else could be more cynical about the education system (or any system for that matter) than those in our stage of life? More importantly, she was proof that the double-life I once took for granted was possible as an adult. Not sustainable, but possible, and enough to feed the naive dream of living like an arts student I still — though more feebly — hold onto today.

Little did I know that this chance meeting would turn out to be a teaser of Checkpoint Theatre’s Secondary: The Musical: six years worth of weish’s big and small feelings about being a teacher in Singapore, packaged into 2 hours and 45 minutes of word and song.

Indulging in the above anecdote prefaces just one of the many reasons why Checkpoint Theatre’s 2024 season opener, Secondary: The Musical, seems to have cut its audience deep in more ways than I can exhaust in writing. Those were our formative years after all, and to re-live that with people who have also gone through the same unique education system produces an innate camaraderie that only grows in compound. And while the limited two-week run was already consistently bombarded by soaring reviews left and right — each lauding the piece’s incisive brevity and levity in their own eloquent ways — this work demands a closer inspection and a more permanent report of its findings to allow those who watched Secondary get a deeper appreciation of an undoubtedly canon work, and those who have not done so feel the need to when it returns (hopefully), to enlighten and comfort more as a watershed in Singapore’s history of theatre.

I had the privilege of seeing Zhao Lilin, the main character, played by both weish and Genevieve Tan. While this was a last-minute cover for an untimely vocal injury, the blip resulted in two great things: one, the birth of two very distinct performances of Lilin, and two, a triple-bill debut of weish as a playwright, musical director and actress on stage.

To see her add three more hats on top of the many she already wears — balanced in its own curious equilibrium — is a kind of brilliant I can only explain with my streaming tears and standing ovations. Those familiar with her voice and its experimentally unfazed range will know how haunting her guttural bellows and falsettos can be. But this was her speaking and singing a self-written script, based on her own experience as Ms Chew; probably the closest we can get to the itch weish got to create Secondary. Place her raw and intuitive approach of Lilin next to Genevieve’s more textbook and theatrically effective offering and you get one of the many secret sauces that elevates Secondary to new musical heightsa work so deeply personal and technically ambitious that it checks both the boxes of originality and dramaturgical mastery at the same time, effortlessly.

Then there is the writing. Each line and lyric is considered and compelling, the heart-wrenching maladies that pit each character into their corners brought to life by an equally stellar cast, and Huzir Sulaiman‘s all-round sensitive, suffusive and poignant direction.

What is most admirable about weish’s writing is her kindness towards all the characters’ different speeds of growth, and how they grow. It’s not just the three main students — Ming (Tricia Tan), Omar (Shahid Nasheer), and Reyansh (Krish Natarajan) — who steal the show with their character arcs. It is the warmth that belies Charlie Chu’s (Jun Vinh Teoh) comical aloofness when he secretly submits the social services application or offers to tutor Ming; Cik Sya’s (Nadya Zaheer) abrasive yet affectionate chiding with treats; the steely grace of Mandy Thomas (Rebekah Dorai) clearly developed as a necessary shield for her to further her professional career. If weish is already this attentive and caring towards each character, one can only imagine how she was like as Ms Chew.

Then, we have the repertoire of clever English, Chinese and Malay colloquialisms which — in their clipped natures — become keys to further understanding Ming’s yearning yet thorn-chained heart, Omar’s good-natured and sensible loyalty, and Reyansh’s endearing dewy-eyed fascination with the world, numbers and his friends. Even with the many roles that the Ensemble has to quick-change into, out of, and into again — shoutout to Max Tan’s genius costume design — they are anchored in the audience’s consciousness, and apparently, quite true to the caricatures that hold the academic eco-system in place. To leave the theatre with such a clear outline of all the people who hold up the musical and who they represent in real life is a result of clear writing and clearer delivery; a rare case of perfect chemistry between cast and crew.

Having said all that, the affairs set in Huxley Secondary School (and its impressive set) are no reflection of a happy-ever-after utopia. Important questions and themes are bravely grappled with in all its gore and glory, deftly sifting through the cerebral and the conceptual to clearly show how stifling, ghastly and insufferable a school can be to one, and the absolute cradle of truth, dreams and hope to another. Class and racial underlines are drawn thick for all to see, undaunted and whole in representation so the necessary conversations can come — albeit belatedly with regret. I’ve already been spoken for by the amount of people who finally feel seen and heard through Secondary, and there is nothing more heart-warming than being able to highlight how a piece of art so truthfully and accurately illuminates the cracks and crevices overlooked by status quo.

Only all this is tastefully delivered with music clearly signed off by weish, who has worked with PK Records to produce 15 original tracks all devoid of the sometimes cakey theatrical pizzaz. Hiphop and rap in ‘Buang Aku’ play into the emotional roots of the politically charged genre to spotlight Omar’s spirit amidst his struggles, while Charlie Chu’s showy dance theme “Because Why” and its rather ingenious jazz excursion on the mention of asymptote makes his kooky character even more lovable. Then there is military drag in “It’s You, Omar”, the chilling tear-jerker ballad “Girl of Fifteen”, and the ending “Aiya Reprise” that I only remember as a surge of uncontainable emotions, both of joy and heartache.

If there was anything I felt minutely unhappy about, it would be how abruptly the musical seemed to have ended. Or at least it felt like it ended on a jarring dissonant chord, because I wanted more music, more hit-it-out-of-the-park jokes, and I just really wanted to know if all the students would grow up fine. But what if this is meant to simulate what being a teacher is like? Do teachers like weish go to sleep thinking about their students long after they have left the service? Do academic years sometimes pass and end with reluctant periods when there should have been commas? What if this is just weish’s erudite way of literature, making those of us in the audience feel the same unsatisfactory and unsettling feelings she once felt by letting them punctuate our own hazy nostalgia trips? What does having so many of us who aren’t even teachers relate to the musical mean, and will the change-makers who watch this turn this pivotal moment into the start of something new?

Truthfully, big questions lose steam once that have hung around in one’s consciousness for too long, because they come with heavy thoughts and feelings that the body will always work to lighten — and numb — with forgetfulness. For this very reason, it is imperative for reminders like Secondary to exist so we remember what it means to be whole and humane, on and off paper.

For using a different highlighter to glide over the different-sized words, big or small, thank you weish and Checkpoint Theatre, for leaving us with all the right questions to crawl under our skin, and for being the soundboard Singapore desperately needs to stay human.

All photography by Crispian Chan and Nicholas Yeo. Courtesy of Checkpoint Theatre.

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