by Ian Abel Nathaniel
Anyone who’s even REMOTELY invested in the musical theatre industry has heard of the name Nick Choo. A brilliant composer and amazing librettist, Nick Choo, 36, is an all-rounded and humble person. He started his musical theatre career in high school, having composed for a musical whose name he nearly couldn’t remember. He says, “We gave it a French name to make it sound cooler, but it ended up sounding more pretentious”, while discussing [in translation] ‘Two Halves’. It was a story about a queen and king who fought, so she led all the women to stay far away from the men of the kingdom. “It was very juvenile. There was a song the queen sang over her dead bird that the king killed. All the jokes you can think of, associated with the word ‘bird’- they were uttered. It was that kind of humour,” he laughed.
Being such a talented artiste, you would have thought that he had a comprehensive training in music. Surprise surprise, he doesn’t. He did learn piano until he was fifteen. Like many other people, he has done ABRSM Grade 8 in both practical and theory. He wanted to study music further in 1997 but he tells us that it’s hard enough to survive in the KL arts scene now, what more back in Penang (where he’s from) in 1997. “It was very hard to visualize the future.”
Nick studied at Murdoch University, Western Australia, and did a double degree in Journalism and Creative Arts (they did not have a musical theatre department; but they did have a theatre department where he volunteered his musical talents). When he arrived back in Malaysia, he always had musical theatre at the back of his mind. But living in the very Asian-centric community we all know well, he had to get a job. He worked at multiple media publications including Off The Edge and Selangor Times. “I found myself quitting my job a lot to pursue musical theatre. When you’re a journalist, you work from 3pm ‘til midnight so you can’t do rehearsals and stuff,” he explained.
He added, “I had to choose- either money or fulfillment. So I chose my passion… I just needed a clear path with opportunities. Of course there are the money matters that come into place. There were always sacrifices that had to be made,” claimed Nick, who still lives with his parents but loves it because he will never starve!
In a few weeks, Nick will be leaving to return to Murdoch, pursuing his PhD in Creative Arts, with a focus on composing for musical theatre. “Murdoch isn’t new to me because I work closely with Jenny de Reuck, who has invited me back to do children’s theatre every year since I left.” So before Nick Left, we caught up with him to pick his brain a little and to get to know him better.
The Epic Journey:
[We’ve decided to put this in timeline format because, damn! This isn’t even the full list!!]
- “Joined the drama club, composed for a play in St Xavier’s Institution, put on a full length show. [Not ‘High School Musical’]
- Was at Murdoch University, a director decided to do ‘Richard III’ as a musical. I thought it was interesting. Then he told me he wanted it to be set in an Indian nightclub. So I did some research, listened to a lot of Bollywood and wrote. It ended up sounding very Middle Eastern.
- Murdoch has a children’s theatre course once every year. At that time, Jenny de Reuck was my professor and academic supervisor. She wrote the book and I did the music for ‘Zak Zebra’. That was the beginning of our working partnership.
- I wrote the book, lyrics, and of course, composed the music to ‘Follow The Light’. It was part of my Masters course. You could say this was the world premiere of ‘Follow The Light’.
- I was talking to a friend whom I worked with in theatre. We were not very close but we were talking on MSN Messenger (oh the good ol’ MSN days). He was telling me how he contemplated suicide. Immediately, the questions playing in my head were, “What’s your family life like?” “Who were your friends?” “Did they help you?” This made me think about exploring the whole concept of suicide. So I wanted to tell a story of a suicidal person from the eyes of his family and friends. You never see the guy who’s going to commit suicide; you only see how it affects the family and the friends; hence the birth of ‘The Edge’.
- I did ‘A Christmas Carol’ with KLPAC. I wrote some originals and rearranged some pre-existing carols. This got me my first BOH Cameronian nomination.
- I workshopped ‘The Edge’ under Chris Ling. It was very well received and was planned to stage in 2009, but it didn’t happen due to some unforseen circumstances.
- Took a break and continued to work as a journalist.
- The Malaysian premiere of ‘Follow The Light’, directed by Colin Kirton. Starring Juwita Suwito, Liang, Tim Howe, Zalina Lee, and many more.
- That’s when I moved to Singapore- after seeing an ad here and spontaneously going for the interview. It was very stressful there because it was full-on work. I worked in Today newspaper, owned by Mediacorp, and I did not have time to socialize or network.
- Monday Show Entertainment, spearheaded by Dominic Lucien Luk, wanted to produce ‘The Edge’. So I chose to leave Singapore because even though the money was good, I was miserable. ‘The Edge’ was staged in KLPAC, directed by Sabrina Hassan. It won Best Performer (Tria Aziz), and best Original Script and Best Original Score. Based on the staging, I recognized a lot of things that could have been improved and would like to restage it at some point.
- ‘Dreaming Outside The Box’ premiered as part of Short+Sweet Festival Malaysia, KLPAC. Directed by Freddy Tan, performed by Aaron Teoh and Tria Aziz. I got the idea from talking to Dominic and asking him what he would like to see differently on stage. He said he wanted to know “what a Jack-in-the-Box thinks”. It’s a story about two Jack-in-the-Boxes that don’t get played with anymore but hope that tomorrow will be different. This piece won 8 out of 14 awards in Short+Sweet.
- After a successful run in 2013, I decided to come back to Short + Sweet, and did ‘Cartography of a Relationship’ (directed by Dominic Luk, performed mostly by Ida Mariana). The story was inspired by listening to a GPS. So Ida basically sings about a young couple’s life together but uses street terminology in context, so think of a relationship described by roundabouts, U-turns, dead ends, connection lost, etc.
- KLPAC wanted to try out children’s theatre. Joe Hasham and Dato’ Faridah contacted me and so I proposed ‘Zak Zebra’. They liked the idea and decided to give it its Malaysian premier early in the year. The turnout was really good. We were nominated for the Cammies for Best Original Score and Best Original Book. That surprised me because we were contending against ‘Uda dan Dara’ and ‘SAND The Musical’. If there was anything I thought I would get nominated for, it was ‘Esya’ (also staged in 2015 by SIBKL)… not children’s theatre.”
We asked Nick the golden question: So how do you compose? He exhibited difficulty at answering the question by saying, “It’s basically sitting at the piano and playing.” Thanks, Nick, we wouldn’t have figured that out. Haha! “The music really depends on the plot and the setting. Like in ‘The Edge’, for example, it was a very dramatic piece; so naturally, there were a lot of monologues, and when monologues are turned into songs, they can be quite long. It couldn’t be pop-ish, I figured it was very Sondheim to an extent but with a mixture of Jason Robert Brown (The Last 5 Years), because his style is somewhat Sondheim with a pop twist to it.” He continued, “’Follow the Light’ was inspired by ‘Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat’ by Andrew Lloyd Webber. It was a very mixed musical style.”
What about your performers? Do you give them creative freedom? “Plenty… No, I lied,” laughed Nick. “I do give them some, I’m not really strict. I think the performers do have their own sensibilities to contribute into the song or scene,” he excitedly continued, “When I workshopped ‘The Edge’ with Peter Ong, there was one song that I wrote and always pictured to be very loud and melodramatic. But when Peter Ong did it, as the song progressed, it kept fading towards the end. It became so much more impactful when it became quieter.”
So what makes Sondheim a Sondheim and what makes Nick Choo a Nick Choo? Nick confesses that one of his compositional struggles is making his music for different productions sound different. But that isn’t necessarily a bad thing; it could just be a signature. “I find myself frequently writing in ‘7’ rhythms. Specifically in 7/8, but it’s not just 7 quavers in one bar, it’s usually a triplet followed by 3 quavers and a triplet is usually 4 quavers”, while clapping to the rhythm. Here’s how the notations look like and here’s a short sample from the interview.
It seems like every musical theatre composer tries their very best to not do the standard 4/4 thing. We posed a question to Nick, asking him why? Do they just want to show off? Or is it just the style? “Personally I don’t consciously say I want to write in 5. Sometimes I just play something and when I’m transcribing it, it ends up as a complex time signature.” Nick agrees with us that it does make the song more interesting and adds its bit of unpredictability to it. Which is refreshing, as opposed to your standard 4-chord 4/4 pop.
But sometimes the projects that Nick works on already have lyrics; so he has to either tweak the lyrics to fit the melody or tweak the melody to fit the lyrics. Nick adds, “I’m working on a project now called 2084. My friend in Australia who’s doing her PhD in Lyric-writing wrote it. The lyrics that she wrote are non-linear, there’s no 8-syllables thing going on. And because she’s doing her PhD, I cannot change the lyrics, I have to work with what’s given to me. Which is a lot of fun until you have to painstakingly transcribe it.”
So what does the future have waiting for Nick Choo? He fanboys his love for Sondheim and the complex and really clever stuff Sondheim writes. Did you know that Sondheim doesn’t only write for musical theatre? He has written for Madonna before; he also writes a lot of blues and jazz. But not everyone can appreciate Sondheim. “It’s his [Sondheim] lyrics. The double entendres and the clever play on words, plus music that is complex. I have a feeling that people who like Sondheim are usually the people who have a bit more musical training and can recognize the complexity and beauty of Sondheim.” Nick adds that his ultimate goal is to be on Broadway and working on it is a lot about building connections and networking. He’s more inclined to collaborating with institutes that have direct connections to the US and the UK. He has submitted some stuff to producers but it’s all a waiting game.
“I would be happy if someone in Malaysia would sing my songs; like Sheila Majid, Ning Baizura, Siti Nurhaliza, or whoever. I would be so happy! But if I could pick a Broadway star to perform my song- it would be a cliché but- I would say Bernadette Peters, no matter what age she is. Not Idina Menzel though. Seriously. Let it go already. Haha! ”, he joked, when asked who he would like to hear perform his songs.
Upon being asked what his progress towards Broadway was, he stated, “It’s tough. Because when you want to pitch to Broadway producers, you need to have good quality audio, at the very least. The shows that I have done here are all small scale and small budgeted. To be fair, I’ve only done three years of full time. But looking back, I should have planned it better so that by this time, I should have a portfolio.”
To conclude, we asked Nick for his final words for aspiring composers. He simply answered, “Don’t give up, keep working. Work hard. It’s not going to be easy at all. Don’t let people say there’s no market for it. The market is small but take what you can get. If you have an opportunity to study or work overseas, do it but always come back.” Nick promises that even though he’s pursuing his PhD in Australia, he will come back and even while he’s there, he will do stuff in Malaysia.
Monday Show Entertainment is proud to produce ‘THE EPIC JOURNEY: Nick Choo Concert’ where they are throwing Nick a concert in his honour before he leaves to Australia in a few weeks. They want this to be a surprise for him so he doesn’t really know about everything that’s being planned. Although, he did mention that there will be three full 10-minute musicals, and he will be debuting six of Shakespeare’s sonnets set to music, which will be his contribution to Shakespeare’s 400th Anniversary.
This production is supported by Monday Show Entertainment, direction and vocal direction by Dominic Lucien Luk. Music Direction by Shaun Chen.
5th, 6th MAY – 8:30pm
8th MAY – 3pm
*no show on 7th of May
Entry by minimum donation of RM70 per person or RM240 for a single booking of 4 seats
Book your seats and make your donation by sending an e-mail to EpicJourney@MondayShow.com.my
Kara Yee Siow Chee
Sandra Mannas Wolf