Sepet the Musical
By Liver & Lung
16-22 & 26-29 September
REVIEW BY TICKET TIGER
When the late Yasmin Ahmad’s Sepet debuted on Malaysian screens in 2005, it garnered widespread critical and popular acclaim, and was marked as a cinematic milestone. Malaysian film would never be the same again.
The team taking up the challenge of adapting the movie into a musical is Liver & Lung. Comprised of Shafeeq Shajahan and Hannah Shields, the company may be fairly new to the local scene but has an impressive roster of past performances (mostly student and fringe productions and a few small productions in KL). They’re certainly ambitious, not only in tackling Sepet, but with the speed in which they produce— there was already an advert for another musical a month later in my printout.
Adapting a movie as deeply loved and entrenched into collective memory invites both excitement and trepidation. Sepet’s lingering goodwill was ripe to tap into (tickets sold out fast), but high expectations can also cripple a show. Sepet the Musical did not disappoint, mainly because the creative team made very canny and clear artistic decisions on how to translate the movie into a musical and “experience” (their words).
At its core, Sepet is a simple boy-meets-girl indie movie. Yasmin’s work captured the ordinary magic of young love when Jason falls for Orked in languid Ipoh, despite their different backgrounds. But in Malaysia, a mixed-race relationship is never just simple; it is never free from the strictures and stigmas of society. With a clever mixture of daring and subtlety, the movie pushed their budding romance to confront a reality that would rather nip it in the bud.
Theatre that tries to be an “experience” almost always invites eye rolls at trying too hard and unedited experimentation. Sepet the Musical thankfully stayed on the charming side of “immersive” theatre.
It started with the invitation to come dressed ala Sepet’s duo: Orked’s effortless baju kurung and Jason’s pasar malam chic. The audience was served nostalgic Malaysian snacks by attendants in baju kurung and kebaya before entering the venue, a room at the GMBB building in Bukit Bintang.
When I say room, I mean room. The front door was also the stage entrance. Actually, there was no stage. A few large rattan mats on the floor did the job. The audience was split into two halves on both sides of the mats, sitting on makeshift, hodgepodge and slightly uncomfortable seating.
Around the walls were collaged posters of old Malaysian movies, and spanning the ceiling were colourful swaths of cloth and tarpaulin. Simple metal frames, props and hand drawn signs stood in for various locations.
The set, by Shafeeq’s sister Shazana Shajaha, his mother Basheerah Majeed, and Malar Harishdaha, was part Brechtian (if Bretch wanted to evoke fuzzy feelings of Malaysian nostalgia) and part low-fi high school annual play. Yet, recalling the movie’s homegrown feel, the naivety of the set was apropos, mirroring the earnestness of its source.
The play opens with Joshua Gui as Jason reading Rabindranath Tagore’s poetry and Badrika Bahadur as Orked reciting prayers. The musical was a two-hander, and other characters from the movie were either spoken to but invisible, or stood in by silent audience members when the actors occasionally broke the fourth wall.
The audience the night I watched included Sharifah Amani and Ng Choo Seong, the original Orked and Jason, sitting on first rows opposite each other. It was surreal watching them watch themselves in musical form, giving each other knowing looks. In a scene that illuminates the delight of live theatre, Jason speaks and sings to his mother, a Peranakan woman, and Gui spoke to a Chinese lady in the audience wearing a kebaya (What are the odds?!). In the same sequence, Orked speaks and sings to her father and Badrika approached Sharifah to stand in.
Newcomer Badrika was a delight as Orked, her stage presence and confidence echoing the spunk of then unknown Sharifah Amani in the film. Her vocal chops and ease on stage made her seem a lot more experienced than she was, and she had undeniable chemistry with her co-lead.
The more experienced Joshua Gui is known for playing more urbane characters: Paul in Company, Cinderella’s Prince in Into the Woods and Henry in Next to Normal. Here, he takes the challenge of playing a small town boy. While Jason in the movie was adorably awkward, Gui’s Jason was a lot more of a leading man – strong voice, well-built physique, great confidence. Gui was most convincing when dewy eyed in love, but when the lyrics turned a bit too clever (like when he rues the varieties of alcohol he may have to forfeit for Orked), Gui seemed too urbane to pass as a VCD pirate. (I also wondered, does any millennial even know what a VCD is?).
The music, co-written by Badrika’s brother Badrish Bahadur and Shafeeq, cleverly mirrored the movie’s tone. Eschewing typical Broadway music, songs in Sepet the Musical were mostly folksy, acoustic numbers (played by Badrish, with music direction by Wai Leong). The lyrics stayed earnest for the most part, marrying unforced rhymes and phrases with strong melodies and a few leifmotifs. This let the actors’ obvious chemistry and strong voices do the work of amplifying emotions, especially during a few heart stirring duets.
Many of the songs captured what Jason and Orked may have thought in the movie but did not say. As they sang to the audience, the anxieties and excitement inside the lovers’ minds were given voice, making overt in the musical what was subtextual in the movie.
The book of the musical is religiously faithful to the movie. Shafeeq’s mantra was “Don’t fix what ain’t broken.” Dialogue was sometimes word-for-word, and even sound clips from the movie were employed. The saccharine and more controversial parts of the movie were also presented as-is. I did wonder though, with that almost slavish fidelity, whether the musical could stand on its own without relying too much on audience’s memory of the movie. Probably not, but I doubt that would bother Liver & Lung—the musical is an homage through and through.
There was however, a lovely contemporary dance piece absent from the movie added to the musical (choreographed by Hannah Shields). Watching Gui and Badrika dance made complete sense in the musical both in the romance it conveyed and how it sat within a musical. I did wish the production took more opportunities like those to depart from the movie.
Watching Sepet the Musical, I recalled the criticisms against Sepet the movie, and Yasmin’s work in general. Her oeuvre is often seen as overly sentimental and rose-tinted in its depiction of Malaysia, but the musical reminds us that her work was not naïve. Yasmin had an astute, instinctive pulse on the myriad ways Malaysians fit into stereotypes as often as they broke them. Her movies portrayed Malaysians as a bundle of contradictions who could not be easily labeled. Her characters were simultaneously exceptional and typical. She invited her viewers to think “This is completely unrealistic” and maybe, just maybe, “This is entirely possible”. Those two possibilities existed at the same time in her work, like a Schrodinger’s cat of two self-contradicting Malaysias.
So to argue that the Malaysia in her works never really existed misses the point. Yasmin invited us to imagine a Malaysia that could be. She invited us to be less cynical, to embrace a Malaysia that may be a little imaginary, but also plausible and possible if we choose to believe in it.
Sepet the Musical does the same. As there were no stage lights, the house lights were on almost throughout the show. At first this was jarring, but as the night progressed, it lent the play an unexpected quality: the audience saw each other looking at the actors looking at us as we all cried, laughed and smiled together. It was a hall of mirrors. You realise you are building a collective dream with your fellow theatregoers: revisiting a memory of a beloved movie from more than a decade ago, remembering how your fellow Malaysians don’t fit into lazy categories, and inhabiting Yasmin’s Malaysia for a while. A Malaysia that perhaps never was, but, with some faith, still could be.
All photos by amirsetpablo courtesy of Liver & Lung.
Ticket Tiger is a performing arts enthusiast roaming KL and its surrounding environs. He likes to chew on meaty productions and isn’t afraid to bite.