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Interview: Peter Ong and Petrina Kow from Stephen Sondheim’s Company (Singapore)

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With Stephen Sondheim’s Company, by Dream Academy, starting its run on November 1st 2012, its stars Peter Ong and Petrina Kow took some time to answer pertinent questions about performing in the play.

Company is a Tony Award winning musical comedy that explores the pros and cons, the ups and downs, and the ins and outs of being single.

PETER ONG

Oh, a Penang boy! Do you visit Penang? When was the last time you were there?

Yes, am very proud to be a Penang boy! It’s my special island. I go up at least three times a year as my relatives are still there, especially my grandmom. Was last there in August. You know what they say… you can take the boy out of Penang but…

Which country do you reside in these days?

Malaysia. Home is Kuala Lumpur.

I see you’ve done a lot of opera work. How is doing opera different from doing a Sondheim musical?

Worlds apart! In opera, it’s all about the beautiful voice. Your vocal ability takes precedence over everything else. It’s also a very exacting industry. Vocal and musical perfection are expected. It’s kind of like going to a circus to watch acrobats doing nail-biting death-defying stunts, except in opera, it’s to hear the vocal acrobatics. Although having said that, I still find it extremely rewarding to perform a work that measures up to those standards.

A musical on the other hand requires a lot more delicacy. It’s not just about ‘the music’ or ‘the voice’. It’s about the essence of the character. It’s about being real and being honest. It’s theatre. It’s about the truth of the character you are playing, which in this case is 35-year-old, commitment-phobic Bobby. And it has to be reflected in the songs.

Any challenges so far in performing/rehearsing Company?

Plenty! But I love it! Sondheim has written such an amazing score. It’s a bitch of a score but truly a work of genius! And the characters in it… all I can say is that you are going to be in for a real laugh! We are constantly keeling over with laughter in the midst of rehearsals, I kid you not!

How did you get into opera?

I always sang, even when I was a kid. I sang in a children’s choir that mainly performed classical pieces and I just fell in love with it. In university, whilst I was studying law, I auditioned for the University Music Scholarships and won it. So I just kept on singing (unbeknownst to the folks at home) and after graduating I knew it was something I had to have in my life – to be able to sing.

Opera I have always loved. As a singer, it represents the Mount Everest of singing. To be able to sing freely and unamplified over an orchestra, that is one of the best feelings I’ve ever known. And of course the satisfaction of mastering your voice. All the training has given me so many tools to explore the voice further and has allowed me to take on roles in musical theatre too.

Company is about relationships, commitment, and marriage. Are you married or in a relationship? Does commitment scare you?

I am in a relationship and we have been happily committed for 12 years. I do think of single-hood every now and then (what man doesn’t) but am truly happy to share my life with a special person. I guess I’m just a nester.

What are your thoughts on marriage in this day and age?

I think people tend to fall in love with the idea of marriage, but really what is truly important is that we need to be in love with that special someone and make a decision to be with that person for as long as it takes. I personally think marriage doesn’t make a relationship any better. Commitment and dedication does. And at the end of the day, it’s the quality of the relationship between two individuals that counts.

How did you get this role in Company?

I’ve always, always, always wanted to perform in a Sondheim show. Bobby to me is one of those iconic musical theatre roles for men, up there with the Phantom, Jean Valjean, and Sweeney Todd. The music is simply phenomenal and the script is fantastic. It’s also a character which I’ve wanted to explore for a very long time. I think there’s a Bobby in every man, and I wanted to find him in me, and bring him to the surface.

When I first heard that the director Hossan Leong was looking for a Bobby, I sent in my CV asap! I would have been happy with any role in the show really because every character is so amazing. I have to thank Hossan for having faith in me and for allowing me to find Bobby in myself. It has been a truly amazing journey so far and I am so grateful to be a part of Dream Academy’s Company. It’s a dream come true!

How is Hossan Leong as a director?

Can I just state for the record that Hossan is an amazing director? He’s patient, focused, insightful, and encouraging. It’s a rare opportunity that one gets to work with such a giving director. I have learnt so much and am inspired daily. What more could I ask for!

Why should the public come watch Company?

It is super funny! It has music that is so charged! It has an OMG amazing cast with the likes of Tan Kheng Hua, Karen Tan, and Candice de Rozario to name a few, who will bowl you over with their sheer talent! It has a hot scene in bed! So come and have a laugh with us!

 

PETRINA KOW

People probably rrecognise you most as a radio DJ. When did you start acting professionally?

Actually, I started out acting first in 1998 around the same time as my first radio job at One FM (the old Gold 90). The radio gig took off and I did a few productions for about two years before I stopped to have my kids and concentrate on building a company and a family with my husband.

You’ve also done some directing. Which do you prefer – DJ-ing, acting, or directing?

Actually it all goes hand in hand. Presenting on air is the most ‘live’ form of theatre in that everything is improvised and we work without a set script or music, but the discipline of theatre and having a background in theatre helps to inform my choices on air. And all this actually helps me to direct my talents better because I know what I want, and I know what it should sound like and I also know how to get there.

Any challenges so far in rehearsing for Company?

Hell yeah! Sondheim is universally feared and revered by most musical theatre practitioners. His harmonies are hard, but cleverly so. Challenging, but so rewarding when it all comes together. Also we are getting through what our choreographer George Chan calls our ‘frustrating’ week as we’ve sort of learnt our songs and now we have to learn the choreography but putting the two together is still a little elusive!

You’ve been married for quite awhile, and have two children. Clearly you believe in commitment and marriage. However, what are your thoughts about people in this generation viewing marriage as unnecessary, opting instead to live together or even to stay single?

I have no problems with that. I think being married is telling everyone that you’ve made a decision to be with someone and you’ve made a commitment to work together. Making it official helps with the administrative part of things but it doesn’t change the initial decision. It’s also a very personal thing. Nothing wrong with being single either.

What are the best parts of being married?

“Someone to hold me too close…someone to hurt me too deep…someone to sit in my chair, and ruin my sleep and make me aware of Being Alive!” – This is Sondheim at his greatest. This song “Being Alive” gets to every one of us in the cast who is married. When you decide to share your life with someone, you have to accept all the good with the bad. And that line is often blurred too. Mostly, you are happy you have someone to share the best and worst moments with you and that realisation is what “Being Alive” is all about.

What are the worst parts (if any) to marriage?

The best bits are also the worst bits! Haha! Where do I start? I think the worst part of marriage is knowing that like all things, it will end one day. My husband and I joke about this all the time. Who goes first and who’s going to be worst off. Sounds morbid, but we think about it to serve as a reminder to always cherish every moment we have together, our moments with our kids, the laughter, the sadness, the joy and the love.

How’s your experience so far being directed by Hossan Leong?

One word. LOVE. I love Hossan to bits, but really he’s a bit of an over-achiever! He just finished doing The Hossan Leong show, now he’s directing Company, and at night he’s wearing Smurf costumes and hosting shows. I am tired just typing this, but despite ALL that, he comes to rehearsals with a bucketload of patience for a rather fabulous but rowdy cast. He showers us with love and affection and is open to our thoughts and opinions. And he buys us beer before happy hour! He’s really spoiling the market – really!

How did you get this role? What drew you to it?

One day, Hossan decided to scrape the bottom of the barrel, and found me shriveled in a corner and took pity on me! I jest of course. Barrels have no corners.

Anyway, he drank some silly juice and thought that I could pull off one of the hardest songs in the show. Turns out, his confidence in me was so inspiring that I now can sing it all in one breath. I jest again. I take at least three.

What do you hope audiences take away from Company?

I hope they leave the theatre lifted by the songs, touched by the sincerity of the actors, tickled by the humour, provoked into caring more, loving deeper, laughing harder, and wanting more. I hope audiences leave with all that, but if not, then I hope they leave with at least the program.

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About Sharmila Melissa Yogalingam

Ex-professor, Ex-phd student, current freelance critic, writer and filmmaker.