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‘Melur The Musical’: How To Make A Scary Theatre Show

Published on 02/05/2024

(This blog post is written by Eksentrika. Check out their website here)

Melur The Musical by Liver & Lung explores horror and history, drawing inspiration from Malaysia’s national anthem and celebrating strong Malayan women. Learn how director Shafeeq Shajahan made a scary musical that got nominated for 12 awards at the 2024 Boh Cameronian Arts Awards.


In the realm of Malaysian theatre, Melur The Musical emerges as a chilling exploration of horror and history, offering audiences a spine-tingling journey through the depths of Malaysian culture.

Presented by award-winning musical theatre company Liver & Lung at the Petaling Jaya Performing Arts Centre (PJPAC) from 16 to 26 February 2023, the production encapsulates the intricacies of crafting a truly terrifying theatrical experience.

So it was no surprise that Melur The Musical, directed by Shafeeq Shajahan, was nominated for 12 awards for the 19th BOH Cameronian Arts Awards 2024.

 

 

Taking inspiration from the environment and upbringing

Shafeeq, in an interview with the online ticketing platform CloudJoi, said he was inspired to create Melur The Musical by two key things.

“First, the Malaysian national anthem,” he said. “Tanah tumpahnya darahku (my blood has spilt on the land) is my favourite line in the song because it talks about how deeply connected we are to our country’s land as our blood was literally spilt on it when we were first born.”

He revealed that he loves drawing parallels between the horror of Malaysia’s legends and the horror of war.

“I think Melur The Musical was a story about what happens when you take things from the land you don’t quite understand much like the story of the pontianak itself,” Shafeeq explained, adding that when a man takes something from a woman that he doesn’t quite understand, she will avenge him in the future.

Shafeeq then extrapolated the symbol of the pontianak in Melur The Musical to shed light on the devastation that colonisation brought to Malaysia particularly during the Malayan emergency — a much-forgotten time in the country’s history, according to the director and playwright.

 

'Melur The Musical' director, Shafeeq Shajahan
‘Melur The Musical’ director Shafeeq Shajahan. IMAGE: Liver & Lung / Facebook

 

Creating a strong conflict that’s inspired by history and superstition 

The second inspiration was the long line of strong women whose shoulders Shafeeq stood on.

Melur The Musical celebrates strong Malayan women,” he said, adding that he has 10 aunts to whom he is extremely grateful for inspiring this production.

“They (aunties) all represent a blend of traditionalism and modernity. Melur The Musical is about the tension that modernism brings with traditionalism.”

 

The legend of the Pontianak means a lot to director Shafeeq Shajahan.
The legend of the Pontianak means a lot to director Shafeeq Shajahan. IMAGE: Liver & Lung.

 

Casting actors with deep respect and understanding of the production’s philosophy 

When Shafeeq casts his musicals, he looks for three main criteria.

“The first is, I look for people who have deep respect for the source material and understand the philosophy and ethos of the production I’m trying to put on,” he explained.

For example, Kai Chalmers, who played Sir Wilson, a British high-ranking officer, had to reconnect with his ancestry and lineage to understand his role further.

Turns out, his maternal granduncle was in charge of psychological warfare during the Malayan emergency against the Communists between 1948 to 1960.

Kai was lucky because his granduncle had written a 100-page autobiography which he pored through to understand his perspective on fighting the Communists.

“My granduncle interrogated, fought, and caught Communists during the Malayan Emergency,” Kai revealed. “And he actually knew Field Marshal Gerald Templer, who my character, Wilson, is based on.”

Kai ended up learning more about his uncle and understanding how Chinese internment camps were designed to contain the spread of Communism. These camps, called New Villages, saw thousands of Malayans — predominantly Chinese — who were forced to relocate from their homes and live under heavy surveillance and strict curfews.

“Reading his autobiography gave me a unique perspective and an overview of how to approach this role and a deeper understanding of the conflict that had happened. It was interesting and personal as well.”

 

 

Casting versatile and adaptable performers

Shafeeq said that at Liver & Lung show productions can be rapid and intense.

Melur The Musical, being a philosophical and sophisticated story required a cast that could match the vision he wanted to create.

This led him to look for versatile performers who could bring to life the characters that he had on paper.

Melur The Musical takes audiences through three different eras and follows the narrative of three generations.

“Physicality and versatility were important criteria in the actors,” he said, adding that adaptability was also crucial since he directed the Malaysian performers virtually from London. The remote rehearsals showcased the boundaries Shafeeq was willing to push in trying out unorthodox solutions in theatre.

Melur The Musical is now recognised through 12 nominations at the BCAA, including Best Costume Design, Styling & Make–Up (Basheerah Majeed), Best Music & Sound Design (Shafeeq Shajahan), Best Set And / Or Visual Design (Yusman Mokhtar & Shafeeq Shajahan), Best Lighting Design (Shafeeq Shajahan), Best Original Book (Shafeeq Shajahan), Best Original Music & Lyrics (Shafeeq Shajahan, Badrish & Vasilis Konstantinides), Best Musical Direction (Badrish & Irena Taib), Best Director (Shafeeq Shajahan), Best Performance in a Supporting Role (Anwar Rusdini, Kai Chalmers, Mila Mohsin), and Best Performance in a Leading Role (Tria Aziz).

The BCAA, held since 2002, honours Malaysian performing arts practitioners. Organised by Kakiseni and Boh Plantations, the awards span 37 sub-categories. This year, 74 productions were nominated at PJPAC, 1 Utama. The award ceremony is scheduled for May 5 and the full list of the nominations can be viewed here.

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