Nathan Hartono & Jean Tay: “The Great Wall: One Woman’s Journey”

Adapted from the ancient Chinese tale of Meng Jiang-Nu, The Great Wall: One Woman’s Journey is a production that transforms the legend into a musical masterpiece.

The story is based on a brand-new script by acclaimed Singaporean playwright Jean Tay, led by an international team of artists featuring British composer David Shrubsole (National Gallery Singapore’s Opening Festival, London Road) and helmed by Australian director Darren Yap.

In the cast are Na-Young Jeon who plays Meng Jiang-Nu, veteran actor George Chan, and homegrown singing sensation (and heartthrob) Nathan Hartono.

We caught up with Nathan and Jean who shared their personal journeys plus some details about the upcoming production.

The Great Wall: One Woman’s Journey

In coming up with The Great Wall, playwright Jean Tay and her team were looking for a traditional story with a strong female protagonist, and an Asian heritage to adapt from.

“We were exploring other stories but strong female characters were not always portrayed in a positive light,” Jean explains. “Meng Jiang-Nu is very ambitious; she isn’t a typical damsel in distress. She embarked on this extraordinary journey that she was totally unequipped for. She’s actually someone we can relate to since physically, she isn’t a marine or soldier, yet she endures the journey and when she gets to the Great Wall, her grief is so strong that she is actually able to cry the wall down.”

For Jean, putting the show together has been an epic journey since 2011. “Because it’s a musical, I can’t do it all on my own – it’s a collaborative effort. It’s been a challenge just coordinating Skype meetings.”

According to Jean, the play has gone through twenty drafts.

Casting

Nathan Hartono will be playing the role of Fan Qiliang, the scholar who chances upon Meng Jiang-Nu while fleeing from the Emperor’s soldiers.

“There definitely is that aspect of him that I relate to,” says Nathan, “as Fan is idealistic, headstrong, and tends to romanticise a lot of things. This comes from his upbringing and the importance his family put on education, especially in literature and poetry.” Having been raised in an artistic environment, Nathan says he grew up writing songs and romanticising a lot about life.

With Nathan firmly in the cast, Jean’s team added George Chan to the roster. “We wanted to have a complex Emperor, not a tyrannical one,” explains Jean. “He was the perfect person to play the Emperor since he is an incredible singer and actor.”

The toughest role to cast was for Meng Jiang-Nu herself. As the female lead could not be found in Singapore, Jean (and Grace, the producer) had to conduct auditions in a few places such as London, China and the States.

“We took a really long time to cast the female lead, because not only does she have to sing the hell out of the songs, she also has to act the hell out of the scenes,” says Grace. Eventually, they found Na-Yeon. “She’s incredible; she’s so beautiful in both appearance and spirit and she identified with the character, and she loved the story.”

Getting the chorus together was also a challenge. As Grace puts it: “This isn’t just a pop song that they can sing at a karaoke.”

Interview with Nathan Hartono

After the breakthrough results at Sing!China, Nathan’s popularity has grown exponentially. However, this homegrown singer songwriter isn’t letting that get to his head.

“My audience has expanded greatly, but the goal remains the same as it ever was: to make music I can be proud of, and hopefully inspire a life or two while doing it. I’d like to think that as long as I am doing it for the right reasons, this new wave of attention won’t affect me too much.”

As the son of the senior VP of Tung Lok Group, Nathan counts his blessings that he’s never been pressured to go down the corporate path; however, he remains realistic about how his current career would support him financially.

For Nathan, opportunities exist all over. “From bar gigs, to music festivals, to arts education programs. The avenues in which a musician can practise their craft are more and more prevalent,” he says. But he’s also realistic, as growing up in Singapore as an artist isn’t easy.

“The key thing I want to stress is patience. It took me 11 years to get to where I am, and I feel like I’ve barely scratched the surface of what I can do.”

Interview with Jean Tay

Before becoming a playwright, Jean was an economist for about 7 years, having studied in the US. As her interest has always been in the arts or theatre, her elective classes in creative writing and literature at university allowed her to graduate with an extra degree which has proven to be useful.

 

Her most popular literary works to date are “Boom” and “Everything But the Brain”. The latter, about the theory of relativity and stroke attacks, was written during the wee hours of the morning when she was working as a full-time economist, and has a special place in her heart. “Boom” is a tale of Singapore’s push to develop and pull of the past, told through stories of en-blocs and cemetery exhumations. Both have since been adapted into award-winning plays.

Both are also currently used as secondary school literature texts, and for Jean, it was really heartwarming being able to engage with secondary school students. “I got to see how the issues (in the plays) affect them, and challenge them with something they normally would not think about— whether it is the caregiving of an elderly parent or how to balance progress versus retaining a sense of past or heritage. It was great joy to be a part of this process.”


Catch Na-Young Jeon, George Chan, and Nathan Hartono as they take the stage this July in the new musical, The Great Wall: One Woman’s Journey, which is presented by Glowtape Productions and supported by the National Arts Council.

The musical runs from 14-31 July 2017. Standard tickets from $68.

By Natalie Kwan

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