By Kirsten Han
Tan Guan Heng wrote his first novel My Love Is Blind in the early 1990s. It was a painstaking process: he had to first type his manuscript out in Braille, then record himself reading it aloud, before sending the tape to a typist for transcription. The book was published in 1995.
“It’s semi-autobiographical,” he said about the novel, which revolves around a young man learning to carry on with life after losing both his sight and the love of his life. “About 70 per cent of it comes from my own life.”
Twenty years later, his story is close to coming to life on the stage. Stella Kon – a Singaporean playwright who wrote the well-loved Emily of Emerald Hill – had helped him edit his novel all those years ago, and thought of it as a good story for a musical. Through Musical Theatre Live! (MTL) – a non-profit organisation of which Kon is chair – a team was put together to life the story off the page and on to the stage.
After a year’s worth of brainstorming, writing and workshopping, My Love Is Blind: The Musical was presented as a showcase in April, featuring a cast of former and current La Salle students, and two visually handicapped singers.
The showcase was well-received by its audience of about 100 people, and the team are now hoping to raise funds to turn the show into a full-scale production in a proper space such as Kallang Theatre.
“We want to do a big show, to show everyone that there’s local work that can be presented,” said Desmond Moey, who acts as the show’s producer.
“There is a lot of potential in Singapore,” said Tan. “But we need to change the mindset, so Singaporeans will be more willing to pay attention to local work.”
Defeating the “cultural cringe” is one of MTL’s many goals. Dedicated to supporting and creating local pieces of musical theatre, the small organisation works with established and new artists to put their work through the paces: every piece goes through an incubation process where it’s subjected to three stages of critique from professionals.
Following his story through this process has been an emotional experience for Tan. “I found it very inspiring, very touching, that there are people who have the courage to produce such a musical,” he said.
It’s in keeping with MTL’s aim of producing work that has a social message. As Moey explained, “the show must transform the audience”.
“Musical theatre is a powerful art form,” he added. “We hope that My Love Is Blind can change people’s mindset towards people with disabilities.”
Tan’s personal story is also one that can inspire and challenge perceptions of the visually handicapped: he began to have problems with his eyesight in his second year at university, and graduated with only one working eye. Three years later, at the age of 28, he was completely blind.
“I couldn’t find employment after that, so I started my own book business,” he said. For 30 years he supplied and sold books, mainly to the national library, universities and bookstores. My Love is Blind was his first book, but he has gone on to write three more. His latest, a collection of profiles on people with disabilities who have overcome life’s obstacles, is set to be launched by Speaker of Parliament Mdm Halimah Yacob in July. He is currently the vice-president of the Singapore Association for the Visually Handicapped (SAVH), having previously been its first visually impaired president.
He has high hopes for the musical. “It wants to show that people who are blind also have talents and capabilities, and hopefully encourage Singaporeans to lend their support to the VWOs [voluntary welfare organisations] that support people with disabilities,” he said.
One rousing number in the show reflects this message very clearly. Placed at a climactic point in the story where the visually impaired protagonist stands against a sighted doctor for election for president of the association of the visually handicapped – based on Tan’s real life experience of running for the presidency of SAVH in 1975 – the song is entitled Let the Blind Lead the Blind, turning a long-time expression of futility and incompetence on its head.
“The blind are not just there to be pitied and led by the sighted,” Tan said. “They don’t need to just rely on others; they can contribute to society too.”
The team has ambitious plans for My Love Is Blind. On top of the production – which they hope can be staged some time in June next year – they also want to produce a playbook, complete with score, director’s notes and a CD of the songs, that will allow different groups to try their hand at staging the show.
On top of being able to create sets and have an orchestra, scaling the show up to a big production will also allow more people with visually handicaps to participate. Kon hopes that more blind individuals will be able to sing in the chorus.
“The whole show is about proving that blind people can perform,” she said, adding that providing proper cues and many rehearsals would mitigate any challenges in performing amidst the whirlwind of constant movement and activity that is a musical stage.
Yet none of this comes cheap. The rental of theatre spaces are especially difficult; even established theatre groups often mention rental costs as an obstacle in producing work in Singapore. Moey estimates that rental can go from $3,000 a day to $15,000 a day.
MTL is therefore hoping to raise $150,000, to not only pay for rental, but also cast and crew, as well as musicians and production design. With this amount of money, they hope to be able to stage at least one matinee and one evening performance at a good venue, along with the playbook for further staging.
“Funding is important,” said Tan. “But it’s a very gradual process. We need to convince Singaporeans to be interested in and support us.”
If you’re interested in supporting Musical Theatre Live! in their production of My Love Is Blind, please see below:
MTL is an arts charity & an Institution of a Public Character. Donations to MTL attract a tax relief of 300%.
Cheques should be made out to Musical Theatre Limited; please note on the back of the cheque that it is a donation for My Love Is Blind: The Musical. Cheques can be mailed to:
20 Shaw Road
#05-05 Ching Shine Industrial Building
Tax relief is automatically credited to your Income Tax account when we register your donation. To receive tax relief, please provide your name, address and NRIC/FIN/ Passport/Company Registration Number. You do not need to submit a tax receipt.