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Interview with Broadway Beng / Sebastian Tan, star of Dream Academy’s BROADWAY BENG: 10TH Anniversary Concert

By Ng Yi-Sheng

I’m a jaded old theatre critic, so it feels to me like only yesterday that Sebastian Tan began headlining his own Hokkien getai-cum-musical comedy revues. He’d come up with an inspired stage name—Broadway Beng—that combined “heartland” and “cosmopolitan” Singapore, showing that the two aren’t really that different after all.

But in the blink of an eye, ten years have gone past, and Broadway Beng is so firmly entrenched in popular consciousness that Sebastian himself has trouble proving to people that he’s more than this particular persona. (Don’t pray-pray: he’s done Shakespeare before—and he was one of the best performers in last year’s LKY Musical.)

So, from this Thursday, 14 July, until Sunday, 31 July, he’s doing his BROADWAY BENG: 10th Anniversary Concert at the Capitol Theatre—quite a step up from his early shows at the much smaller DBS Arts Centre at Robertson Quay. He’ll be joined by a live band and a cabaret line of “chio buus” (pretty girls): Chriz Tong, Frances Lee and Munah Bagharib.

I’ve already booked tickets for my family (my parents are huge fans of Sebastian), but Dream Academy suggested that I dig a little deeper. How about an interview with the star himself?

NYS: I know you've spoken about this before, but could you tell us a little about your days performing in the West End? Why did you decide to come back to Singapore?

Sebastian: It was a wonderful experience! I learnt so much living and working in a foreign land. That said, I did get really homesick after a while because deep down, I'm still a Singaporean Hokkien boy at heart who missed my home (cue music) truly, where I know I must be, where my dreams wait for me...

I had another beng friend who was also performing in musicals in the West End at the same time as me, and I remembered jio-ing each other to an angmor pub for our Hokkien fix. The both of us will let go of our Hokkien amidst the English customers with our KNNCCB! It was so liberating! I came back to Singapore to do a show and Broadway Beng happened shortly after. The rest, as they say, is history.

NYS: By performing Broadway Beng, you've managed to reach out to a totally different generation of Singapore—older dialect-speaking people. Could you say something about their reactions to your performances? Do you think they're underserved by our artists?

Sebastian: First and foremost, I want to say that I serve the younger generation too! The younger generation who wants to know more about the Hokkien world and of Broadway musicals, watches my shows too.

That said, yes, I think Broadway Beng reaches a soft spot with slightly more mature audiences, my lovely aunties and uncles. I think my show speaks to them in a language that is more rooted and true. Also, when they look at my hamsum face, experience my brand of humour and my lovely, sincere voice, they just go, aaah... nostalgia at its best. I'm like an old friend serenading them with songs and amusing stories, a friend that makes them laugh.

NYS: What is the greatest lesson you've learned through your 10 years of performing Broadway Beng?

Sebastian: That one should always have the ability to laugh at oneself, only then can you help and make other people laugh and not take life so seriously. It'll keep you sane in this mad world

NYS: What has been your greatest challenge?

Sebastian: Trying to convince people that I am more than just Broadway Beng. The character is just an extension of who I really am. There's more to me.

NYS: I remember when Broadway shows were an exciting new thing in Singapore—how everyone was so thrilled when Cats and Les Misérables came to Kallang Indoor Stadium in 1993. But now Broadway shows are regularly on show at MBS. What's the effect of this on local theatre makers and audiences?

Sebastian: I think it's great that Singaporeans are more exposed than ever before. It can only raise our standards of performances on stage.

NYS: I really appreciate the fact that you're proving the continued relevance of Hokkien in the 21st century. How do you feel about the status of "dialects"/non-Mandarin Chinese languages? Can they survive for another generation in Singapore and the rest of the world? 

Sebastian: It's a shame we can't fully acknowledge our dialects, our roots, our culture with its ban on traditional media in Singapore. However, with social media, I think it has helped in giving dialects a greater platform for exposure. I don't think you can ever ban dialects in Singapore, especially not when Broadway Beng is around!

NYS: Who do you admire? Your role model, I mean.

Sebastian: My mother, your Mother, all mothers!

NYS: Is there anything else you'd like to say to Singaporean audiences?

Sebastian: Ai Pia Jia Eh Yia / 爱拼才会赢 ! (Hokkien for “success only comes with perseverance!”) And love one another.

Dream Academy’s BROADWAY BENG: 10th Anniversary Concert is at the Capitol Theatre from Thursday 14 to Sunday 31 July, 8pm. No shows on Mondays; 3pm matinees on Saturdays and Sundays. Tickets from Sistic: http://www.sistic.com.sg/events/beng0716