Titanic, the musical is an honest account of a real historical event, says drama student Edwin Wan Po-ching, who was invited to perform in the show in Perth, Australia. He tells Nicola Chan about the experience.
When most of us hear the word “titanic”, we may think of the tragic sinking of the ship, the RMS Titanic, in 1912 – but we’re just as likely to associate it with the 1997 classic movie where Rose tells Jack, “You jump, I jump”.
And while there’s been some buzz lately about a possible Titanic: The Musical, few are aware that the first musical based on the historical event was actually performed the same year as the iconic film was released.
Last summer, Edwin Wan Po-ching, 27, a drama student from the Hong Kong Academy for Performing Arts, presented a concert version of Titanic with musical theatre students from the Western Australian Academy of Performing Arts (WAAPA) in Perth, Australia.
Wan and his classmate Nicole Liu Yuning were invited on an exchange to WAAPA because of their achievements in musical theatre and proficiency in English. They spent an intense two weeks in Australia rehearsing for the performance.
The musical, unlike the film, is based on historical facts and testimonies of survivors. Contrary to expectations, Wan told Young Post that the musical isn’t simply a stage version of the movie.
“Many people are familiar with the film Titanic. But the sinking of the Titanic was a real historical event. The RMS Titanic was on ocean liner that sank in 1912; it was the largest moving object in the world at the time.”
Wan added that the musical, unlike the film, was written “based on historical facts and testimonies of the disaster survivors”.
“Since it is about honouring the passengers on RMS Titanic, there are no lead characters [because everyone is equally important],” explained Wan.
Wan’s role was that of a wireless operator, Harold Bride, one of the 700 survivors.For most of their time on stage, Wan and the other student performers sat behind music stands, arranged in a “U” shape. They took turns to stand and speak, or walk to the centre and act out the important scenes.
While a rehearsed reading might sound less demanding than a fully staged production, Wan admitted it was still “quite a challenge”.
“Although we all held our scripts during the performance, we still had to learn all our lines and vocal parts by heart beforehand because instantaneous sight-reading was almost impossible.”
He added that performing in English, which he speaks fluently but is nevertheless his second language, made things even harder.
“Since English is not my mother tongue, I might spend half a second thinking about my word choice – given that I can already think in English. However, if this happens when I’m acting, it would affect the quality of the performance, which is supposed to be a spontaneous interaction,” he said.
“I didn’t want the overall quality of the show to be affected, or the audience experience to be diminished, just because English is not my first language. So, I put in a lot of extra effort to make my speech flow smoothly.”
Wan recalled being taken aback by the fast pace of rehearsals when he showed up on his first day. “The teaching pace of the songs was so fast that we’d gone through all the ensemble numbers of Act I by the end of the first rehearsal. In other words, we had to learn each song in 15 to 20 minutes.” In comparison, he said, he would normally be given around a week to learn the same amount of material in Hong Kong.
“Drama schools in Hong Kong tend to put emphasis on acting, which means musical theatre is only touched on very briefly. With limited musical theatre training, I couldn’t get used to the pace.” There was no time to work out how to hit the right notes during rehearsals either; perfectly pitched singing was a prerequisite.
“The musical director expected everyone to have already taken care of it, and focused on the dynamics and unison instead.”
“So, after the day trainings, Nicole and I would spend extra time practicing the songs in the piano room of our dormitory.”
With dreams of becoming a professional musical theatre performer, Wan was grateful that the exchange trip allowed him to identify his own strengths and weaknesses – and gave him the determination to improve.
“I joined a range of dance classes to strengthen my dancing skills as soon as I returned to Hong Kong,” he said.
But the experience hasn’t dented Wan’s self-esteem; rather, it made him aware of his potential. Now in his final year at the academy, Wan is a candidate for a place on a master’s programme in London, the city where he first fell in love with musical theatre.
“I’ve realized that my singing, acting and English skills are not as bad as I had imagined,” he said. “It has given me confidence to pursue further study in musical theatre.”
“I know that as long as I spend more time working to improve my areas of weakness, I can reach [a professional] standard.”
A Titanic Tribute
Interviewed by Nicola Chan,
Edited by Charlotte Ames-Ettridge
Young Post, South China Morning Post 24 Oct 2017