The Wizard of Oz gets a pop makeover
Summer school programme ramps up the magic with a pop-inspired take on Dorothy's adventures
The Hong Kong Academy for Performing Arts' continuing education programme breaks new ground with its latest musical production - an updated version of The Wizard of Oz, mixed with hit songs by Lady Gaga and Psy.
The organisers are doing away with the usual practice of buying rights to scripts of famous musicals and instead are putting their own twist on a classic.
Since the academy's Extension and Continuing Education for Life (Excel) unit was set up in 2001, such musicals have been a summer highlight of the programme, which includes full-time certificate and diploma courses for performing arts enthusiasts.
The three-week intensive programme - which costs up to HK$4,150 - attracts both amateurs and music enthusiasts every year, says Excel general manager Alice van Kapel.
"Some are working people with no previous musical experience. Others are enthusiasts with lots of dancing and singing experience and get main performing roles in our summer musical after auditions," says van Kapel, who is in charge of the production.
This year, 185 participants were recruited for the musical, which will be staged at the academy's Drama Theatre next month.
"For the 160 performers and players in the live band, they needed to undergo auditions. After they pass, they are given the script and start rehearsing right away," says van Kapel.
"For the 25 backstage personnel who don't need to go through auditions, we give them some lectures on practical stage management during the first week. They learn about lighting and audio support. And after that, they set about making props and costumes."
In the three weeks leading up to the premiere, the participants train and rehearse full time on weekdays.
As opposed to other summer interest classes, which only meet a couple of times each month, van Kapel says the programme consists of a strenuous daily regime led by industry veterans.
"Behind the production is a 30-strong professional crew, composed of Excel's teachers, most of whom are graduates of the academy. All of Excel's teachers work part time because they must be current industry players who are actively working in their respective fields," she says.
A new member - a scriptwriter - was added to the professional crew this year to help create an original take on The Wizard of Oz.
"Past summer musicals have included such well-known productions as The King and I, Annie and Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. And we need to buy the rights to re-enact them," van Kapel says.
"But in 2011, to mark Excel's 10th anniversary, we staged a pop concert called 'MJ Relived' in addition to our usual summer musical production. We did 'MJ Relived Two' the following year due to the overwhelming response. Though the two Michael Jackson shows consisted of mostly song and dance numbers without much of a storyline, they were our own creations. From that experience, we learned that we don't just have to stage existing musicals."
Charles Teo is the Malaysian-born music and artistic director of the bold new production, titled Oz to the Future. In the story, Delilah, the granddaughter of Dorothy, goes to the Emerald City in order to learn about her grandmother's past.
Bit players in the original, such as the flying monkeys, the good and bad witches and the crows, become major characters, while the Lion, Tin Man and Scarecrow recede into the background.
In addition to the unconventional plot, Teo wants to inject a modern take by weaving in hit pop songs.
"We want to attract a wider audience and I incorporated a lot of pop elements into it so that more people can relate to it," Teo says.
"It's all about motherhood, family values and reinforcing the idea that there really is no place like home."
Van Kapel says donation boxes will be placed in the venue and the money collected will go to local charity Mother's Choice. (The organisation's gala dinner this year was coincidentally themed "Wizard of Oz: There's No Place Like Home".)
"We want to pay tribute to mothers through the play. We have asked the cast members to write a sentence about how good their mothers are and the messages will be displayed on a screen during the performance," she says.
Toba Aoi, 13, a Japanese student studying at Delia School of Canada, is among this year's participants - it's the second time she has joined the summer programme.
"Last year, I was one of the singers in 'MJ Relived Two'. This year, I played one of the crows, which miss the Scarecrow very much after he gets a brain and leaves Emerald City to become a brain surgeon. I get to sing the Bee Gees' How Deep is Your Love.
"While I have performed in musical productions for kids in Japan, the Japanese productions are more traditional fare like Peter Pan, with educational messages," she says. "But the productions at the academy are completely different. This one is a pop musical and I enjoy doing this new style a lot.
"I developed a lot more confidence in my performing skills after joining the summer school at the academy. It makes me want to learn more about the performing arts."
Van Kapel, meanwhile, confirms that many of the participants return year after year.
"Some only land a bit part in the first year. After honing their skills, they graduate to main roles in the second and third years.
"We even have working people who quit their full-time jobs after joining the summer programme and study a full-time, one-year course in musical theatre at Excel after completing the summer programme. They become freelance performers after the course."
Oz to the Future, August 1-4, Drama Theatre, Hong Kong Academy for Performing Arts, HK$170 to HK$340