(1,800 words, 7-minute read)
[Note: At the time of publishing, due to the COVID-19 situation in Singapore, the production has been cancelled. We hope this article serves as an acknowledgement of the great work put in by the graduands.]
Izzathy Halil has been performing since she was four – or two, if you count her first singing performance for her family – treading the boards on the Esplanade’s stages, singing in various concert venues as well as performing in the studios of Mediacorp. She will soon be playing one of the biggest roles of her career – the chain-smoking femme fatale Velma Kelly in the musical Chicago, as part of The LASALLE Show graduation showcase.
In this special conversation between Izzathy and LASALLE Musical Theatre star alumni Seong Hui Xuan, the pair talk about the realities of the Musical Theatre degree programme, how they handle criticism and the misconceptions people have about musical theatre students (Hint: It’s not like High School Musical, people!).
[The interview below has been condensed and edited for length.]
Hui Xuan: Was there a show that you saw, or a moment that you had where you were like, “I think I shall go do musical theatre”?
Izzathy: Actually the first musical that I watched was back in 2008. It was a LASALLE graduation show, Into The Woods. I was in primary school and my sister-in-law’s uncle – who used to work in the fine arts department in LASALLE – got us free tickets to watch the show, knowing that we were interested, and it started from there.
Izzathy: I was already performing since young – my mom sent me to this performing arts school, Sri Warisan, since I was four – so that was an avenue for me to get a glimpse into my future. But then I forgot about it completely until I finished my ‘O’ Levels, when I realised that I didn’t want to do accounting.
Hui Xuan: You did accounting?
Izzathy: I took principles of accounting. That was the back-up plan.
Hui Xuan: So how did you make the leap to doing your degree in Musical Theatre?
Izzathy: Okay, I have to be frank with you. After secondary school, I wanted to do a music course at a polytechnic, but I didn’t meet the cut-off points for these courses. My brother sat me down and asked me to consider going into performing arts in an arts school. He said “You’ve got the talent, you know that you’ve got the drive to do this, why not just try?” So I decided to pursue a Diploma in Performance at LASALLE.
The reason I went into performance and not music is because I wanted to challenge myself to see if I was capable of doing more. I get a lot of singing gigs, but I wanted to build other skills. And with the diploma, I got to skip one year of the cognate degree course.
Hui Xuan: Going from Diploma in Performance to the BA programme for Musical Theatre, what was that transition like for you?
Izzathy: Whoa. The demands are really, really high. In Diploma, you learn about the various aspects of performing. You learn Jazz, you take this module called Song and Dance. You learn a lot but it’s not specific to what you’re actually going to do in your shows. Musical theatre is double all that.
Izzathy: Just imagine: Every Monday, I have Fosse and we have HIIT first thing in the morning. Tuesday we have pas de deux. Wednesday is singing day for us. Thursday, it’s ballet. Friday is jazz. And everything is in the morning. And you also have to keep up with your fitness.
What was it like for you in the Musical Theatre programme?
Hui Xuan: For me? It was definitely a very different programme back then. The programme was catered to sending people off to work in West End and Broadway – where some of them are now successfully working. It was very much focused on a Western slant. And in terms of, you know, talking about our cultural heritage or roots, there wasn’t any focus on that.
At that time there was a lot of that feeling that minorities and people with ethnic backgrounds had to try to fit into that ideal of what they should be. I think it’s so different now. Now you can go into an audition and be… you. And it’d be ok. In that sense, the world in general is a different place, for the better.
Hui Xuan: Have you been doing anything specifically to prepare for rehearsals?
Izzathy: I’ve been practising the songs with my singing teacher Akiko (Otao). We are working on getting my lower registers right because Velma has a very low voice. So singing-wise we’ve been working together to develop that quality that needs to be used in the show. And for now I’m just focusing on eating right and building body strength.
Izzathy: I’m curious, what was your graduation show?
Hui Xuan: It was Sweet Charity. It’s one of those shows where there’s only one lead, and the lead role was split among three girls. There were five girls in my class, and three out of five, the odds are pretty high. But my friend and I both didn’t get any of the Charity roles, and I was disappointed. Because it’s the lead, who wouldn’t want it?
Izzathy: Of course.
Hui Xuan: It’s interesting for me to look back on it now, because this role that I got to play – because it was this one consistent role throughout the whole show rather than having to share it with two other people – I got a lot of jobs from it. It just goes to show that you never know what the positives are from the situation that you’ve been given. If your attitude is right, the opportunities will just come up.
Hui Xuan: There’ve been so many shows we’ve all seen where someone comes on for like 10 minutes and makes a huge impact, and they’re all that you remember from the entire show, you know? So it really is what you make of it.
Izzathy: Yeah. Even if it’s small, it’s still a character you’re playing in the show. You can learn something from it. You can’t do All That Jazz without an ensemble.
Hui Xuan: What are some interesting things that people have said to you about doing musical theatre as a career?
Izzathy: What else? “Can make money or not?” (laughs) My family is very supportive of what I’m doing, but with other people, when I tell them that I perform, they’re like, “Oh, you perform ah, okay.” And I’m just like… “But I just did a show that was at the Esplanade Theatre for almost 2,000 people.” Some people still don’t get it. They just think acting means it’s for Suria.
Hui Xuan: Do you get people thinking that you haven’t made it because you don’t work for Mediacorp?
Izzathy: Yeah. “Huh, but you’re not on Tanglin. You’re not on Kin.” They don’t know that there are many other opportunities. It’s really up to them to widen their views about how the arts community has grown.
Hui Xuan: What’s one misconception that people have about musical theatre kids that gets your goat?
Izzathy: “You all do like High School Musical right? Go high school, then sing sing, dance dance?” I always get that. They think it’s just fun and games. But it’s not. I just want to sing a high C, do a high-kick in front of their face and then a split and go “Hah!”.
Hui Xuan: People always think it’s so easy. That’s what annoys me the most.
Izzathy: I don’t know where that comes from. It’s blood, sweat and tears.
Hui Xuan: Maybe because when people do it well, it looks easy. What I would really like to do is make them live a day in the life of a musical theatre performer and see that it’s not easy to sing and dance and still have to be a character at the same time.
I think performing is one of those jobs where you’re willingly, constantly putting yourself up for criticism. Sometimes people get torn apart because of the criticism they get. It can be very difficult to cope with.
Izzathy: How do you deal with it?
Hui Xuan: For me it would be taking the feedback that makes sense to me. It’s a process of learning to sieve out what is good feedback and what isn’t, and taking constructive feedback from people who know what they’re talking about, then working on it. And knowing that you will always be a work-in-progress, because you’re always striving to be better than you were yesterday. I think that’s definitely a more healthy way to think about it.
What’s been your process for working through constructive feedback?
Izzathy: Once I know that I’m weak at something, I focus on how I am going to help myself. Dance is something I struggled with in my first year last year because I had a bit of a culture shock. I decided to use my summer break to ‘whack’ dancing classes back-to-back, which helped me to improve a lot. Before I was a beginner in Jazz and Ballet, but now I’ve been shifted up to advance for both. I’m not anywhere near those excellent dancers, but it’s what you do every day to be the best of yourself.
Izzathy: Do you think the industry has changed much? Or does the new generation have challenges you never faced?
Hui Xuan: I just think that social media has really changed the industry.
Izzathy: Oh yeah. Influencers can be actors now.
Hui Xuan: I think the OG theatre practitioners in Singapore, they established themselves in a time where social media wasn’t a thing. So it was really by reputation and by their work. I’m kind of in the middle generation… I’m not a huge fan of social media, but I do feel the pressure of having to keep it up to let people know what I’m doing and to stay relevant.
Izzathy: I used to be a person who would post on Instagram to tell people “I can do this and I can do that”. But it came to a point where I’m like, “why should I post something just to prove to you that I can do it or because people expect me to?” Now I only post when I need to and my Instagram is private. But the pressure is real, you know?
Hui Xuan: Yeah, because if you don’t, then you fall off the radar. It’s interesting, because I feel like different generations have had their different challenges in terms of balancing being an artist with being a ‘business person’.
Hui Xuan: Do you have any hopes for the future of musical theatre in Singapore?
Izzathy: I think it’s to have more people create new musicals for Singapore, for us to be proud of.
Hui Xuan: There are actually quite a lot of original work coming out of Singapore. You know, like the Wild Rice pantos every year. But to be honest, it’s hard to write a musical. I think that’s an area we’re definitely lacking in at the moment. I think our main issue, which partially stems from funding, is that we don’t have a long enough or intensive enough workshop process.
And people tend to judge the show based on the first thing that they see. There’s a lot of comparisons like “oh, the West End and Broadway shows are much better”. And that’s because they’ve had a longer development stage, for years and years. So I think something that we need to look at is how can we, as artists and arts bodies, support the long-term development of new and original works, to try and push that forward.
What are your plans after graduation?
Izzathy: I want to continue to perform for the next two years. That’s my goal. And if God is willing… creating music is something that I am very passionate about. I like R&B, soul, pop… I’m going to see where it goes.
Izzathy isn’t Izzathy if she isn’t performing. It’s what I’ve been doing since the start of my life. And if she isn’t performing, she’s… I can’t think of anything. Not accounting. For sure.
Chicago is presented as part of The LASALLE Show, a graduation season of programmes showcasing the best and brightest works in contemporary art, design and performance.
Due to the developing COVID-19 situation in Singapore, the production has been cancelled and The LASALLE Show will be moved online as a digital showcase. Follow LASALLE on Facebook, Instagram or Twitter for updates.
This article is sponsored by LASALLE College of the Arts. For other articles, please click here.