Musical director Yudhy Prasetya Wijaya and producer/director Monique.

The parishioners of Church of St. Bernadette are producing a musical, to be performed in August, to mark the 50th annniversary of the parish

SINGAPORE – Since February, the upper room in the annexe building of Church of St. Bernadette has been bustling with activity every Saturday afternoon. In one corner, Yudhy Prasetya Wijaya, 28, a post-graduate student, is hard at work – his fingers dancing on the keys of the piano to the tune of ‘Money, Money, Money’, popularised by Swedish pop group ABBA while Catherine Tan, 67, Marie Shum, 70 and Frederick Jap, 60, rehearse and sing the number … except that the lyrics aren’t the same.


After the song ends, Ms Monique Natahusada, 39, an events organiser and part-time property agent, goes up to them and offers the trio a suggestion: “A little bit more staccato.” Ms Natahusada then demonstrates – punching and emphasising certain notes in the melody.

This is part of the effort going into the musical Song of Bernadette which narrates the story of St. Bernadette. The parish of St. Bernadette is producing the musical to celebrate the parish’s Golden Jubilee as well as to raise funds for the church building renovation. The musical will play on Sunday Aug 30 at the Singapore Conference Hall.

Ms Natahusada who does double duty as producer and director said that Father Eugene Chong, the parish priest, approached her to produce a musical about St. Bernadette. She had been involved with ‘Perhaps Love’, a musical in celebration of the Indonesian Catholic Community 20th anniversary in Singapore in 2005.

Father Chong, who likes musicals, said they are more uplifting than stage plays. “Some of the parishioners can sing and act. So they are given a chance,” he said.

Ms Natahusada roped in Angeline Wong, 40, teacher, as part of the production team to write the script and pen the lyrics to the music. They then persuaded parishioners from various church groups and the English, Mandarin, Filipino and Indonesian-speaking communities to get involved.

Frederick, Marie and Catherine rehearse a scene. Photos by Darren Boon

 

Mr Wijaya came on board as the musical director, and is re-teaming with some of the technical crew from ‘Perhaps Love’, and Mr Jap and Ms Tan were selected to play François and Louise Soubirous, Bernadette’s parents. Although there was no open call for casting, Ms Wong clarified, “We didn’t choose the person just because we like the person but rather on who can best fit the character.”

Although Mr Jap is from the Mandarin-speaking community, he does not find any difficulty participating in an English musical. “It’s a call from God to serve, to give what I can. He has given me the voice. So I take this opportunity to sing for Him,” he said.

Ms Natahusada said, “The most important thing is how we can come together as a community to do something together for the church with our talents.”

Father Chong added, “It’s encouraging that the parishioners are able to work together, despite their different backgrounds, towards a common good.”

The story and music

Ms Wong said her inspiration came from the 1943 movie ‘The Song of Bernadette’ and the book St. Bernadette Soubirous by Abbé François Trochu.

The musical tells the story of St. Bernadette from her teenage years into her twenties – beginning with her encounter with the apparitions of Our Lady at Massabielle that led people to ridicule her as insane to her joining the convent as a religious.

The scripting process was rather difficult for Ms Wong who thought of giving up due to a “dry spell”. But after much prayer, the inspiration and ideas began to flow.

She has incorporated some contemporary social elements into the script to make them relevant to modern day. One example revolves on accepting that children are a gift from God despite it being expensive to raise children now.

“I also added in some Singlish and colloquialisms to break the monotony of the songs. I think after a while, the audience want to hear something familiar to them,” she added.

Ms Natahusada admitted from experience that having good original compositions would be time-consuming and difficult, given the short production time which begun August 2008. Thus, while there is one original composition, other numbers consist of popular songs from the likes of ABBA and ‘The Phantom of the Opera’ that the audience can recognise and hum along. The lyrics, however, are original.

The production

According to Ms Natahusada, the budget is 30 percent of the income from the musical. Thus, to minimise production costs, artwork, props and costumes are done in-house or bought cheaply from the parish’s St. Vincent De Paul thrift shop which had items suitable for the period the musical is set in (1858). The shop also donated some less saleable items that were in good condition to the musical.

Some of the costumes will come from the performers and producers’ own wardrobes, though she said there would probably be a need to sew a few items.

The cast speak

Sarah Chong, 17, student at St. Joseph Institution International, who plays the title character from the age of 14 to her 20s said that it is a challenge for her to imagine and portray the life of St. Bernadette in her 20s. Ms Chong thinks more often about St. Bernadette now.

“I know more about her life,” she said.” At the same time, I learn about how producing a musical goes and how everybody works together.”

Winnie Foo, 40s, who loves singing, plays the antagonist Sister Marie Therese, Bernadettes’s novice master, who is doubtful of Bernadette’s visions and who treats her cruelly.

“To be involved in a church fund-raising musical is actually wonderful,” Ms Foo said, “it’s a joy to watch some of the professionals act and sing, and to learn from them.”

Challenges and hopes

Ms Natahusada and Ms Wong agree that the openness to discussion and trust that everyone is giving their best to the production allow them to overcome any creative differences encountered.

But the biggest personal challenge for Ms Natahusada is juggling between the musical, her work and looking after her nearly two-year old daughter, more especially so when her husband is on overseas assignments and unable to help look after their child.

Both women hope that the musical will build a “participatory church” amongst the parishioners, that the audience will be “re-evangelised in the faith of St. Bernadette”, to understand about surrendering to the will of God, and that knowing St. Bernadette better would inspire a “desire in us to be closer to God”. n

By Darren Boon

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