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An ambitious young crew takes on the challenge of producing a Vietnamese musical that honors both the Western art form and local culture

 
  A scene from Goc Pho Danh Vong, a musical created by a young team of Vietnamese artists, on its debut night on August 13 in Hanoi. The creators claim the musical reflects the views of young Vietnamese about love and fame. Photo courtesy of Goc Pho Danh Vong

The young artists responsible for Goc Pho Danh Vong (Corner of Fame) say they are proud of working hard to produce something original.

"Musicals have been brought to Vietnam many times, but they all could have been better," said 21-year-old Nguyen Phi Phi Anh, who goes by his initials, PPAN, a film and theater student at Hampshire College in the United States, and the project's scriptwriter and director.

"In the past, programs have adopted entire foreign scripts, including foreign language songs that Vietnamese audiences could not relate to. Some used Vietnamese storylines and music, but the stage sets and costumes were so Vietnamese that the product was no longer a Broadway-style musical," he said in a Tuoi Tre report last Friday.

Anh admitted that he has yet to exceed this standard himself. Goc Pho Danh Vong was his first experience attempting to make a Broadway-style musical suitable for Vietnamese audiences.

The project, which Anh said has great educational value, employs the melodies of songs by international pop stars like Lady Gaga, Britney Spears, Katy Perry and Bruno Mars, and thematic extracts from famous Broadway musicals such as "Chicago," "The Phantom of the Opera," "Cats" and "Moulin Rouge."

The storyline is also foreign and the three main protagonists have Western names. Roxanne, a singer, breaks up with her boyfriend Flint, a working class construction worker when, in a strange twist of events, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer (from American Christmas folklore) is transformed via magic into a powerful human being.

Roxanne chooses Rudolph over Flint because the former reindeer promises to make her famous. But fame does not bring Roxanne the happiness she thought it would, and she eventually returns to Flint.

Anh did not translate the lyrics to the English language songs directly. He added Vietnamese elements to the plot via new lyrics he wrote himself.

"I'm afraid I am not yet fully capable of making Vietnamese music fit into such a Western art form," he said.

Anh, who attended the ACS secondary school in Singapore, said that because he is young and has lived abroad for six years. He is familiar with cultures other than Vietnam's.

However, his musical is still based more on Vietnamese traditions than foreign elements.

"In my story, the personalities of the characters contain ambitions, jealousies and inferiority complexes, as well as conflicts that Vietnamese people are able to relate to."

Do Vu Dieu Linh, a 20-year-old member of Anh's team responsible for media relations, told Vietweek the opening night audience on August 13 had a positive response to both the lyrics and the dialogue, which she said "are very Vietnamese."

She said the story uses foreign elements, but "it is based on the viewpoints of the Vietnamese youth regarding love and success."

Anh started looking for sponsors as soon as he completed a draft of the musical last April. He received interest from Le Bros, one of Vietnam's leading media and event management companies, designer Kelly Bui who helped with nearly 50 costumes, and L'Espace, a Hanoi-based center of French culture, which provided the stage. Some young Vietnamese directors also agreed to advise him.

"Luckily, they liked the idea," Anh said.

The musical was presented on four consecutive nights from August 13-16 at L'Espace, 24 Trang Tien Street.

Anh worked on the script for four years before returning to Vietnam last January to build his team, whose members are all young, with some not yet graduated from high school and the oldest just 24 years old. The original members were Anh's friends from Singapore, including Nguyen Minh Anh, the project's choreographer.

But excluding Minh Anh, whose musical "Making Nice" won a bronze medal at the 2010 Singapore Youth Festival, none of the 40 crew members or 30 performers, who were selected from a pool of 200 applicants, had previous training in the art of theater production.

In choosing his crew, Anh said he assessed applicants on their willingness to cooperate with one another and dedicate themselves to the project. "We practiced ten hours a day starting in the end of June," he said.

The project also aims to promote new performers within Vietnamese theater, Anh said, adding that he hopes the musical will be picked up by additional venues nationwide.

Perhaps it is Anh's relative inexperience that makes him so fearless.

"I just go ahead and try. There's nothing to lose anyway. And it does not matter if I fall short of all my goals, as I know that I cannot completely fail.

"What I have gained the experience, relationships, and the joy of doing something I like, is too great.

"So I also want to encourage other young people to take their own creative initiative don't just wait for adults to make shows for us to watch."

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