Young musical

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Hoang Quan (Troy Bolton, M) performs Get’cha Head In The Game in the basketball scene

Le Bao Trung, the director of Vietnam’s first 3D movie Bong ma hoc duong (School Ghost), a box office hit in 2011, is making the grand leap to theater.

His new home is the  Ho Chi Minh City’s Cong Nhan (Workers) Theater in District 1, where he will soon present the first Vietnamese version of the musical play High School Musical.

He’s not the director of the project, even though he’s one of Vietnam’s top film directors.

Instead, the 41-year-old is shouldering the production and promotional costs of nearly VND1 billion while letting younger protégés do the artistic work. 

Trung has entrusted newly graduated director-actor Nguyen Khac Duy with the project.

Duy, 24, graduated from Trung’s alma mater, the Ho Chi Minh City College of Stage and Cinema. The school provides no training for musical theater, but Duy was still able to put on the musical play Chicago as his graduation performance last year. The show then had a popular run at the 5B Theater in District 3 last June.

Duy, from the Mekong Delta province of An Giang, has been given all freedom he wants to lead the High School Musical team of 40 young actors, selected from a casting round of nearly 300 candidates last August. He is also in charge of stage decoration and adapting the 106-page script from English into Vietnamese.

The team, called Le Buffalo troupe, bought the High School Musical theatrical sequel copyrights from Music Theater International of Disney to have it performed in Vietnam this Lunar Tet Holiday, starting from February 3 at the Cong Nhan Theater. The play features the story of two teens - Troy Bolton, captain of the basketball team, and Gabriella Montez, a beautiful and shy transfer student who excels in math and science - who are worlds apart - meet at a karaoke contest and discover their mutual love for music.

The cast and crew are now busy learning to dance and sing and even play basketball for the show. All the lyrics and arrangements for the show have been rewritten by songwriter and singer Hoang Bach.

“Unlike me, most of the actors have no background in music, but they are all very willing to learn singing and dancing,” said Bach, 34, who graduated from the HCMC Conservatory of Music ten years ago.

“Some of the songs are not easy to digest for they require four to six vocal parts each... but here the High School Musical actors are able to do it.”

From screen to stage

“Doing a musical has been a priority of mine for a longtime,” said Trung, who had a chance to see American performances of High School Musical and the Lion King when he studied filmmaking in the US in 2007 and 2010.

“But since I had no idea how to do it myself and no one else to do it with because the art is very new in Vietnam, I had to wait until I found my perfect, complete team last year.”

Trung, who studied 3D filmmaking in both Hong Kong and the United States, often visits his former school to look for young, new talents for his art projects. Last year, as usual, the director, who won the golden medal at Comedy Stage Festival in 1998 for his role in theatrical play Phong tro ba nguoi (A rent room of three), was invited to Duy’s graduation performances, where “I finally found ‘my boy’ for whom I had waited so long.”

“Both my teachers and Duy’s had no clue about the art of musical theater, let alone their students, but Duy with his own talent and youthful spirit, took courage to pursue the genre.”

Trung didn’t hesitate to bring Duy in on the project once they met.

“When I was young, I was given many opportunities for my career development, likewise, now that I’m a veteran artist, I have the urge to support new young talents like Duy, because it is not healthy for the entertainment industry in a certain country to depend on few individuals like me or people of my generation only.”

Duy says he wasn’t fully satisfied with Chicago and he sees the show as an opportunity to break out of his own shell.

“High School Musical actually tells our own stories of how we young people overcome our limitations and dare to be ourselves and live our lives and pursue our dreams.”

Duy’s never left Vietnam but he’s confident in his abilities despite never having seen a real Broadway production, or any production abroad for that matter.

“In my opinion, the pros of never having watched a live [foreign] play is that it gives more courage to take on the project without any fear or model to mirror on,” Duy, who portrays Troy’s friend Chad Danforth, told Vietweek.

“What if before Chicago I had chance to see the art with my own eyes abroad and come back with no courage to pursue my dream because I was afraid of that my products would be unfairly compared with ones produced by countries where the arts have been developed for so many years ahead Vietnam?”

Dream team

Duy, who has dreamed of directing his own High School Musical ever since watching the TV series when he was in high school, is allowing his actors to freely present their roles in their own way.

Actress Tran Kha Nhu, who quit her job as an accountant at a state-run firm in her Mekong Delta hometown to pursue her acting career to her parents’ chagrin, prefers presenting a not so-hateful portrait of her character Sharpay Evans in contrast with the Sharpay portrayed by Holywood star Ashley Tisdale.

“I want her to be more youthful – maybe unfriendly and mischievous – but full of humor,” said the actress, 27, who has worked so hard on the singing part that she lost her voice.

Good-looking Vu Hoang Quan was a 110-kg teen boy seven years ago but his love of theater inspired him to lose 40 kilograms when he applied to the Ho Chi Minh City University of Stage and Cinema in 2008. He was nominated for a Mai Vang (Golden Apricot Blossoms) Award for Stage Theater artists 2013 for his portrayal of Billy Flynn in Duy’s Chicago.

Quan, who plays the character of Troy in the new show, is paying extra attention to training for the singing and dancing as he is the lead in 10 out of 19 musical numbers.

“The hardest part is to sing in harmony with others. This is different than what I did in Chicago when most of my songs were solo,” said Quan, whose parents are top doctors in the city and support their son’s artistic dreams. 

“To tell the truth, even in my dreams, I had never imagined that one day I would be a  part of something like this. I will try my best to present a Troy of my own color, to break the sour prejudice among locals who think that things adapted by Vietnamese people are all bad.”

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