Cover Story
Game On for Ola Bola the Musical
Evanna Ramly 
A scene from Ola Bola the Musical.
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This month, Enfiniti’s latest theatre production, OlaBola The Musical, will be the first show to be staged at the newly renovated Istana Budaya. Based on the 2016 box-office smash of the same name, it relives the glory days of Harimau Malaya, Malaysia’s national football team, when it successfully qualified for the Summer Olympics in 1980.

The movie was directed by Chiu Keng Guan and shot leading man JC Chee to stardom. For the musical, the director is Puan Sri Tiara Jacquelina, the choreographer is Stephen Rahman-Hughes (who also has an acting role in the musical) and the main cast comprises Muhd Luqman Hafidz, Brian Chan, Abimanyu Masilamani, Lim Jian Wen and Kai Chalmers along with rapper Altimet.

“When I watched the film, I realised that it had been a long time since there was a Malaysian production that reflected the Malaysia I remember growing up in, one that I look back on with fond memories,” says Tiara who is also the producer and chief dream-maker of the Enfiniti Group. “It really moved me to tears.”

An idea started playing in her head. “I have this habit of imagining musical scenes while watching a movie. But this was football; how could I even see it as a musical? Yet somehow, I did!” she laughs.

It dawned on her that the film had big aspirations and its emotional spirit felt epic enough to be turned into a musical.

“I watched it again and as I did so, I heard a song and I visualised the football game as a dance. Before long, I had ‘written’ a whole musical.”

 

Show tunes

Tiara then flew to Tasmania to convince Mia Palencia to write the music and lyrics. “She asked me about the genre and I couldn’t quite put my finger on it. It wasn’t like The Lion King or The Phantom of the Opera.”

Then a friend suggested she think more about the characters. “These are footballers. Their world is sticky and sweaty with a lot of raw emotions – it’s not exactly pretty. How do they communicate with each other? Surely not with an aria or a Shakespearean prose.”

She and Palencia ultimately decided on hip hop and rap. “There is a rawness to rap that makes you feel the energy of youth and its unfiltered edge. That was when I roped in Altimet, whom I’m a big fan of. I love how his brain works.”

Her goal with the musical is to inspire. “I want the audience to walk out thinking this is the country they would die for. Altimet’s lyrics have a way of being nationalistic in spirit but not propaganda-ish – he makes you think. He’s here every day to lend strong moral support to the team. I can tell him I need lyrics changed or the voice of a character to be different, and he will do it on the spot. It’s amazing.”

 

Dynamic action

Making the transition from film to stage was not all that challenging. The football scene, however, was a different story.

“That was challenging for me because we do not have the space, that expanse on stage, and the camera to zoom in to capture the action,” Tiara explains. “But it’s also because of these limitations that you push yourself to come up with something magical. I promise you (the scene) is going to blow you away.”

To prep, the cast plays futsal together when they are not rehearsing. “I’ve been playing with them as well. But they always give me chances and let me take penalties,” she smiles.

In terms of chemistry, Tiara couldn’t have asked for more. “They are taking this on as though it’s a national project. It feels like there’s a higher purpose. Even the younger cast, some in their teens, know that if we do this show well, the whole country is going to be moved.”

She paused for a moment. “When I look at them, I think this is Malaysia. The performers come from all over the country and when they work together, you see that unity.”

 

Spectacular spectacle

Returning to Istana Budaya is a homecoming of sorts for Tiara and Enfiniti. “It’s where we cut our teeth as a company. The challenge for me was how to meet the great expectations.”

She points out that OlaBola is twice as massive as Puteri Gunung Ledang – and double the cost. “We don’t do a show every year, only when we feel there’s a story compelling enough to invest so much effort and money into.”

The musical represents over a year’s work. “After putting it together we workshopped it twice and edited the show on paper well before we started rehearsals. We’re now on draft nine of the script. I’m very detail-oriented – I question even an additional ‘la’,” she shares.

Incidentally, Tiara claims that this will be the most complex show to be staged in Malaysia yet. “The story, the singing and the dancing are going to be epic. And there’s the technical aspect. There is projection mapping on stage with projection screens providing a 180-degree view of every scene. This is a first for Istana Budaya and we’re going for the sensation of a very different theatrical experience.”

Tiara is moved by the story of unity and personal struggles

Passion for theatre

The performing arts doyenne first watched Miss Saigon when she was in her early 20s. “I thought it was amazing that a play about an Asian girl set in Asia was such a big hit in the West. And I asked myself, why couldn’t we do the same thing in Malaysia? We have so many stories in our own backyard that are unique to us.”

Ola Bola is not the first time Tiara has translated a movie into a musical; she did the same with Puteri Gunung Ledang, which was originally a movie directed by Saw Teong Hin.

She shares an anecdote about its debut in Istana Budaya in 2006. “We started half an hour late every night because people kept going to Istana Negara instead of Istana Budaya! It got so bad that we had to inform the palace guards to redirect them to the theatre at Jalan Tun Razak.”

Despite all that she has accomplished, it still isn’t easy to get financial support for her productions. “Sometimes it works against me because people assume that we have the means,” she says. “The proof is always in the pudding. If you’ve seen my work, you will know I don’t short-change people and always try to deliver.”

As an artist, she genuinely wants the best for the industry. “I’m very vocal in my advocacy for the performing arts and the need for arts education because I see the good it can bring to the country as a whole. If we become a nation that is more cultured, more open to new ideas as well as more sensitive to one another, the better it is for us. Malaysia is capable of greatness but we must dare to take on the challenge of thinking big.”

What she enjoys about directing a musical is inspiring others to do their best. “I love it when I see people perform at their optimum, like a good sportsman. So I push them to give their all. Ultimately, I want them to be satisfied with the results.”

Ola Bola The Musical will run at Istana Budaya from Feb 8 – Mac 11, 2018. For ticketing information, visit www.galactix.asia/olabola-musical.

Most Valuable Players

 

Brian Chan

Chan portrays Tauke, the captain of Harimau Malaya, a character based on real-life footballer Soh Chin Aun. “I love the movie because it’s not just about football but also the people of Malaysia coming together for one dream.” Chan’s theatre credits include Faridah Merican’s restaging of Uda dan Dara and Five Arts Centre’s Cheras The Musical!. He is set to make his big screen debut later this year.

 

Muhd Luqman Hafidz

One of two actors reprising their roles from the movie (the other being Lim Jian Wen), Luqman plays Ali, the striker in Harimau Malaya, a character based on Hassan Sani. “I’m excited because this is my first project in theatre,” he enthuses. “I’ve done TV dramas and commercials, but nothing compares to the satisfaction of being on stage. Tiara is the best teacher. She’s so passionate about her craft and she really understands the process.”

 

Abimanyu Masilamani

He won Best Performance in a Leading Role for Sand The Musical at the Boh Cameronian Arts Awards in 2016 and is also a noted classical Indian vocalist. In Ola Bola The Musical, he plays goalkeeper Muthu Kumar, based on R. Arumugam. “Just being part of such a huge production and be given this character to play is great enough,” he enthuses.



This article first appeared in Focus Malaysia Issue 270.