The Power of Music: A Discussion with Cambodian Rock Band Music Director Mandric Tan

Music is an important piece of theater – it sets the tone, adds emotional cues and impact to create a marriage of image and sound that remains in the viewer’s mind long after the curtain has closed. For a show like Theater Mu’s latest “Cambodian Rock Band” – the story of a Khmer Rouge survivor who returns to Cambodia for the first time in 30 years for the trial of a Cambodian war criminal, led by the music from Dengue Fever and Cambodian “oldies” classics – the music is literally in the foreground.

Music director Mandric Tan is working behind the scenes to put everything together.

“Not really,” Tan said with a laugh. “I would place the director, the actors, the musicians, even the language coach as more important than me.”

Humility aside, it’s the passion for music that fulfills Tan’s ambitions, blending East-West sensibilities and helping bring the production closer to a music-based approach to storytelling that has proven to be much more complicated, and as rewarding, as him. we could never have expected.

Music Director Mandric Tan

“It’s my first stage production,” he says. “I’ve never worked in theater before. I was a little wary, but excited for the challenge.

Tan, a graduate of the renowned Berklee College of Music, has over a decade of experience as a multifaceted music producer. He worked as a musical arranger, sound engineer and producer for numerous National Day parades and Chingays in his native Singapore, and – before taking a brief break to venture into this new medium with Theater Mu – a prestigious role on tour with China’s “King of China”. Pop” Wang Leehom.

Billed as ‘a historic piece, a rock concert’, the show was a ‘balancing act’, says Tan, between acting and singing – bringing out the best in everyone and learning how to get the best musical performance out of an actor. while making sure the music doesn’t overshadow the script; after working exclusively with musicians, it was a process of learning what language to use and how best to approach unfamiliar terrain and an unfamiliar type of performance.

“Some people were a little nervous working with me,” he laughs. “I have a reputation. I don’t suffer fools!

However, these fears turned out to be unfounded. Art is give and take, after all –

“I learned a lot,” says Tan. “For example, on the first reading of the script [for Cambodian Rock Band] I found myself unable to fully visualize the production. It didn’t come alive for me. I fell asleep during the first reading –

(Although this is as much the result of jet lag and a 13 hour time difference between Singapore and Minnesota).

“But now, as I read the words of a script, I find myself able to visualize the show, the music, how they work together. A script can bring music to life like never before. I’m grateful to have learned this skill.

It is using a specific sound and tone, to honor both the rock and roll of the namesake and the traditional sound of Cambodian music that has helped bring Cambodia to life on stage. It is through this kind of tonality that we can immediately identify a style of music, the unique sounds and therefore the culture of a specific place based on the music; If you’ve ever wondered why certain music sounds distinctly from a certain culture, country, or region of the world from just a few notes or a short melody, this is the reason.

Left to right: Christopher T. Pow, Mayda Miller, Greg Watanabe, Danielle Troiano, Shawn Mouacheupao, photo by Rich Ryan

This is where Tan thrives.

“It’s so fascinating to work on a production like this,” says Tan. “Consider what we call the traditional scale of Western music. It’s not the same scale used in Southeast Asian music, for example. The tempered scale better known in the West is very different from the scale used in the music of Cambodia, Thailand, Vietnam, which is not the same as that of Russia, India or anywhere else in the world.

What is often overlooked is the amount of work that goes into a stage production like “Cambodian Rock Band” – bringing stories to life that might otherwise lie dormant in the shadows of history. When creating a theatrical production, there is no room for wasted space – every detail is there to create an immersive and dynamic experience for the audience. Everything comes together to create a story of cultural significance, honoring the past and present (and future) that is equally enjoyable and memorable for a large and diverse audience, especially for those who may not be familiar with the story. .

The Khmer Rouge regime took control of Cambodia from 1975 to 1979 and was accused of killing between 1.5 and 2 million people, or 25% of the country’s population, in the infamous “fields of the dead,” what is now known as the Cambodian Genocide. This context serves as a backdrop for a show that is just as personal story – because it’s centered on a man’s return after 30 years and his relationship there with his daughter – because it’s history. It is also a testament to the power of music in telling a story so important to so many, reminding us why such an experience and such a story should never be forgotten. From Lauren Yee’s script “Cambodian Rock Band” does just that.

“That’s why I have so much respect for [Director] Lily Tung Crystal,” Tan says. “She’s the one who brings it all together. There are so many moving parts. I only play a small role.

“Music,” he says, “is just a cog in the engine of entertainment.”

The show runs until the end of July. Tickets are $45, but Theater Mu offers a “Pay As You Are” model that brings the price down to as low as $5. This allows for the greatest possible inclusivity and ensures that everyone who is interested in the show can see it.

“But the small theater thrives thanks to the support of patrons.” Tan laughs. “Pay $45 – if you can!”

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