One Woman's Dream: Tropicana The Musical

Art & Design

April 19, 2017 | BY Hashirin Nurin Hashimi

Independent producer Tan Kheng Hua brings back the sexy Singapore in the sixties.

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 Whether it’s written down or etched in our minds, we all have a bucket list of all the things we want to achieve at some point in our lives. Tan Kheng Hua has hers stored on her computer in a folder labelled “Dreams” that she started well over 25 years ago.

The actress and independent producer explains, “I’ve put in all sorts of ideas, in varying degrees of completion. Some are just one or two liners, others full treatments; a lot have made it to the theatre stage or been made into television programmes.” 

Some ideas, however, languish in said folder for an indefinite length of time. Tropicana was one of them. “Many people don’t know that Tropicana actually existed in Singapore from 1968 to 1989. It was Southeast Asia’s first entertainment complex to feature a Las Vegas-style cabaret theatre, restaurants and nightclubs. Big stars such as Count Basie, Duke Ellington, and even Frank Sinatra walked through its doors. Tropicana embodied the creative spirit of the 1960s and I’ve always thought that it would make for a very good musical,” enthuses Tan.  

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And so Tropicana the Musical was born, and it is showing at the Capitol Theatre April 13 to 30. Tan has brought together the who’s who of Singapore theatre, from director Beatrice Chia‑Richmond to playwright Haresh Sharma, and a cast of heavyweights, including Lim Yu‑Beng, Siti Khalijah Zainal and Karen Tan.

She says, “I’ve always wanted to independently produce my own individual vision and story idea, and run its production and marketing in my own way. I’ve produced other people’s ideas, but this one is different because I feel a great sense of ownership.” On whether the production will reflect what Tropicana was best known for—its topless revues—Tan promises, “topless but in a Tropicana way: lavish, high-class and very tasteful”. 

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Tropicana the Musical was inspired by the Las Vegas-style nightclub of the same name, which featured world-class acts out of its complex in the heart of Orchard  Road, where Pacific Plaza stands today

What is a memory you have of Tropicana?
When I was young, my parents brought us there for delicious dim sum on Sunday afternoons. I also remember watching the topless revues. It wasn’t striptease, it was really high-class and glamorous, like the Ziegfeld Follies—really beautiful girls in exquisite sequinned costumes, parading rather than dancing on stage. 

What are the challenges putting the show on the road?
Simply put: ticket sales. “Are we going to be able to sell enough tickets?” But I do this because I believe in original shows and I want to tell tatler_tatler_stories from the heart in a way that people have never seen before. We’ve worked with ticketing agent Sistic to introduce an incentive ticketing pricing scheme: the earlier you buy, the lower the price. Singapore theatregoers are used to buying late and one of the things we wanted to change was this buying behaviour. And I feel it’s changing. Now, many local theatre shows are starting to sell their tickets early, too. 

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What is Tropicana the Musical about?
It’s a story about big dreams and what people are willing to do to fulfil them. I’ve always felt that the real-life heroes in 1960s Singapore really paved the way in a lot of the creative aspects. They include Loke Wan Tho in film, The Quests in music, Kuo Pao Kun in theatre, Shaw Sung Ching in nightlife with Tropicana, and Tang Choon Keng in retail with CK Tang. Each flourished in a way that I felt creatively helped put Singapore on the map to where we are today in terms of arts, culture and entertainment. To me, it was a glorious time. 

What do you think today’s arts practitioners can take from that era?
The independent spirit and vision. Many arts practitioners today are very dependent on government support and grants. In the 1960s, these heroes had such great vision, without much government support. The amount of courage and the risks they had to take were huge. They really went for it and dedicated their lives to realising these visions. I love that!  

Image (Tan Kheng Hua): Wilfred Weegee Studios