Written by Vanessa Yeo, a medical student with a heart for penning and the blogger of “The Fishmonger’s Friend“. She loves green tea desserts, all things Benedict Cumberbatch. She also believes in the power of humour and food to bring people together.
Hearts pounding, adrenaline pumping, palms sweating – the body’s manner in response to messages relayed from the brain that the performance would commence in a few minutes’ time. The sensation of excitement and nervousness grew and rippled through the air as performers and actors tiptoed at the side of the stage, anticipating the arrival of their time in the spotlight facing the large 800 audience crowd. Months of toiling laboriously in hopes of a producing successful musical performance boils down to three hours of time on stage. As the show progressed, a sense of relief could be felt whenever laughter and thunderous claps erupted from the audience, conveying encouraging messages from the crowd that they were truly enjoying the show.
On the 6th of February, the Malaysian Students’ Society of Cardiff University successfully put on an original musical production, the Festival of Diversity (FOD). For the thirteenth time in a row, we managed to unpack the rich culture of Malaysia, manifested in various forms of arts and music which are native to our land. This includes the dikir barat cultural song and dance performance accompanied by the beating of the traditional Malay kompangs. Whilst FOD would get us the highest accolade of acknowledgement from the university’s Students’ Union, it also serves to preserve the dying historical and cultural arts of Malaysia, a pernicious effect of glorifying 21st-century modern art in South-East Asia.
Though the storyline was set in 16th century Malaya, there was a modern romantic twist to it. The show grappled the attention of the audience as the suspense peaked in the scene where lovers who have not met in eight years laid eyes on each other for the first time since. The smattering of humorous portrayal of characters tickled the audience’s funny bones, embracing all that constitutes a successful musical production – comedy, wit, extravagance and a charming live band.
When I decided to join the FOD bandwagon, I did not know what to expect. I signed up to be part of the dancing crew in a Broadway number. Though the choreography was crafted in such a fascinating manner, I am still in doubt that my clumsy gait successfully adapted to such graceful projections. It feels satisfying to write this article without any embarrassing recollection of the dance routine I performed that night. I was also recruited as the emcee, where I got to experience publicly speaking to an audience of 800 with the presence of sharp, white, blinding lights being projected at me in a midst of pitch-black darkness. Being the first person to come in contact with the crowd that night, it felt like leaping blindfolded into a pitfall whilst having to maintain a confident and composed demeanour.
Leading up to the big day, practices became part of the routine of a Malaysian student’s life in Cardiff. By day, the cast were normal university students attending lectures and handing in assignments; when dusk settled in, they released their inner Barbara Streisand and strut on stage, performing and singing as if they were going to be filmed on Saturday Night Live. These actors transformed from people who read off the script in a bumbling manner to world-class eloquent orators in character within the span of four months. Weeks of vocal coaching were to ensure that only harmonious melody escaped from the actors’ larynx with no trace of any off-key singing. The dance performers were drilled until each movement was committed to memory; each step with its individual rhythm and style had to become part of the subconscious to obliterate any mistakes in order to secure a perfect routine. Practice after practice became a daily regime to make sure all dancers harmoniously maneuvered their bodies and limbs in sync. The musicians spent weeks perfecting chords and notes to be played in concordant and consistent melody.
As part of the subcommittee of the society, I had an insight to the meticulous planning of details involved in running such a massive musical production. It was such a huge event of significant importance for the society that the directors worked well into the wee hours of the morning so much so that it became part of their nocturnal routine in the weeks prior to the show. I admit, when I first heard about FOD, I had my own qualms about the 1000 audience target. I thought that all odds were against us. We worked hard to attract the community of Malaysian students in the UK by pushing our amateur advertising, publicizing and sales expertise to its maximum level. However, it was a real challenge. Unlike attractive hustling and bustling London, wet, rainy and gloomy Cardiff did not appeal people. It was no easier convincing the locals to give up their Saturday nights to watch a Malaysian musical organized by a bunch of students. But alas, we triumphed in the victory of managing to sell more than 800 tickets.
It was definitely exciting to host a musical production in a proper musical theatre in all its glory and grandeur (think Le Miserables but Malaysian version). When I first heard about this, I thought it was palpable absurdity to be involved in such grand performance with so much financial, mental and physical investment – whilst studying full-time as an undergraduate student. However, while there were no major pecuniary incentives to this production, we gained the priceless experience of performing in a proper musical theatre stage in front of an 800 audience crowd. For others, they would leave Cardiff with not only a completed undergraduate degree, but the accomplished feeling of being involved in a massive musical production – be it managing 80 performers, directing the stage technicians or even the seemingly minute task of handling and carrying props.
Some say that the Malaysian Night production of the university is the highlight of every Malaysian students’ life in the UK. The degree is merely secondary, an accompaniment to the significant involvement of being part of such a large event which is close to home. Being part of this was no vapid experience. Though it was a huge commitment – you either give your all or none at all – it was very fulfilling indeed. Our passion and desire to make this a success surpassed all political difference and racial disparity. During that period of preparation leading up to the musical, a substantial rapport was built among the Malaysian students in Cardiff. Though the committee, cast and crew of this musical production were of various races and background, we portrayed Malaysian culture in its best form: unity in diversity. A friend who was part of the audience that night said that she felt so proud that she could identify herself as a Malaysian when she witnessed the unity of the three major races of Malaysia broadcasted in a form of a musical production.
“You can take the Malaysian out of Malaysia but you can never take Malaysia out of the Malaysian”.
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