If you ask any Malaysian when our country first gained independence, most people will be able to tell you it was Aug 31, 1957. But did you know when and where that date was announced?

It was on Feb 20, 1956, at Padang Bandar Hilir in Melaka. Tunku Abdul Rahman Putra, who was then Chief Minister of the Federation of Malaya, announced the date of independence to a crowd of around 100,000 gathered at the padang (field) by the seaside, prompting passionate and loud cries of “Merdeka!”.

This lesser known historical tidbit forms the opening scenes of Rasa Melaka The Musical, a theatre production celebrating the history and culture of the state.

Held in conjunction with Visit Melaka Year 2019, and supported by the Melaka state government, the show will combine music, state of-the art effects with an original storyline to tell a heartfelt story of Melaka.

Two born-and-bred Melaka boys – brothers Deric, 41, and Easee Gan, 32, – will bring this musical to life as the director/playwright and producer respectively.

melaka

Rasa Melaka The Musical will run at the Panggung Bangsawan Melaka till next October. Photo: Panggung Bangsawan Melaka

Rasa Melaka The Musical will run daily at Panggung Bangsawan Melaka till next October.

“Last November, Easee received a call from Panggung Bangsawan Melaka after we completed the five-hour theatre show (Richard Wagner’s) The Ring Of The Nibelung at KLPac. This year being Visit Melaka Year, the Panggung Bangsawan Melaka team invited Muka Space to create a story of Melaka. Only after we submitted the proposal did they realise we were from Melaka,” says Deric, who grew up with his brother in the Ujong Pasir area, near the Portuguese Settlement.

“We did considerable research for this show. We’re both from Melaka, but after we started this project, we realised our knowledge of the state wasn’t enough to tell this story,” adds Deric, who together with Easee, are the co-founders of Klang Valley-based theatre group Muka Space.

The award-winning Muka Space, formed in 2013, has produced and presented several community-based arts shows as well as contemporary theatre productions at KLPac through the years, including Richard III (2016), Peking Man (2017) and The Ring Of The Nibelung (2018).

Last year, Muka Space and the Malaysian Puppetry Association collaborated in a series of street puppet theatre shows (The Story Of Ah Loy) in Kuala Lumpur.

A people’s story

Rasa Melaka is a brand new experience for our Muka Space team! There are many challenges from scriptwriting and auditioning to the production. The experience goes beyond satisfaction as our main objective is to nurture Malaysian performing arts. We very much appreciate all the help from people in Melaka, from research to the audition process, helping spread publicity, and buying tickets to support the show,” says Deric.

Rasa Melaka features a rotating cast of 12 actors playing 120 characters. Photo: Muka Space

The cast of Rasa Melaka was selected from open auditions and subsequently workshop auditions, which drew more than 250 hopefuls. Rasa Melaka, which took shape in six months, is a special project for the theatre company’s founders. It is a homecoming, of sorts.

“It was a huge experience for me … learning about myself, my hometown. Things I considered very normal, turned out to be very interesting, when we learnt the story behind them,” says Easee.

Rasa Melaka features a rotating cast of 12 actors playing 120 characters in a roughly one hour story.

The musical, featuring 12 songs, tells the story of three friends of different races: Malay girl Melia, Hokkien boy Lak, and Chetti (Indian Peranakan) girl Kashvi.

Panggung Bangsawan Melaka (formerly the old Cathay cinema to locals) is an apt place to tell this warmhearted tale.

Journey of three friends

Rasa Melaka is performed in various languages as spoken by the main characters. We also have Lak’s Peranakan (baba nyonya) wife, and other ethnic groups in the musical.

“So we do get to see not just different languages, but how the characters talk to each other (whether serious, poignant or comical moments), as well as when they’re speaking to each other in a group, or united as one people. And then also as the three (main) characters grow from their first appearance as young children to being grandparents in their 60s,” elaborates Deric.

A scene that gives the masses a glimpse of old fashioned trishaws once seen in Melaka. Photo: Muka Space

“For research, I referred to numerous books and websites. I even paid visits to historical sites, walked the streets and alleys. Of course, not to forget, I went to Kampung Chetti to talk to the people there about the Chetti community, their back story and challenges they faced through the years. In our efforts to obtain more information, we were fortunate to be supported by the local press, who provided us with photos and write ups,” he adds.

Rasa Melaka‘s story is told in a prologue with the three acts, beginning with the Merdeka date announcement in 1956. It then centres on several important events in Melaka’s history: a great flood in 1971, a major water crisis in 1990, and finally, the announcement of the city as a Unesco heritage site in 2008.

Deric says having many of the story’s major events involving was an intentional touch.

“It’s all about the Melaka river. There’s where the Melaka trees, which give the city its name, can be found. And the river is a big part of the memories of the local people,” he explains.

Shaping the music

The music for the show is composed by Jacqueline Teng, Toh Shir Ling and Andrew Lim. This is the first time the three have worked on a full-length musical.

“It’s a musical that shifts timelines, so we have many music styles on board. From uplifting 1960s-era pop-sounding music to folk-based songs,” says Teng.

The music, Teng notes, would be different depending on the eras of the story. Scenes in the 1950s, for example, would be mostly golden oldies, while the 1970s would have radio pop themes and the 2008 scenes feature hip hop.

“There’s one very interesting song called Long Long Ago, taken from a scene where one of the lead characters brings her friend from abroad all around town. The song is sung during the trishaw ride, while the scene introduces different (Melaka) sights. We think it’s very fun, you can imagine a lot of things through it,” says Toh.

“There’s also a song about the Melaka River, which I really like very much. It’s a very nostalgic song, containing many details which will remind us of the past,” adds Lim.

The show’s producers hope that Rasa Melaka will prove to be an entertaining watch. Just like Mud The Musical: The Story Of Kuala Lumpur, which still stands as the local theatre scene’s longest running musical (over 2,000 shows from 2014 to 2017), there is a lot of expectation to see that Rasa Melaka The Musical hits the ground running, attracting both locals and tourists.

“It’s a tribute to the people of Melaka, a story that takes the viewers beyond the tourist brochures,” says Easee.

Teng fully agrees that it’s important to know our roots.

“I think a lot of us don’t really know what an amazing place Melaka really was. It was such a culturally significant place. You need to really experience it for yourself. Once, thousands of people used to come here and trade. Now it’s just a tourist spot. It’s time some real Melaka stories were retold,” concludes Teng.


Rasa Melaka The Musical will run at Panggung Bangsawan Melaka, 20, Jalan Munshi Abdullah, Kampung Jawa in Melaka till Oct 15, 2020. For tickets, call Panggung Bangsawan Melaka (06-281 1666) or Muka Space (011-1360 9939). More info: www.rasamelaka.com.