Theatre impresario Cecilia Leong-Faulkner got an early taste of the entertainment business as a young girl growing up in 1960s Kuala Lumpur because her father, a manager at The Federal hotel in Bukit Bintang, was responsible for booking international acts to perform there. The Federal was Malaysia’s first international-class hotel, built in 1957 by property tycoon Low Yat just in time to host foreign dignitaries attending the country’s independence celebrations. For years after it was the go-to place for a dinner-and-show night out. Ms Leong-Faulkner never forgot the promotional photos of international singers, dancers and cabaret acts that were popular features of ritzy theatre-restaurants of the day.
“My father’s showbiz DNA must have rubbed off on me,” she declares, because she grew up to develop a deep passion for theatre, eventually marrying actor-producer John Faulkner and founding the British Theatre Playhouse (BTP), a company responsible for reviving interest in that particular brand of live theatre associated with London’s West End. For the past 15 years, BTP has produced a succession of stage shows in intimate settings, featuring prominent members of the British theatre scene.
The dinner-theatre circuit in Singapore remains a relatively small one, typically involving an evening of light comedy and wildly improbable plots performed in a ballroom at a local five-star hotel like the Hilton or Shangri-La. It’s still a niche product, catering to a well-heeled, sophisticated customer base weaned on watching classic works by the likes of Noel Coward and Alan Ayckbourn, performed by stalwarts of the British stage. Ms Leong-Faulkner is a proud torch-bearer of the genre but she has also expanded her portfolio to include musical theatre.
Her latest offering is The Definitive Rat Pack, a show that integrates the songs of Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin and Sammy Davis Jr with the lively banter the charismatic trio often engaged in, during their long tenures as mainstays of the Las Vegas scene in the 1960s.
You have a degree in hotel management, worked in publishing and marketing and founded British Theatre Playhouse 2004. Describe the journey so far.
I never set out to be a theatre producer, it’s just that I go by instinct and passion and my career has taken me in this direction. I’m a free spirit – I follow my heart. My first real job was with American Express in Kuala Lumpur. It taught me the importance of marketing, which drives business. In theatre, the business can’t be driven by actors or other aspects, it has to be marketing driven. I met my husband when I was with Amex – he was a die-hard thespian and was performing in KL in Alan Ayckbourn’s Bedroom Farce. We were invited to meet the cast, and one thing led to another – it was a whirlwind romance. He was a prim and proper gentleman: he wrote to my father to ask for my hand, and even declared his financials to my father.
You’ve brought in some 20 shows to Singapore over the past 15 years. How did British Theatre Playhouse come about?
I was living in Singapore and enjoyed going to watch dinner theatre. Then there was a gap when the productions stopped, so we decided to set up a business to bring shows in. John rang up (theatre impresario and actor) Derek Nimmo’s widow and asked about bringing in one of his productions – it was How the Other Half Loves, by Alan Ayckbourn. I was very clear from the start what I wanted to do.
The scene has since evolved, we started doing charity galas and it succeeded because people were willing to support charities as well as the arts. We were the first to bring back dinner theatre but the market is quite saturated now, there are many productions.
Bringing in theatre productions and meeting famous personalities, you must have many interesting tales to tell.
There was a memorable moment during our second production in 2004 when we produced The Importance of Being Earnest, and nearly the entire Singapore Cabinet came to see the show, including Lee Kuan Yew, Goh Chok Tong and President SR Nathan. At the gala dinner I sat next to Mr Lee. He was hugely intimidating but during a lull in the conversation I asked him: “Do you come to the theatre often?” Dead silence. There was a long, long silence before he said: “I have a very busy schedule and don’t have time to go to the theatre.” Then, he broke into a broad smile: “Tonight I’m playing truant.” We must have passed because subsequently we did Funny Money – a farce – and he came back again. He must have enjoyed the first time – there was heavy security, but it was all worth it.
Have you encountered actors who are difficult to work with?
The one thing about live theatre is the unpredictability. Casting is very important; it’s important to make sure there is chemistry among the cast members. We can cherry-pick from other productions around the world and there is a big pool of actors available but the trick is to have a good director who knows how to get the cast together – you need team players. In one show, the son of the playwright was in it, so he knew all the lines. An actress who was a bit of a prima donna decided to ad lib on stage. Actors hate other actors deliberately ad libbing so they were rather upset. The son told his dad, and we sorted her out in the end. We also didn’t hire her again.
The Definitive Rat Pack features interpretations of three classic performers who epitomised the Vegas scene and hark back to a golden age of live entertainment. Will local audiences be convinced by Brits playing the original Brats?
It will go down well, simply because the actors have been vetted; all are very strong, seasoned, with a solid track record. They are not just singers, they are performers, in character and bantering on stage. I’m confident they will rock the house, especially since they will be accompanied by a nine-piece swing band – the audience is getting the real deal. They do their magic on stage and at the end of the show you will be humming their songs.
As Sinatra might say: regrets, you’ve had a few?
I don’t look upon them as regrets. We’ve made mistakes but the important thing is to be surrounded by positive people, not naysayers. There is no such thing as a glass ceiling, you go as far as you want to if the desire is there. I’d like to see where this will take us. My dream is to take a show to the West End. It’s something that gives me a purpose – you need to fill your days. At the end of the day I’m promoting British culture: it’s not what you say, it’s how you say it.
There will be two shows of The Definitive Rat Pack, with opening night on Tuesday, June 26, followed by a charity gala performance on June 27 (in aid of The Business Times Budding Artists Fund). Venue: Grand Ballroom, One Farrer Hotel & Spa. Prices for June 26 at S$98 and S$108, charity tickets at S$600 each, including cocktails and dinner. Ticket hotline: +65 6705 7825/Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.
This article was originally published in The Business Times.