From The Puteri's Diaries:
(Tiara Jacquelina got home at 4am on 23rd February 2009, after taking her final curtain call as the Puteri of Gunung Ledang, and her first late night supper in four months to celebrate the end of a most memorable journey. Here, she shares her thoughts and feelings of the day that was.)
Sunday, 22nd February 2009. My phone alarm had been set for 10am this morning. Yesterday being a Saturday, we had a matinee as well as an evening performance, and by the time I got home and was finally ready to switch off for the night, it was 2am. I never wake up without getting my eight hours’ sleep, not even for hell or high water, but this morning I was wide awake for several hours before. I tried everything from deep breathing to meditation to counting germs and mosquito hearts in vain, as my mind was full of thoughts about the day ahead of me.
Today I would be making my final journey up the mountain, and taking my final bow at the curtain call as a girl I had come to know so intimately over the last six years. Just as Puteri went up the mountain a girl with dreams and hopes, and came down as a woman, very sure about what she wanted and determined to achieve it at all costs, I have learnt, grown and blossomed so much along this wonderful journey.
I glanced at my phone message inbox, and something told me not to even go there, not till after tonight. I did, however, open two text messages, one from my director Zahim, asking how I was feeling and if I was okay. The second one was from my sister Carol, telling me that our cousin Angie had managed to buy 36 tickets for my the Eu clan – nieces, nephews, cousins, aunts and uncles to be there tonight, with bells, pots and pans and pom-poms.
For a stage performer, the final day of a run is usually the toughest day to get through. Unlike when you work on an album or a film, the process of rehearsing a play requires a lot more mental, physical and emotional investment. Also, a film tends to be shot out of sequence, therefore the emotional journey is interrupted whenever the director yells “cut!”
On this third season of Puteri Gunung Ledang the Musical, I have spent every waking moment of my day for the past four months, from 10am to midnight, with 175 people who love what they do, who have joined the team with a clear sense of purpose - to make a difference, and whose energy and spirit of comraderie and unity is so catching.
It’s amazing to see how this spirit can translate across the theatre to the 100,000 people who have come to support and celebrate all 70 performances of PGL we have put on since season one. Believe it or not, it’s the audience that makes the difference between a good performance and a great unforgettable one. This is the magic of “live” theatre. When an audience is “alive” and generous with their appreciation, as we have experienced over the last three seasons in K.L., the performers onstage cannot help but be energized in return, and reciprocate by turning up our game a few notches higher. And together, both the audience and the performers go on this amazing roller-coaster of emotions together throughout the evening. This synergy is what I think I will miss most of all, come midnight when all this will come to an end.
Tomorrow, or perhaps a few days after the dust has settled, most of the ensemble, who are the backbone of our show, will go back to their pre-PGL lives as lawyers, engineers, accountants, university students as well as full-time performers. A.C (Mizal) and Adlin (Aman Ramlie) will move on to the next film or TV project, Ida (Mariana) will no doubt be wow-ing her adoring fans at her next jazz club stint… unless she decides to delve in deeper into the world of magic and illusions after this, that is. And Steve (Rahman-Hughes) would be flying home to London, after stripping off his Hang Tuah regalia and returning the famous Taming Sari to the props department.
I can’t imagine at this point what it will be like tomorrow, when I wouldn’t be getting assistant stage manager Syed’s call time SMS to come in for daily notes from Zahim, followed by make-up, hair and our routine daily sound-check. I had promised myself, that all through today and tonight, I refused to allow myself to get caught up in the emotions of singing my swan song, but would stay focused on delivering the performance of a lifetime for all those who will come to watch our encore performance.
I arrived at my dressing room at 4pm, did half an hour of stretching and sun salutations as a warm-up. With Corinne Bailey Rae soothing my soul on my iPhone, I sat in my massage chair and was determined to pamper myself and soak up every last second of the final leg of this journey. I could never catch a nap successfully in the daytime, and certainly not during the run of a show, since I’m always so full of adrenaline from the time I wake up. However, today, lulled by Corinne and what seemed like the most luxurious massage I have ever had, I floated off… for maybe five or seven minutes in all, but long enough for me to wake up recharged and refreshed.
The M.A.C. makeup team walked through the door at 5pm, followed y a barrage of the usual suspects from the hair, costume and sound departments. One has to practice staying calm and being unaffected when you are surrounded by a storm of people buzzing around you like this, tugging at your hair, plastering microphones onto your face. I took a photo of the team milling around me for remembrance. They somehow developed a work system over the last month of working together –face makeup first, followed by the top half of my costume, which I wear with my workout tights or jeans below, so I can still move around and stretch with ease. I’m sitting on a bright red exercise ball so I can keep my lower back moving continuously in between. Then, during final face makeup touch-up, the hair department gets going. This is when I put on the Anton Browne vocal warm-up CD Steve introduced to me, and I owe him for this because it has helped me so much in developing my vocals along the years. Anyway, by now, everyone - from my dresser, the makeup and hair team – know the exercises by heart, and they even join me in singing along to it. That’s another one for the memory box for me for sure!
Once hair is done, the microphone team move in, and by the end of their session, I look like an autobot with wires, two or three mic packs around my waist and cables running along the back of my costume, through my hair and on the side of my face. I wear at least two microphones, so that in the event one mic fails, which will happen as Murphy says it will, our designer Ken Freeman turns the back-up mic on.
At this point, the P.A comes on and we expect to hear the assistant stage manager Syed’s voice yell out to everyone to go onstage for our daily sound check. Today’s announcement had a different tone to it though. Syed sang his announcement to the tune of Bayan and Puteri’s farewell song “Moga Temui Cinta”. “Telah tiba masa, untuk sound check ini, kerna datangnya dekat pentas, bagai telah dipanggil…” and he goes on for another verse and the chorus. I could hear squeals of laughter all across the three floors of dressing rooms.
Well, I went onstage to do my sound check, and as I looked out onto the still empty theatre, I had a gut sense that tonight was going to be a good night. I was completely energised, and was feeling like I was in absolute top form, and the vibe in Istana Budaya’s Panggung Sari felt so right. I waved goodbye and said my thank you’s to the front-of-house team, the AV projection team, the lighting team and the sound team. “It’s gonna be a great night, everyone… we’re really gonna rock this place!” and they all yelled back “Yeaaaah!!!”
Then came “circle time”, where the cast, ensemble, stage management and creative team heads join hands before the curtains go up, say a short prayer, and listen to any final notes from Zahim. Steve and I reminded everyone that tonight, being the end of the run, it was natural that emotions would be running high, BUT we all had a responsibility to put on a show for the 1,400 people who have paid good money each night to be with us. I joked with everyone that anyone who started crying before the curtains would suffer the fate of Gusti Adipati’s “pancung!”
You know, people often ask me during interviews, what in my opinion is the magical factor that makes PGL so successful, and though I can never really place a finger on one thing for sure, I think one of the factors has to be dedication and focus by everyone in the team. Every one of the 175 people involved in PGL the musical knows that no matter how menial their task may seem, their efficiency and precision is critical to the overall success of the show. Whether its positioning an actor’s microphone, or making sure mic batteries are fully charged, or flashing a torchlight to guide an actor safely across the darkness backstage, or even the guy whose task it is to ensure that the flowers in my kain are placed properly so that they fly when I kick them towards Hang Tuah, the stage crew who are involved in the illusions, a show like this cannot afford to have a weak link, and everyone learns very quickly that they would never ever want to be that weak link.
Another factor that’s very clear to me is the love, the sense of one-ness and the unity in purpose of everyone on the team. We have Malaysians from almost every possible racial and cultural background – Malays, Chinese, Indians, Orang Asli, Ibans, Kadazans, who join hands in that circle every evening at 8pm to breathe positive energy and love into the hands of the person on his right, as he in turn receives energy from the person on his left. Everyone in that circle is united as one in the name of one goal, and constantly looks out for and supports each other, so everyone has an equal chance to shine.
This play has so brilliantly been written by Adlin Ramlie and crafted by Zahim Albakri in such a way that everyone from the lead actors to the support cast to the ensemble has their spotlight moment. In the PGL team, everyone realizes that we all have our designated “moments”, and that collectively, as a team, it is everyone’s duty to help each other shine. After working with uncountable groups of actors over my twenty years in this industry, I have found that it is more common to find actors who are selfish, self-centred and always thinking of how to upstage his fellow actor. In the process the play suffers, as all we are watching is a battle of egos onstage, which is painful and sad at the same time.
When we first put the team together in 2005, I realised that some things needed to be cleared upfront. This was a team made up of the biggest creative brains in the business, and with the name usually comes the ego. I made it clear from the start that theatre is a collective effort, and that we were all new to this game, and that we were all here to learn and support each other, towards a shared mission and goal. Whenever there was dispute, we would put the project first, and decide what was best for the project and not the individual. Because we have been able to stand together stronger, the product of this unity is something the country has never seen before.
Chedd Yusoff’s cheerful announcement welcomes everyone to the show, and everyone rises to sing our National Anthem. Ida and I are on standby in the wings, stage right, doing some last minute stretching, breathing and focusing. The Jalur Gemilang billowing proudly on the front projection screen, and we sing our hearts out as a final wake-up call for our vocals before we open the show with Majapahit’s song of hope, “Suatu Hari Nanti”. As I touch the nearly impossible top note in NegaraKu, a wave of emotion comes over me, as I sense the hopes and dreams that I’d been praying for seem to be coming true.
I glanced through the front screen to look out at the audience, to have a feel for their energy. Yes, the day has finally come – I see Malaysians from all walks of life come together to support and cheer night after night for PGL. From the way they cheer and clap even after the NegaraKu, it’s quite clear that we have quite a different kind of audience now, they are not here to criticize or judge. Instead, I sensed the spirit of 1,400 fans and friends and family of PGL, joining hands to support and celebrate a group of fellow Malaysians, and it felt really right. I wonder if this is what national pride could be about?
This season, the number of Malaysian public who rushed to buy tickets far outweighed our corporate bookings, and because of the Malaysian public, we were completely out of tickets before the curtains went up. Most of the nights, we were playing to an audience who were there with us not because they were given invitations, but because they paid good money to be there. That kind of love and support is channelled across the stage to all of us performing, and that’s where the magic of “live” theatre happens.
The curtains go up, and tonight, all my senses are heightened as I soak up each precious moment onstage. Tonight, I have found a new energy and an extra drive in my delivery. Tonight was different. Tonight, what drove our performance was love. More than just the love story between Tuah and Puteri, or the love of a nanny who gives her life for her Puteri’s happiness. When I met Jit Murad after the show, he said during the curtain call, he could sense the love between the cast members, and the no-holds barred love and affection the audience showed us tonight, as they do every night.
Maybe tonight, I was a little overwhelmed by the love in the air. In the scene on the cliff where Hang Tuah and Puteri pledge their eternal love and vow to be together again, the beautiful words we borrowed from Mamat Khalid’s film version of PGL touched me in a way I’d never felt before. Remembering my own warning words of “Pancung!” to the cast backstage, I bit my tongue, clenched my fists and breathed, breathed, breathed till the wave of emotion passed. Phew.
My next challenge came during the scene when my nanny Bayan sends me off to Melaka. This scene has never been easy for me, because Ida as a most giving actor always affects me with her genuine warmth. I felt that lump in my throat again as she started the song. Breathe, breathe, breathe! You cannot hold a tune when you’re emotional, and “Moga Temui Cinta” was one of the most beautiful songs in the show, I didn’t want to mess it up for both Ida and me.
Thankfully, my thoughts were distracted during the intermission by autographing program books and CDs and posing for photos with the cast and crew backstage, in between doing a makeup touch-up, a complete costume and hair change and mic battery checks. The first half of Act Two is a lot lighter for me, as I have moments to rest whilst Steve and Adlin wow the audience with their solo numbers.
When Adlin goes on as the dancing Sutan, I warm up in the wings for the marathon to come, which begins from the halfway point of Act Two, right up to the end of the show. This part of the show is about forty minutes of non-stop action and high drama.
The time has come, and I’m escorted across the darkness backstage to stage right by assistant stage manager Mei Chuen and Stage Manager Hamidon. Midon is the unseen unsung hero whose backstage cues are as critical as the performance onstage itself. Upon Production Stage Manager Pat Gui’s cue, Midon cues the moving of the structures onstage geniusly created by Raja Malek called the Stupas. Each of the six Stupas weighs half a ton each and need to be moved across the stage according to precision timing to end up at a specific spot every single night. Hamidon also looks out for everyone’s safety, guiding actors on and off sets in the dark. People always ask me how it is I make it off the mountain and run into the Melaka palace in just a few seconds. I have to run down a scaffolding staircase so fast I can’t feel my feet, whist hanging on to dear Hamidon. One slip could cause me an injury I may never recover from all my life, but on PGLM we have learnt that as a team you have to literally be able to trust each other with your lives.
I share a light moment with assistant Stage Manager Sharus who manages the 1-ton waterfall set. He cracked me up so much tonight when he produced what appeared to be an air freshener spray which he told me he had sprayed all over the unsuspecting set movers called the Stupa crew before I enter the enclosed set with a whole bunch of them. He said “I want to make sure the air on Ledang will smell fresh as morning due for you!” I remember telling myself, “I’m glad I’m still laughing, at this point.”
Then came “the scene on the mountain”, my final scene with my dear buddy and stage partner of three seasons, Stephen Rahman-Hughes. What a journey we’d been through together. Steve trained me to sing in exchange for Bahasa lessons, and his priceless guidance gave me so much more confidence in preparing myself to take on this musical.
Something happened during that scene on the mountain. Maybe it was the way Rohaslam Hizad’s haunting flute played Puteri’s anthem tonight, or the realization that Puteri had almost come to the end of her journey at this point, but all it took was for Steve to say , “Dinda, disini rupanya Dinda.” I was so choked up with emotion that I could hardly utter my reply, “Iya Kanda... Adinda di sini…” I breathed and breathed and breathed so much my chest hurt, I made a fist and dug my nails deep into my palms, but I was too far gone. I was in bits and I’m afraid I must have done Steve a terrible injustice by affecting him, too.
It was so painful struggling to keep it together during the song, fighting to get some kind of melody across in the song, or even to just talk it. Steve was patting me on the back to try and calm me down and breathing into my ear like a husband to his wife in labour. But he ended up a mess himself too.
Later that evening when we had our final night supper celebration together, Chedd Yusoff who is Steve’s understudy, joked, “tonight, we have witnessed that the great Steve is only human after all and can sing off-key like the rest of us mortals!”, to which Steve replied in his usual dry British humour, “thanks a flippin’ bunch, Tiara, for ruining my career. That was the first time ever that I’d hit a bum note.” Bless…
Thankfully though, I managed to contain myself again after the duet, and in the subsequent scene, the naming of the seven conditions, I felt the pain, loss and fury of the princess well up from deep inside me. I held on to that adrenalin through the next scene, which is one of my absolute favourites, the showdown between the Puteri and the Sultan of Melaka. We had workshopped this scene to be much more dramatic and “human” for this season, but tonight has to take the cake, for I almost felt electricity pass through my body as Adlin and I “passed the ball” over to each other. For a moment during the scene, his fury and rage felt so real that I felt the hairs on the back of my neck stand on end.
Then came the final scene on the mountain, where Puteri prays for Tuah to make it before the sunrise. In my heart, I hear the Pussycat Dolls singing, “I hate this part right here…” because as much as I’m struggling to keep it together, I can see the silhouettes of the ensemble below looking up at me, sniffling, shaking and weeping uncontrollably. The end is near for all of us.
The curtains come down finally, and the response from the audience breaks the floodgates wide open, as we hear them cheer, clap and roar like never before. It appears as though Puteri Gunung Ledang has not only affected me and the wonderful people I have worked with on this project, but somehow that magic has translated across to the 100,000 people who have been touched by her spell along the years.
I am back at home now after my first late night supper in four months, but I still can’t switch off completely till I write all my thoughts and feelings on paper. I’m so blessed to have had this wonderful opportunity to play the dream role of a lifetime, alongside the best and most talented, passionate and dedicated people in the industry. Blessed to have the love and support of a husband who makes me believe I can touch the stars. Fortunate to be greeted with loving arms by the Malaysian theatre and film audiences who have followed me on this wonderful, unforgettable journey of being Gusti Putri Raden Ajeng Retno Dumilah, the “Puteri” of Gunung Ledang.
Now I lay me down to sleep, content that I have fought the good fight, and won the good race, and I look forward to tomorrow morning when I shall wake up as Tiara Jacquelina once again, with new mountains to conquer, new stars to reach for.