An Interview With Dennis K. Law

How did a retired doctor get into producing musicals?

During my medical career, I was also always interested in the performing arts and I devoted time and resources supporting the opera companies, the ballet etc. I became fascinated by classical Chinese dance in 2001 in Beijing and started questioning why I had not previously been exposed to such movement virtuosity before. Since I felt comfortable with both western and Chinese culture, I saw a void where I could package Chinese performing arts to a new standard of international excellence. By creating shows that uniquely feature all sorts of visually stunning Chinese action as a backbone, I can bypass language barriers and make my “Action-Musicals” appeal to people of all backgrounds. Therefore, in my musicals, the story is told through movement and all songs are sung as a narrative by a 'muse' or a separate observer on the side of the proscenium.

Can you briefly talk about how you came to choose the subject matter for the three musicals?

Since the occasion of the Beijing Olympic Games provided a good timing for me to showcase the new phenomenon of Action-Musicals, I chose three of my seven shows for the following reasons:
Tang Concubines opened the festival in July because it is the only Chinese show ever to win international 'Broadway-type' show awards in the West. By winning 2 Dora Awards in Toronto in 2006, Tang Concubines proved that it could stand by the very best of 'Broadway'. It has made history for Chinese performing arts abroad. Monkey King was selected to open right with the Olympics because it is the most ambitious project to date for our company. It will also be a world premiere and presented truly as China’s first Rock-Musical. As the director, I am satisfied that the unique elements put in place will truly be a refreshingly new entertainment experience for all audiences. Terracotta Warriors bookends the festival because it is our most performed show to date and it has the biggest impact on the world market as an 'Action-Musical'.

In Tang Concubines where did the idea come to have two drummers in the pit to accompany the recorded music? That really added a strong visual and aural component to the performance.

Because of the scope of the show, the musical score involved more than 60 artists to create the musical sound landscape. As such, it would be impossible to tour the show with that many musicians. Therefore, I added two percussionists to both give the “action” more potency as well as to provide a beneficial live' element to the music.

How was the production of the music for Tang Concubines initiated?

I used composer Hao Weiya again for Tang Concubines. He has previously written the score for Terracotta Warriors for me. The music is the backbone and template for all musicals. After my script was written, I had to go over each scene laboriously with the composer, translating from the English script word by word. All composers need to know the story-telling requirements as directed by the director.

What differences are there putting on a musical in China and back in Canada?

The audiences are very different. In North America, audiences come to shows because they are culturally attuned to them and they appreciate the genre right from the start. In China, the phenomenon of a 'musical' is still relatively new. An 'Action-Musical' about a
Chinese subject matter is even more shocking. Therefore, in China, the work of cultivating an audience is even more important.

What is the most anxious moment for you during a live performance?

I am always anxious about a new stage crew making bad mistakes during set changes. Our shows are ambitious and require changing sets about twenty times during each performance.

How did you conceive to turn the classic Monkey King story into a rock musical?

I wanted to do a new 'Action-Musical' designed for a family audience and yet I wanted to do something vastly different from what has been done to the Monkey King legend so many times before. Since tempo is important for the flow of 'Action-Musicals', I decided that a new 'Rock n’ Roll' element would be both shocking and workable. From what I have seen so far, I am really pleased with the mixture of this new Chinese fusion Rock music and the surrealistic art direction for the whole show.

Can you talk about your collaboration with Zhou Jiaojiao? When and where did it start?

I met Jiao Jiao in 2006. She was introduced to me by her older sister, Cindy (who was a pianist for one of my shows). I quickly recognized her to be a specially gifted young composer with a special interest in both 'rock music' as well as traditional Chinese music. She was very interested in pursuing a project that was non-traditional, and that was indeed 'music to my ears'. Even before the world premiere (as I speak now), I am confident that I made the right choice for music composition. The work is an astounding example of fusion music --- it is both new and entertaining.

The Monkey King is rebellious and mischievous. What side of the Sun Wukong’s personality did you want to convey to audiences in the musical?

The rebellious and mischievous qualities are always a given. I too have chosen not to deviate from this. However, our art direction in portraying this character is quite different from the traditional. I hope it will be a refreshing change. In addition, the 'action' element of our Monkey King is unusually strong --- since action is our forte.

What is the most difficult thing about staging a musical?

Staging anything 'live' is difficult because every element can be unpredictable. This is especially true of our productions that involve about 90 artists on stage. So many things can go wrong. Besides, so many artists doing amazing physical feats always have me on the edge of my seat.

What do you think the job of a good musical director is?

A good director for a musical is much like a good director for film and theater. There has to be a vision, a vision to do something new, different and entertaining. There also has to be a desire to avoid imitating the old and repeating the past. With all that, there needs to be fortitude in staying the course against all odds. At times, the director’s chair is a lonely seat indeed.

What skills as a doctor have helped you thrive in the world of producing and directing musicals?

Not much. In the operating room as a surgeon, I was always singularly in charge. I succeeded or failed as a surgeon solely based on my own skill and intuition. In the world of theatrical entertainment, the producer/director is faced with far more factors that are out of his control. In fact, he is constantly challenged by management difficulties that are monumental, especially when the project is large in scope.

How do you define success?

Success is having the personal satisfaction that I have accomplished something worthwhile.

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