Uniting people through music, emotions and characters – that’s the charm of theater. More so when it’s done by those who bring their youthful energy and insight to the table.
17 year old Shayna Toh is one of the upstarts. Her new musical, Firefly in the Light, opens at The Arts House on November 15. The Raffles Junior College student, who conceptualized and wrote all 12 songs for the musical, chatted with UrbanWire about her musical journey thus far.
UrbanWire: You were in school while you were conceptualizing Firefly. How did you cope with the workload?
Shayna Toh: I conceptualized Firefly from January to February. At the time, I was still in the induction and orientation stage of school, so I had time to work on Firefly. Because I’d just started the first year of junior college, the workload hadn’t really hit then.
UW: Have you had to sacrifice any commitments?
ST: Yeah, I actually had to stop my piano and cello classes for that period of time. Because piano and cello classes are on Thursday, my Thursdays would end only at 9pm. I didn’t have much time with all the rehearsals and I felt like it was just too much to manage. So I told my teachers that I needed to take time off to concentrate on Firefly.
UW: In one sentence, tell us what Firefly is about (besides the facts in the press release)!
ST: (Laughs) The story is about Wendy, who is the rising star of the town, and her shy and and unassuming childhood friend Jake who grows up with her until Wendy decides to leave everything behind in order to find the bright lights of LA.
UW: Firefly was based on a song that you wrote. How did that song lead to the stage production?
ST: I wrote a song when I was 14 called “Left Behind”. It’s about 2 childhood friends, a girl and a guy. The girl’s always talking about how she wants to see the bright lights of the city. The guy’s more reserved; he just keeps to himself. After that, I wrote another song, called “12 Years Passed”, that’s where the girl ends up in New York City, but she hasn’t progressed anywhere in life. But she goes to town one night, and realizes that Jake has become this huge star, and his face is on posters everywhere.
The story is about how roles and fates get reversed, and you end up in places that you never thought you’d be in. I built on that theme of ending up somewhere you’d never imagine.
UW: Take us through the creative process of Firefly.
ST: From January to March, I was getting the story out, and planning the characters’ development. Originally, I intended to just present all 12 songs in a theatrical concert. So I wrote the songs before writing the script. As we developed it, we realized it’d be better as a musical. Songwriting took up from March to September. I got my director onboard in June and held castings in July. August and September were spent on the script. The orchestration began after my exams in mid-September. We evnetually pulled in a stage manager, art director, lighting designer and a costume designer. Everyone’s been coming in at different stages.
UW: How did you build your creative team?
ST: Our art director, Tabitha, was introduced to me by my music teacher. The violinist in the band is my schoolmate, and the drummer is from the ensemble. For the cast, we held an open audition, so a few of my friends were there. Ultimately, we happened to pick people we’d never worked with. We had a variety of responses, there were a lot of students who came to audition. Some of them were professionals, and there even was this lady from Norway who contacted us. We Skyped her, and she sang to us from her house in the middle of the woods!
UW: What were you inspired by?
ST: My inspirations range from classical to muscial theater and pop as well. Classical-wise, I really like the works of Brahms and Debussy. I’ve always looked to composers like Alan Menken and Stephen Sondheim. As for pop, I really like Green Day, Fall Out Boy, Vampire Weekend and Taylor Swift. This whole muscial is very contemporary. We’ve piano, bass guitar, electric guitar and violin, so I’m still keeping it classical with influences of pop.
UW: What are the basics that every aspiring songwriter should know?
ST: You should have a clear message in your song. You need to know what you want to achieve by the end of the song. Musical-wise, after a song is completed, there should be a change in either the story, or the character growth. The audience has to understand if it’s an epiphany, a realization or just something that the character knows now that they didn’t before. Technically, you’ve to familiarize yourself with chord progressions, because it will come in handy when you’re figuring out the flow of the song.
UW: Firefly is said to explore ambition, life choices, inner strength, friendship and love, as well as the many competing life options which every young adult experiences. What are some situations you’ve been in that made you question your own choices?
ST: Sometimes, in the middle of schoolwork, especially when it’s really stressful, you just sit there and ask yourself, “Is this really necessary? Is this what I want to spend my time doing?”
There was a time last year when I was in a competition with 8 friends in my team. We spent a lot of time working on the project, and it interfered with our exam revision schedule because the competition deadline and the exam period were really close. So we had to make little sacrifices along the way.
UW: How have your parents supported you through her artistic journey?
ST: They’ve been very open to the amount of music work I do. I was in the Yamaha course, and I had music lessons 3 to 4 times a week. They would ferry me to and fro to my classes. Most parents are like, “You better focus on your academics in JC, or else!” So the whole fact that they let me go forward and write a musical while being in JC is great. It was a very packed schedule but my parents had always entertained the idea of me involved in music.
My house has been turned topsy-turvy. Because my director was trying to emulate the stage, we just chose my house as the rehearsal space. My dining table has been pushed out, we’ve tape everywhere, furniture shifted all over, and my drummer has stationed his entire drumset in the TV room!
Here are 3 song previews from the musical:
“Some People Have It All”
“Learn The Rules”
“Firefly in the Light – Title Song”
Photographs courtesy of Jeremy Ong (Klix Photography)
Song previews courtesy of Midnight Sun Theatrical Productions