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Reviewed by:
  • The Secret Life of Nora
  • Zulkifli Mohamad
The Secret Life of Nora. Produced by Enfiniti Vision Media Productions with story by Raymond Miranda and Malay text by Mamat Khalid, music by Roslan Aziz, lyrics by Alfi an Sa’at, directed by Steven Dexter, choreographed by Pat Ibrahim, 29 September–22 October 2011.

The Secret Life of Nora is recent addition to the growing roster of Malay musicals. To understand this particular production one needs to first understand the history and genesis of the new Malay musical, which has been a major trend since the establishment of Istana Budaya (Malaysia’s national theatre, literally, “Palace of Culture”). Istana Budaya launched this new venue in 1999 with a new musical, Keris Sang Puteri (Dagger of the Princess), directed by Rahim Razali (formerly a film director) using the Malay aesthetics borrowed from bangsawan (nineteenth-century Malay opera) with new staging facilities at the theatre. The intention of making Istana Budaya an important performance venue similar to Sydney Opera House had been expressed by the minister of culture and tourism at the time, Dato’ Sabaruddin Chik. He challenged theatre practitioners to start producing musical theatre similar to West End and Broadway productions and to modernize bangsawan to suit modern and urban audiences.

For more than a decade now many musicals have been produced, especially ones looking back at Malay historical figures, from fifteenth-century Melaka (Malacca) heroes to present day prime ministers and politicians. These productions are valued since they bring in a large audience, filling the house. Indeed the musical has almost become a new definition of theatre in Malaysia—that is, requiring a big budget, big audience, and long run to break even. Musicals are also are seen now as a new medium for former film and pop stars to continue making new work as they are paid handsomely by the [End Page 461] Ministry of Culture since they have the public attraction quality and at the same time bring private sponsorship and media attention. (Meanwhile, of course, serious theatre practitioners, critics, and playwrights may think that musical is killing the real activity of theatre-making in Malaysia, especially among young activists.)

What’s interesting with Enfiniti Productions, the company sponsoring this musical, is the way they have indigenized their productions musically, making the work relevant to both the West End’s and Broadway’s models and local needs. The inclusion of local Malay music producer-composer Roslan Aziz has given their musical a new flavor of Malay pop music, making it relevant to the local music scene.

The Secret Life of Nora is inspired by Agent 001—Nora Zain, a 1967 Malay spy movie produced by Shaw Brothers Singapore branch, the top producer of Malay cinema in 1950s and 1960s, which was still producing works of glitz and glamor (though Singapore had exited from Malaysia in 1965). One of the few spy films produced by Shaw Brothers for the Malay market, Agent 001 included Hong Kong personnel, including director Lo Wei, who would in 1971 direct Bruce Lee’s first martial arts feature.

Despite the obvious precedent, The Secret Life of Nora claims to be an original script that has nothing to do with the actual character of Nora Zain, the female spy in the original film. The musical plot concerns a female cabaret performer in 1960s Malaya, Nora (Tiara Jacqueline, formerly known as Jacqueline Eu). Farouk (Tony Eusoff), the Malaysian agent, recruits her on the pretext of remaking a “Nora Zain” film. The title character, Nora, who aspires to be a film star, becomes an actress playing a spy. She is trained by a “director” who is actually a spy trainer from Hong Kong named Roger Foss (played by Broadway actor Ryan Silverman, who was seen in the 2010 Turkish/U.S. film Five Minarets). What starts as play acting becomes serious business as the would-be diva finds herself enmeshed in and eventually smashing networks of human trafficking as she falls for this demanding man.

This production, drawing on local audiences’ memory of past films, follows a pattern of theatre production at Istana Budaya in the past few years: more and more films are turned into musicals...