AISHK 25th Anniversary Throwback: Our First School Musical

Paul Walker as the Major General and Bob Zhou as the Pirate King

On Friday October 20 and Saturday October 21, 2000, AISHK presented its first musical, ‘The Pirates of Penzance’, produced and directed by Jennifer McLachlan, the Head of Performing Arts (1999-2006). According to ‘Under the Lion Rock’, Jennifer was interested in ‘The Pirates of Penzance’ because every child would have an opportunity to participate and the score would work with two pianos and was adaptable to a range of voices.

As it was the school’s first musical, Anne Kruger, producer and presenter of ‘Morning Call’ on RTHK Radio 4, was invited to review the show. The following except titled ‘Hoorah for the Pirate King… hoorah for the little Aussie Battlers!’ is taken from Dhanara dated Wednesday 25 October, 2000:

“The spirit of coming together and team work displayed at the Australian International School Hong Kong’s recent production of the musical ‘The Pirates of Penzance’ was truly inspirational. Even a Pirate King isn’t safe from chickenpox it seems – literally hours before the production was to begin, the leading lad had to put his sword away and take sick leave…Support from the school community and wider community was also inspirational, Music Director, Jennifer McLachlan saying the production began with nothing except human resources. Colourful freshly painted sets, newly sewn fabulous costumes – not to mention fun choreography – just a few examples proving the given spirit from those involved in the musical.

School Principal, Mrs Chris Neilsen summed it up perfectly in her closing night address by explaining, “This is an example of the Australian spirit!”

The Police (left to right): Paul Marshall, Cara Manning, Felix Voo, Judy Lau, Faustina Cheng, Phuang Traidongplong, Nicola Chen and Dylan de Kantzow

The humorous tone of the production soon won the audience over. Keenan Manning as Frederic was particularly witty with his facial expressions. The police stole our hearts with their perfectly executed clumsy mannerisms (and who was that blonde?) bringing hearty laughs from the audience.

The Pirate provided a strong chorus, filling the hall, while the Daughters were full of the appropriate sugar and spice and all things nice. Especially sweet was the voice of Hannah Irvine as Mabel.

Last but not least, congratulations to Mr Chris McCorkell, for your courage in stepping in with your book of ‘Pirates Rules’ at the last minute to play the role of the Pirate King.

In conclusion, I would have to say the humour and the Aussie spirit shown throughout the entire production left the audience begging for more… yes Ms McLachlan, you made the right decision to carry on and we look forward to the next production from AISHK! I agree with the audience: Encore!”

Former student Paul Walker, who attended AISHK from Year 7-9, played the lead of the Major General:

“One of my favourite memories was in 2000 when I was the Modern Major General is the school’s ‘Pirates of Penzance’ performance. AIS was always offering me new ways to excel and challenge myself. The audition process was difficult. I had never sung in front of people before and after the first audition, the director was not sure the role would be for me. I was quiet, nervous and barely sung. The next day I swallowed my pride and belted out the lines for the Modern Major General and got the role. I was so excited and took to rehearsing my lines every day. It was a magical play that everyone worked really hard on. I still remember my lines to this day and even sing them to my baby when we are playing. What I enjoyed most about the play was the comradery and support between everyone participating. It was an experience I will always remember.”

Bob Zhou, who attended AISHK from 1997-2002 (Year 4-9) and was a student ambassador, played the role of the Pirate King. At the moment he is I’m living in Melbourne and working as a litigation lawyer. He fondly remembers the musical even though the show had to go on without him:

The Pirate King, Frederic (Keenan Manning) and Ruth (Annelise Kember)

“The entire production was a joy to be involved in. We were still quite small at that stage, being at the Cheung Sha Wan site. However everybody worked so hard to make it a great show. I was unfortunately hit with the chickenpox right before opening night – the worst possible timing! I was absolutely gutted at the time, although it makes for a funny story now. The school was fantastic in giving me a chance to perform after I’d recovered. There was no need to do that, and I’ve always appreciated that opportunity.”

Annelise Kember, who played Ruth in the school musical, is now living in Launceston, Tasmania, and working as a singing teacher. Reflecting on what led her to pursue a career as a music teacher, she says that she always had an interest in music as her family were musical, including her sister, Heather, who was one of the Daughters and played the violin.  Annelise also enjoyed being in the choir. She reflects on what it was like to be in the school’s first musical:

“I was at AIS from Year 2-8. I don’t remember much about the audition itself but was happy to get a good role. I was the youngest of the leads so I had to do rehearsals during my recess time I think. It was a little nerve racking, especially when Bob Zhou became ill but the show had to go on! I remember having fun because I basically had to be the puppet master to Mr McCorkell who was stepping in as the Pirate King, but it turned out quite well! I think we all sort of had to be a guide to Mr McCorkell as he had his script in the form of a Pirate book. Sometimes he couldn’t quite remember all his cues so I sometimes had to put him in his place. One time he fainted too early but we pretended that it was meant to happen. The fight scenes were also quite fun.”

Chris McCorkell, who had been at the school for 24 years from 1996 to 2019 (including Secondary Dean of Studies 2013-2019), shares how he was able to step into the role of the Pirate King:

The Pirates (left to right): Joe Walker, Alex Noble, Iain Fitzpatrick, Scott Ramsey, Aaron Moody and Tim Dowson

“‘Pirates of Penzance’ was just about the most fun I’ve had in all my years as a teacher! I remember that a number of staff had minor roles in the play as deck-hands or members of the constabulary. I especially remember our much-loved PE teacher, aka PC Joel Dunn, hamming it up to the delight of the audience. My attendance at rehearsals was spasmodic at best but I found myself thrust into the role of Pirate King. To say I fluffed many of my lines would be an understatement but the amazing cast of students jollied me along and covered for me magnificently. I caught up with Bob in Melbourne in February of this year and the first topic of conversation was, of course, ‘Pirates’. What wonderful memories they are!”

’13’ the musical cast 2014

Since the first musical, the school went on to present ‘Bye Bye Birdie’ (2001), ‘The Marriage and Murder of Monotonus Maximus’ (2003), ‘Hello Dolly’ (2010), ‘ Peter and the Wolf’ (2012), ’13’ the musical (2014), ‘The Sound of Music’ (2016) and ‘The Wizard of Oz’ (2018), with ‘Chitty Chitty Bang Bang’ originally scheduled for this year.

The Head of Performing Arts today, Peter Stapleton, joined the school in 2014 when the school was putting on the musical production of ’13’ by Jason Robert Brown. For that year, our alumni student Thomas Chiu was the musical director, and the show was directed by former Head of Performing Arts, Graeme Tyler alongside Lynda Lemmon (now Head of Year 6) and our former drama teacher Lindsay Bennie. The musical was accompanied by the school rock band and Peter was the pianist. Peter reflects on his involvement in musicals after ’13’:

Peter Stapleton conducting the orchestra for ‘The Sound of Music’ in 2016

“At AISHK, we normally produce a full-blown musical every two years, so our next show was ‘The Sound of Music’ in 2016. We were also able to use our own school orchestra as the accompaniment, which helped make the show inclusive of a greater range of students. We therefore had students from both sections of the school that were either in the cast, performing as part of the orchestra, helping backstage or working with costumes, makeup or assisting with the technical aspects of the show. Graeme Tyler was again director for this show. I was the musical director alongside our music colleagues Elise Kelly and Vindy Ho. The role as musical director meant rehearsing our orchestra, chorus and lead vocalists, as well as creating appropriate instrumental parts. We ran the same format in 2018 to produce the ‘Wizard of Oz’. Both ‘The Sound of Music’ and the ‘Wizard of Oz’ included over 100 students covering the range of areas needed to produce a musical.”

A lot goes into putting a musical together. Peter shares some behind the scenes insights into what preparation for a musical looks like:

“We usually start our preparations for an AISHK musical about 6 to 8 months before rehearsals are due to begin in the new year. Once we have come to a decision on what we think the right show is, we then apply for permission for licensing the performance, order the scripts and music scores and then start to organise marketing flyers. Having read through the script, we start to work out what cuts we will make to the show and begin to consider any revisions of script that would be more suitable for our school and students. After this, the script then needs to be re-written and the music scores adapted to suit the instrumentalists we have, and the ability level of our performers.

“By the November of the year preceding the production, we usually hold auditions and this allows us to form the cast, make the final adjustments to the script and begin the job of learning the lines for the actors. This helps them to be prepared for rehearsals starting in January. Other jobs that then need organising include, finding or making costumes, sourcing or building props and to start thinking about hair, makeup, choreography, stage blocking and beginning to put the show together.

The Scarecrow (Temana Short), Dorothy Gale (Serena Walsh), The Lion (Sahil Mahbubani) and The Tinman (Tiarnan Breeze) in ‘The Wizard of Oz’ musical in 2018

“Rehearsals happen after school for the orchestra, cast and lead roles and we would usually have a music camp that helps us bring all the cast and musicians together. It is in this camp that the rehearsals and learning start to show us what the whole show might look like. We then think about other factors such as ticketing and marketing, as well as the kind of assistance we will need from the community for backstage supervision and prop management etc.

“Finally, as production week begins, we will have technical rehearsals to ensure that lighting and sound all happens in the right place, as well as ensuring props appear on stage at the right time and our actors are in the right costumes. The dress rehearsals then allow us to see the show from beginning to end so we can feel ready for the performances that follow.”

This year, ‘Chitty Chitty Bang Bang’ was chosen as the school’s major 25th Anniversary production. The script had been prepared and all the accompaniment parts finished. Unfortunately, due to the current situation in Hong Kong, auditions had to be postponed and much rehearsal time was lost. 2020 was not the year for a school musical. The good news is that the school will be moving the production of ‘Chitty Chitty Bang Bang’ to June 2021. Students will also still be working alongside FACE productions, which will mean our students get to work with professional theatre directors and choreographers. New audition dates will be announced soon and the show will go on!