Sharon Au is speaking English with a clipped accent: "He had tremendous a-plomb. Self-confidence. Very jaaunt-y. He was a haand-some young man."
It sounds self-conscious and not quite effortlessly polished as Kwa Geok Choo's when she was describing in a TV interview her husband Lee Kuan Yew in his youth.
But Au is determined to get the accent right when The LKY Musical debuts later this month.
Lately, she's been taking pronunciation lessons from Stephen Clark, the musical's award-winning lyricist from England. Her co-star Adrian Pang, who plays the titular role of the former prime minister, also helps. Pang is sometimes dubbed "the Meryl Streep of Singapore" by theatre critics because he can take on just about any role and put on the requisite accent. He plays Shakespeare as brilliantly as he does B-grade movies. His casting as a young Mr Lee is simply par for the course because he's one of the few top actors here who can sing.
On that note, Au admits she struggles with the singing too. "When my mother heard that I'd been cast as Mrs Lee, she fell off her chair. She asked: 'Can you even sing?'"
"But Dick Lee, the show's music composer, believes in me. He told me: 'You're not a singer, so don't focus on the vibrato or belting out. Just act the emotions and be true and sincere, and people will get that.'"
As Au sits in Cafe Melba sipping her coffee, there's no question of her star power. The beautiful 39-year-old former TV host is open and chatty, reeling you in with her self-deprecating humour, chic ensemble and killer heels.
But can she really play the late Madam Kwa, wife of the founding father of modern Singapore?
Can she hold her own in a cast of 20 where she is the only woman - as Madam Kwa did as the only female student in Raffles College?
Madam Kwa was academically brilliant, yet modest and unassuming. She was the only person to beat Mr Lee in English and economics at Raffles College - a fact that initially infuriated the young Mr Lee. They fell in love and read law in Cambridge, where Madam Kwa came out tops in her senior year. Subsequently, she built a successful law practice at Lee & Lee. She read English poetry in her spare time.
Detractors say Au lacks the intellect, poise and gravitas, that she's too "pretty" or too "dumb". But Au, who's survived the cut-throat entertainment industry long enough to now hold a senior executive position in MediaCorp, is unfazed by her critics. "When you take on a high-profile role like this, you have to take the good and bad comments," says the former CHIJ St Nicholas and Hwa Chong Junior College student.
For her, the hardest challenge has been to "not act". She says: "Madam Kwa was a very calm person. She didn't waste her words. She said what she needed to say efficiently. She had principles but she was never aggressive. She had opinions but she was never provocative.
"I, on the other hand, tend to go overboard. If I have an opinion, I can be very outspoken. Sometimes during rehearsals, Adrian would put his hand gently on my back to signal to me to calm down, calm down. I'm just too animated," she says, needlessly waving her arms to prove her point.
Directed by Steven Dexter, The LKY Musical traces 20 years of Mr Lee's early life, from the blossoming of his romance with Madam Kwa at Raffles College and Cambridge, to the years of Merger and Separation. It concludes fittingly with Singapore's Independence. Au says while the musical centres on Mr Lee, Madam Kwa is seen very much by his side, polishing his speeches, giving him advice and cheering him on.
When Au took on the role, the producers and writers of Metropolitan Productions gave her their research material to help her understand Madam Kwa. She says one of the hardest jobs for the creative team has been to condense the rich historical material into a two-hour musical.
The cast members include Tan Shou Chen as Toh Chin Chye, Dayal Gian Singh as S Rajaratnam and Edward Choy as Goh Keng Swee. Lim Chin Siong, who was once Mr Lee's friend and ally but was later seen as a nemesis, figures largely in the musical. He is played by newcomer Benjamin Chow.
Au says she's singing one solo number and two duets with Pang, along with some chorus numbers. She jokes that on Aug 13, while the show is still running, she intends to break into a "Happy Birthday" song on stage for herself as she turns 40. But right after she cracks the joke, she snaps out of it and reminds you - needlessly again - that she's kidding.
That sort of mischief was what got her into trouble while hosting the recent SEA Games opening ceremony. She had unwittingly mimicked an Indian accent and was later forced to issue an apology on social media.
She says: "It was a painful incident, an unintended joke, and I was very, very concerned about what impact it might have on The LKY Musical. I didn't want anything to tarnish this because it is such a special project, and it was foremost on my mind when I made that online apology."
"One person's fault cannot result in an entire group's demise," she says with all sincerity.
But Au, if anything, is a survivor. If she receives bad reviews for her role of Madam Kwa, she says she will still hold her head high.
She says: "Not a single day passes without me telling myself I need to do better in this role. It's the role of a lifetime. I don't take it for granted. I live in fear that they will replace me. But I really want to do this role to make my family proud. And most of all, I want to honour the memory of Mrs Lee."
The LKY Musical opens at Marina Bay Sands on July 21 and runs till Aug 16. Tickets from S$58 to S$150 available from Sistic.
This article was first published on July 3, 2015.
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