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Beauty World: A Timeless Classic With A Darker Twist – TSL Interviews Playwright Michael Chiang

Cha-cha-cha-ing into our hearts


Beauty World is back, and it’s as big and bold as ever. Written by Dick Lee and Michael Chiang, the musical that hailed as Singapore’s first foray into musical theatre has returned for its seventh staging.

Chronicling the tale of Ivy Chan, a girl from the small town of Batu Pahat, Beauty World is a story of growing up and discovering one’s self. Ivy leaves Malaya for the city of Singapore, in search of her father. The only clue she has is a pendant bearing the words ‘Beauty World’. This leads her to the infamous Beauty World cabaret, where she finds a job and discovers a darker side of humanity.

This rendition of Beauty World is darker than previous ones, but it retains the witty humour and catchy tunes that made it a mainstay in Singaporeans’ hearts.

Starring Jeanette Aw as Lulu, the beautiful but vindictive cabaret star, and Malaysian actress and singer Cheryl Tan as Ivy, Beauty World is a timeless story that appeals to generation after generation of audiences.

We had the opportunity to attend a special media preview of the musical at Goodman Arts Centre, where the cast performed the opening number for the second act in full costume. That sequence alone blew me away.

The coordination of their dances, and how amazingly in-character the performers were in, really made the whole musical feel like it had come alive.

We sat down with the playwright behind Beauty World, Michael Chiang, and got to learn a little more about the musical, and how things have changed since the play’s first staging in 1988.


The Interview


TSL: This will be the seventh staging of Beauty World. Why bring the musical back now?

Michael Chiang: It’s one of those shows where people keep asking, when are you staging it again? So, I guess this time we decided, let’s do it. And Dick has never directed it, so he was very, very eager. He said: “Look, this time around, I want to direct it. It has always been my dream to direct Beauty World.” So, sure! That’s kinda how it moved on very fast.

TSL: This revival of Beauty World is grittier and darker than the original. Why did you decide to showcase Beauty World in this darker light?

Michael Chiang: Dick [Lee] and I talked about it, and he said, we know the story: this girl who comes from Batu Pahat and joins a cabaret trying to look for her father. In all the previous versions, it’s very fun and very chirpy. If you think back, it’s the 1960s, and you’re a 19-year-old girl from a small town. If you entered a cabaret, it should not be a cheerful, happy place. It should not be like Disneyland.

So Dick decided, let’s make [this staging] a bit more real this time, make it a bit more threatening, less welcoming, and maybe the girls are threatened by this sweet young thing who comes in. They’re a bit jaded, and they’ve been there working seven, ten, fifteen years. They don’t like this innocent coming in and all the customers falling for her. We didn’t change the story, we just made it slightly less welcoming.

So it’s a bit more real, like this is how it’ll probably be if you’re sweet and innocent and not even 21 yet.

TSL: Where do you think Beauty World stands in the history of Singapore theatre?

Michael Chiang: I think this is way back in the late 80s, when there was very little in terms of local writing, and a lot of people regard this as the first Singapore musical. I remember a lot of my friends saying they wanted to join theatre after watching the show. It was quite nice to think that it created such a sensation, to inspire young people to say “theatre looks like something that I want to try”.

In that sense, we probably weren’t aware of what we were doing, we just did it for the arts festival, thinking it would play once that year and never come back again – but it’s lasted for 27 years, and people are still watching it.

TSL: What is it about Beauty World that makes it so timeless, and that it keeps coming back?

Michael Chiang: It’s a simple enough story, and it’s a period piece. We’re not hampered by it being out of date, as it is in that sense already an old-fashioned story. It’s a sweet, black-and-white story about love, about finding who you are, so I think it’s quite universal. And I think Dick’s music is extremely catchy.

TSL: What is your favourite scene from Beauty World?

Michael Chiang: I like everything (laughs). But no lah, I have a few favourite scenes. I think because I’m also older now, so I get a bit more sentimental about this particular play.

So I guess the bittersweet stuff appeals to me, the fact that you’re trying to find someone. Rosemary falls for Ivy’s boyfriend, but they’re friends, so you get the sense that you’re not sure whether it’s gonna happen. That sense of almost there, but not there, and you know Ah Hock falls for Ivy, and it’s one of those ‘will they or won’t they’?

TSL: From the first time Beauty World was staged in 1988, all the way till now, how do you think the theatre scene as a whole has changed?

Michael Chiang: Very dramatically. It was very, very quiet back then, hardly anyone was writing. Even the ones who were involved in Beauty World back then spent six months rehearsing. Everybody held a day job. I was working with SPH then, so you can only attend rehearsals after 7:30. Everybody came from work. A lot of them were lawyers, a lot of the chorus members were lawyers, so you felt that everyone was there because they really wanted to be there. I think we didn’t realise how special it was.

Now you’ve got professional theatre groups, La Salle teaching theatre, NUS having Theatre Studies, I think that’s changed everything. So you can make it a profession, you can actually have proper training – I was never trained, I just wrote it for fun, like okay I can do this – so in that sense, it’s very, very different.

I look at all the writing that’s going on, all the talents who come for auditions, it’s just wow. And they’re all what I call ‘triple threats’ – can sing, can dance, can act. You just have to settle for one back then, but now, a lot of them do all three.

And they’re bilingual – that’s the most amazing part. Timothy [Wan], who is playing Ah Hock, was just in December Rains and Titoudao. It’s fantastic to have that versatility, which I think never existed. It was quite separate – you do Chinese theatre, you do English theatre, now they cross over all the time. I like that we’ve changed so much.


5 Things You Probably Didn’t Know About Beauty World


  1. The musical toured four cities in Japan in 1992. 
  2. While most people consider Beauty World to be the first Singaporean musical, it is actually the second. The first was Makan Place.
  3. An amateur production of the musical was put up at the University of Chicago in 2005
  4. In the first run of the musical,the cast had to ad-lib a conversation for five minutes due to a technical failure during a performance.
  5. In that same performance, the cast also served Kickapoo and curry puffs to the first few rows during the technical failure.

Visit the House Of Mystery And Wonder



Beauty World will be showing from 13 Nov – 12 Dec 2015.

Show Times:

Tue – Fri: 8pm
Sat: 3pm & 8pm Sun: 3pm

Ticket Prices:

Preview (Fri, 13 Nov 2015)
Standard: S$108, S$88, S$68, S$48, S$28

Tue – Thu, & Sun
Standard: S$118, S$98, S$78, S$58, S$38

Fri & Sat Standard:
S$128, S$108, S$88, S$68, S$48


Through All Sistic Channels

  • 20% Discount (Cat 1) for Priority DBS/POSB Credit & Debit Cards and PAssion Debit Card
  • 15% Discount (Cat 1) for PAssion Card members
  • 15% Discount (Cat 1) for Senior Citizens (Aged 55 years and above)
  • 15% Discount (Cat 1) for SAFRA members

Through Sistic Authorised Agents only

  • 15% Discount (Cat 1) for MAC members Card/ myAudiworld Card/ Mitsubishi Card
  • 20% Discount (Cat 1) for SMRT Staff
  • 15% Discount (Cat 1) for POPClub member
  • 15% Discount (Cat 1) for MeClub Member

For the full list of discounts available, as well as the terms and conditions, visit the Sistic website!

Venue: Victoria Theatre

Get your tickets from Sistic here!