Ex-Campus Superstar drops out of university here to star in US musicals

28 September 2014 / 2 years 4 weeks ago

By Gwendolyn Ng 
The Straits Times 
Friday, Sep 26, 2014

Ng Chee Yang dropped out of university here to get a music degree at Berklee College and pursue a career in theatre Former Campus Superstar winner Ng Chee Yang, 25, flew to Los Angeles for the callbacks of American singing reality TV show, The Glee Project, four years ago.

Though he did not get a spot in the contest due to work-visa issues, something good did come out of his two-week trip.

The baby-faced Ng, who won the first season of the student reality TV contest in 2006, watched a musical production for the first time, found his calling and decided to pursue a career in theatre.

He says: "I remember crying at the end of Act 1 of the musical Wicked when the protagonist Elphaba sang Defying Gravity. I heard the pop stylings of the song on Glee, but it was the first time I heard it in the context of the story."

Referring to the common perception that a stable career is not found in the arts, he adds: "I could feel Elphaba's struggles of being the outsider. I think most of us have felt that way before. I always knew what I loved, which is music. I didn't want to conform to society's norms."

Ng, who is back in town to give a free showcase at the Esplanade tonight, had auditioned for The Glee Project in the hope of working with Glee actress Lea Michele and the musical comedy series' co-creator, Ryan Murphy.

The former Hwa Chong Institution student dropped out after the first year of his business course at the Singapore Management University in 2011. He went on to pursue a music degree at the Berklee College of Music in Boston and graduated last year.

"When I broke the news to my parents, they said I could go as long as I could get money to pay my tuition fees. The fees are very expensive," says Ng, who is an only child.

His father, 56, is a businessman while his mother, 54, is an accountant. He managed to cover the US$80,000 (S$101,000) tuition fees with scholarship money from the prestigious music school and the Media Development Authority.

"It was a leap of faith. If you asked me five years ago where I would be, I would never have imagined that I would be living in the US doing theatre," says the budding actor-singer, who goes by the name Cheeyang Ng in the United States.

He cut his teeth on musical productions in the US during his time at Berklee. He has taken on bit roles in big productions such as Miss Saigon and Les Miserables, and leading roles in musicals such as Godspell and Working.

He has already secured the role of Pinocchio in Shrek The Musical, which will open in Boston next year.

Is it tough for an Asian to get musical roles in the US?

Ng, who is based in New York, says: "People are trying to cast colour-blind a lot more. Of course, it's still a predominantly white cast because it is staged in the US.

There are shows such as Miss Saigon which have many Asians in the cast. Musicals such as Working and Godspell do not have traditionally Asian roles, but they cast me because I fit the bill.

"It's hard not because one is an Asian. I feel it's because every person whom you audition against is extremely talented. Every day, there are plenty of auditions. There's a lot of supply of roles, but there's plenty of demand from fellow musical actors."

He says that he chose to stay in the US as he had already gained momentum acting in musicals from his Berklee days. Still, he does not rule out the possibility of returning home one day.

"I would love to experience the theatre scene in Singapore," says the unassuming Ng, who has not lost his Singlish accent.

For now, he is back to perform for free at his fourth showcase here. Titled A Sketch Of NYC, the hour-long show will see him belting out 12 songs from musicals, such as the classic Somewhere Over The Rainbow, from film musical Wizard Of Oz (1939), and Home, from Broadway musical The Wiz.

He says: "I never saw a musical or theatre production when I was growing up and I felt that I've missed out so much. I feel it's necessary to give the public access to this genre of music. That's why I'm doing this showcase," he says. 

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