Jakarta. The life of multi-talented artist Benyamin Sueb, who promoted Betawi culture, will be narrated on stage in an upcoming musical, "Babe: Muka Kampung Rejeki Kota," at Graha Bakti Budaya Djarum in Taman Ismail Marzuki in Cikini, Central Jakarta, on Sept. 15.
The musical will be performed by Teater Abnon, a theater group formed in 2009, whose members are winners and finalists of the annual "Abang None" ("Mister and Miss") pageant.
"This is the first time we are staging a musical. We prefer to call it "a theatrical concert" of Benyamin's songs in scenes," producer and co-scriptwriter Maudy Koesnaedy said at a press conference at Galeri Indonesia Kaya, Central Jakarta, on Wednesday (30/08).
Maudy, who co-starred with Benyamin in a 1990s soap opera, "Si Doel," said the story will be based mainly on Benyamin's biographical book "Muka Kampung Rejeki Kota" written by Ludhy Cahyana and Muhlis Suhaeri in 2005.
Maudy and the other scriptwriter, Teguh Yasa, interviewed Benyamin's family and Ida Royani — Benyamin's recurring onscreen romantic partner.
In the play, there will be five sketches depicting different stages of Benyamin's life — from his childhood to death in 1995.
News anchor Tommy Tjokro was chosen to play Benyamin at the top of his career. Singer and violinist Mia Ismi will play Ida.
"I was surprised and at the same time honored, because Benyamin was a phenomenal, irreplaceable artist. When someone says 'Betawi [culture],' people will [immediately] recall Benyamin," Tommy said.
Ifa Fachir, who composed the music, played a big role in choosing the cast. He said he chose those whose stage presence could resemble Benyamin.
"The main challenge [for Tommy] was to sound effortlessly melodious. Benyamin could sing beautifully even when he was joking around. In the past there was no autotune, so we know how good his voice was," Ifa said.
When Folk Meets Broadway
Benyamin was known to be a natural actor, a songwriter who could come up with a new song in just a few moments. His biography lists 356 recorded songs.
He was also known for experimenting with traditional music, pop, blues and other genres.
For the musical, a modern orchestra and gambang kromong (traditional Betawi gamelan) will share the stage playing more than 30 songs by Benyamin.
The orchestra will be conducted by Ifa, who is known to have Broadway influences in his compositions, while the gambang kromong group will be led by Imam Firmansyah.
Imam said it was Benyamin's songs that made him fall in love with gambang kromong. Benyamin revolutionized traditional music, which he had infused with contemporary musical elements.
"Maybe if Benyamin hadn't introduced gambang kromong, it would have been extinct. Once he had experimented with it, it sounded fun, light and could be enjoyed by many," Imam said.
Both admitted that there were challenges in harmonizing the tunes for the traditional-meets-contemporary play, because gambang kromong uses pentatonic scale.
"Gambang kromong's scale is limited, we had to compromise. Some of its instruments [however] work similarly to modern instruments. Kong ahyan, for example, resembles violin," Ifa said.
"It looks and tastes modern, but there will definitely be elements of lenong [Betawi comedic folk theater]," said Agus Noor, who directs the play.