Self-taught musical theatre artist lets his Imagi-nation soar

November 27, 2022 - 09:08
Nguyễn Hoàng Thiện (Jay Thiện Nguyễn) is a musical theatre performer who has come into his own over the last decade with performances in Việt Nam, Thailand, Indonesia, Egypt and other countries. A self-taught artist who honed his craft in local and international performing arts programmes, Thiện envisions driving social change through the arts.

Nguyễn Hoàng Thiện (Jay Thiện Nguyễn) is a musical theatre performer who has come into his own over the last decade with performances in Việt Nam, Thailand, Indonesia, Egypt and other countries. A self-taught artist who honed his craft in local and international performing arts programmes, Thiện envisions driving social change through the arts.

The International Relations graduate spoke to Việt Nam News about his passion for the stage, his experiences as the project leader for over 40 music and performing arts events at Soul Live Project and Saigon Philharmonic Orchestra, and his dreams for the future.

Nguyễn Hoàng Thiện. — Photo Courtesy of Nguyễn Hoàng Thiện

Inner Sanctum: Congratulations on your recent performances. Please share with us your thoughts and feelings about these events.

The two “Imagi-nation” concerts were created with the aim of introducing the art of musical theatre to my community in Việt Nam in the most relatable and authentic way possible, and in doing so, offer a fresh perspective on this art form. Musical theatre does not just operate on Broadway. Musicals can be performed wherever we want and can serve as a vehicle for telling stories worth sharing about our contemporary life. At the “Imagi-nation” concerts, the audience had the opportunity to hear such world-renowned musicals as Les Misérables, The Phantom of the Opera, Anastasia and A Chorus Line performed by talented local artists.

It was an amazing and impactful project for all involved. As the audience stood on their feet for our encore and wouldn't leave even after the last note was played, tears were shed on and off stage, and I realised we had created something special and powerful.

Inner Sanctum: What inspired you to switch careers from being an official to becoming a musical theatre performer?

The love for musicals, worthy stories and the impact. I fell in love with musicals because I am deeply touched by the storytelling aspect of it. Musicals have taught me to give meaning to my voice, to see my voice as a truthful and honest performer, and to value the emotional connection with the audience.

Nguyễn Hoàng Thiện and his colleagues at a performance. — Photo Courtesy of Nguyễn Hoàng Thiện

Musical theatre has also consolidated my belief in the power of the arts. Many people consider theatre to be merely a form of entertainment or recreation, but I believe it has the power to change lives by changing minds. I am inspired by how musicals portray significant and universal social themes and allow such a diversity of people to be represented, and bring together groups of people who have divergent viewpoints.

Therefore, I aim to create timely, relatable, impactful works that can start conversations, raise awareness, educate and move people. They should leave the theatre having learnt something new, inspired by something and with questions in their mind about their surroundings.

As soon as I realised my life's purpose, any other work I do became plan B or something that would benefit my main goals in the long run. It does not matter if I am working freelance as an interpreter, voice talent, or as you’ve said, a full-time office employee. There is no limit when it comes to hopes and dreams. You can be a lawyer by day and a dancer by night, a CEO who loves singing, or a diligent officer striving to become a musical theatre actor, and working hard to make it happen. When you love what you do, you will persevere and find a way to make it a part of your life. It's how you give meaning to life.

Inner Sanctum: What were the challenges you faced initially in pursuing your dream?

The first challenge came from within – the ambiguity, uncertainty and self-doubts. I often asked myself: “Am I good enough?”; “Do I have what it takes? I didn’t get a chance to study music when I was young. So there were all these ifs, buts and maybes. Also, there was no musical theatre education in Việt Nam and I could not afford an overseas education. Therefore, as much as I loved it, I never really had the opportunity to learn the art formally.

Seven years after I realised there’s nothing else I can see myself doing other than musical theatre, I decided that I am done waiting for someone else to bring it to Việt Nam and for me to take part in it. I would do it myself. I gave up my full-time job, made peace with my insecurity and started my journey.

Inner Sanctum: How do you see the future of musicals in Việt Nam?

In recent years, I have witnessed growing interest in the creative industry here. More and more artists are committed to making works that matter, and more parents are sending their children to art schools. The idea of using music and dance to tell stories has also become more popular thanks to its influence and appearance in pop culture. Many Vietnamese artists are incorporating it in their works. Less people are asking “Why are they singing a lot?” during a musical.

Our next generation of performing arts students have become aware of how musical theatre can challenge and shape them as well-rounded artists.

All of this leads me to believe that Việt Nam's art scene and audience are ready for a breath of fresh air, and our artists are ready to enter a new area of storytelling.

There will be more and more quality performances that really impact and touch people. There will be original plays and musicals in Vietnamese and English. There will be a community that values the arts and is willing to pay for it. There will be fulfilled artists who can live with their passion. Call me crazy, but a man can dream!

Inner Sanctum: What are the main development challenges that musical theatre faces in Việt Nam?

Budget and collaboration. Most of the time, the production costs for a musical production cannot be fully covered by ticket sales, so producers and organisers rely heavily on sponsors, donors, and brands for financial support. It is also challenging to find sponsors who understand the value of this art form over more trendy or easier-to-consume forms of entertainment.

Nguyễn Hoàng Thiện at a musical theatre performance in the US. — Photo courtesy of Nguyễn Hoàng Thiện

Secondly, musical theatre is one of the art forms that require a huge level of collaboration from a lot of departments. Having the right people who care about what they do is crucial to the success of any production.

It is not just artists on stage who are passionate about their art and craft, but also those who deal with the lighting, the sound, the costumes, the production, etc.

Finding people who are talented and driven to do what they love what they do and be willing to work as a team… this can be very challenging.

Last but not least, I think it is worth noting that navigating through naysayers, persevering, and having faith and strength in what you do can by itself be a challenging process.

Inner Sanctum: What do you think can be done to raise the standard of musicals in Việt Nam?

For now, more shows are scheduled for me in the US, and I will be an MA in Musical Theater Studies by the end of this year.

After that, I will return to Việt Nam to start my journey of publicizing musical theatre here. I plan to curate, implement and support a vibrant selection of programmes that contribute to the development of theatre in Việt Nam. I also wish to establish a platform of education and creativity for young people in HCM City to hone their talents and skills in the performing arts, perform and learn from talented local and international artists.

I don’t want to jinx things by getting into the details, so I’ll repeat the last thing I said in our Imagi-Nation concert: “I want to create and be a part of a community of those who dare to imagine and are unafraid to make their dreams a reality.”

2023 is looking very exciting for me. VNS