S-21 Love Letters Inspire Western Musical About Cambodia

Composer Sarah O’Brien picked up a British newspaper ten years ago while in a Yorkshire village and read printed love letters sent between S-21 inmates. Last week scenes from a musical inspired by these were performed at Chaktomuk Theater in Phnom Penh.

“It is the first performance in front of an audience and it happens to be in Cambodia, which is a dream come true after ten years working on it,” Ms O’Brien said during final rehearsals for the Californian production.

Ms O’Brien said that she found the letters very poignant and was struck by quotations from Shakespeare that exposed the lovers’ education and led to their death. “We are not trying to make documentary, but a theatrical performance by Westerners. So we are hoping we trod the right line,” she said.

The story follows journalists in the 1990s researching about a forbidden love affair during the Khmer Rouge era with flashbacks to then as well as celebrations of surviving Angkor Wat architecture.

The music has a symphonic score and Broadway-style musical theater is new to Cambodia, Ms O’Brien said. The serious subject matter is unusual for the genre, which is normally light-hearted, she added.

“We want people to feel good, but musicals reach so many people and have a way of touching people you don’t necessarily get from documentary interviews.”

Actress Amara Chhin-Lawrence said that she feels a certain responsibility playing the role of a woman who was actually tortured at Toul Sleng then killed at Choeng Ek. “It is a very delicate subject so it is quite scary,” Ms Chhin-Lawrence said, noting that the process is intense and requires a lot of support.

From a personal perspective Ms Chhin-Lawrence said she acts the story of her own family’s suffering under the Khmer Rouge. She also considers herself a secondary victim growing up in a refugee camp before moving to America. “I have a lot of energy I can utilize more or less authentically from the experiences my parents had.”

The crew planned to shoot scenes on location at Toul Sleng but some cast members decided that this felt inappropriate. “It is hard to choose to enter that space without feeling like intruding on emotional space,” Ms Chhin-Lawrence said.


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