On the Musical Characteristics of The Impossible Trial, a Cantonese Musical
30.11.2023 | theatre

The Cantonese musical, The Impossible Trial, had its genesis as early as in 2014. After the preview performance in 2019 and subsequent artistic revisions, the long-awaited premiere took place took place in September 2022, marking a span of eight years since the commencement of the preparation work. The Impossible Trial’s music is so refined and innovative that it is at least comparable to, if not surpassing, its Western counterparts. This article aims at discussing the musical characteristics of The Impossible Trial, focusing on three key aspects, namely cultural hybridity, stylistic hybridity and structural coherence.

Cultural hybridity: modern Western musical vs court scenes in period drama set in Imperial China

The musical is a modern Western theatrical genre, while the story of The Impossible Trial is set in the Qing dynasty, unfolding within the backdrop of Imperial China. Obviously, the genre and the subject matter belong to different eras, cultures and geographical regions. Yet the three important court scenes (Court!, The Appeal and The Last Trial) feel perfectly smooth and natural, as if the contradictions between the genre and the subject matter do not exist. Naturally, there are numerous elements that contribute to the overall result of a musical, such as music, lyrics, costumes, set, lighting and props. Each aspect plays a significant role. So, how does the composer manage to resolve, or even capitalise on, the inherent contradictions within the work, so that the final outcome feels smooth, natural and effective?

The first 40 seconds: establishing the “time” and “place”

The answer lies in the three characteristics of the music: namely cultural hybridity, stylistic hybridity and structural coherence. Let’s take the very opening of the first number of the show (Court!) as an example. This extensive number is exceptionally rich in content, encompassing a wide range of styles and fulfilling various dramatic purposes. The music itself is already a rarity in the realm of musical theatre. Right from the start, listeners would find themselves transported to Imperial China: Court! begins with a drum stroke, followed by a Cantonese poem recited by the storyteller, which, in English, goes as follows: “Some advocates are evil, twisting facts in court. Tales of injustice abound. Here’s a story of a great advocate!” This poem functions like the “entrance poem” in a Chinese opera (recited when a character enters the stage for the first time) or in a traditional Chinese crosstalk or storytelling shows (as the opening of the show). The drum strokes between the lines imitate the way percussion instruments are played in Chinese opera. Yet the last line is followed by accelerating drum strokes that sound more Western than Chinese. Then the plaintiff cries “Redress the injustice!” followed by a melismatic phrase. Within the first 40 seconds, through the use of drum strokes, a poem and melisma, the composer successfully creates a vivid depiction of both time (ancient times) and place (a court in Imperial China). Also, the composer incorporates Cantonese operatic elements, such as storytelling, and combines them with Western elements, highlighting the cultural hybridity present in the work.  

Style shifts as a means to serve the narrative

The composer then chooses the piccolo, a Western instrument, to play a recurring motif, or short melodic segment, that represents the proud hero, Fong Tong Geng. Despite the instrument being Western, the melody itself is written in the pentatonic scale (which is closely associated with Chinese music) and decorated by figures frequently heard in Chinese music – as a result, the piccolo here sounds more like the dizi, or the Chinese flute. The accompanying percussion instruments are mostly Chinese by origin, including the prominent paigu, and supported by hit-hat and bass drum.

The chorus then provides the audience with information about the plaintiff and the accused, accompanied by the gradual introduction of more Western instruments (first the electric guitar, then the trombone and the drum set) and the musical style becomes more and more Western – although it is also the point when the hitherto silent pipa enters for the first time, with a pentatonic phrase. The storyteller, now assuming the role of the magistrate, adopts a half-speaking, half-singing approach, employing rhythmic chanting, rhyming, and instrumental accompaniment to inform the audience about the court case. The music takes on a predominately Western style. When the righteous lawyer Ho Tam Yu is about to enter, the name “Ho Tam Yu” is mentioned in the sung text and the violin presents a motif – it proves to be the motif representing Ho as it recurs at various points in the drama later. Again, although a Western instrument is used, the extensive use of glissandi here indicates that it is imitating the erhu, a Chinese stringed instrument. It is obvious that these style shifts are carefully designed to serve the narrative in an imperceptible way, so that the shifts sound smooth, logical and convincing.

Self-introductory monologues and word-painting

Ho Tam Yu’s entrance is another prominent example of cultural hybridity. The trial does not start immediately afterwards. Instead, Ho sings “Just like the changing seasons, we examine the sequence of events / We’ll question the murderer, determining if he tells the truth / I’m the arbiter of truth and falsehood / The perpetrator must be fearful now, knowing there’s no way out”. These lines, interestingly, are not directly related to the plot. This is atypical of Western musicals, where the protagonists are introduced through self-contained songs called the “I Am Song”. Likewise, their desires are often conveyed through another type of self-contained songs known as the “I Want Song”. Here, however, the way Ho introduces himself to the audience is modelled on the “self-introductory monologue”, a characteristic feature of Cantonese opera, which can be sung or spoken. When the witness Cheung Chin testifies, both the text and the rhythm of the vocal part bear a striking resemblance to the rhymed utterances (bai lan) commonly used in Cantonese opera, yet the addition of a bass line melody and a descant countermelody, the music becomes contrapuntal, which is a distinctive feature of Western music. Another ingenious artistic choice is Cheung Chin’s line “I was near the Ma Mansion at midnight (third watch)” coinciding with three cymbal strikes. This reminds us of the “word-painting” technique often found in Western vocal music, a compositional technique which can be dated back to the Renaissance.

Folk song, nanyin, rhymed utterance and Hong Kong culture in the 1970s and 1980s

The opening number of Act 2, The Appeal, and The Last Trial, the climactic song of the work, also adopt the same approach, although they differ in the specific Chinese elements employed. Additionally, certain elements of Hong Kong culture in the 1970–1980s are discernible as well. For example, The Appeal opens with a folk song-like phrase, which is then followed by the officials chanting “Court! By royal decree!”. These elements align closely with the traditional practices found in Chinese theatre. The words “by royal decree” are chanted in “theatrical Mandarin,” which is a variant of Guilin Mandarin, frequently used on stage. Then the crowd sings a vocalised version of a traditional tune called De Sheng Ling (literally, “a short song of triumph”), vocally imitating the suona, a Chinese double reed instrument. In fact, the tune is often performed on the suona, and it gained popularity after featured used in the television series Chinese Folklore (Min Jian Zhuan Qi), which was broadcast between 1974 and 1977. Halfway through The Impossible Trial, elements from the nanyin and rhymed utterances are employed. The rhymed utterances “Under the bright moon, there’s a fox in the Wu household” are adapted from the opening credits of a suspense television series titled Discovery Bay (Fa Xian Wan), which aired in 1980. These Cantonese operatic elements not only serve to bridge the substantial gap between the genre of the modern musical and the story set in Imperial China, but also demonstrate that court scenes can be presented in a remarkably musical manner.

Dialogue-based court scenes in Western musicals

Just as the title The Impossible Trial suggests, court trials serve as the key scenes in the work. However, court scenes typically entail extensive argument and narration: involving information about the plaintiff and the accused, case presentations, testimonies and defenses. Therefore, it is reasonable to expect that such scenes would predominantly rely on dialogue. To facilitate this discussion on court scenes, it would be beneficial to explore how court scenes are traditionally presented in Western musicals. The most renowned court scenes are probably those found in the American musical Legally Blonde. Also, court scenes are more frequently found in musicals in the German-speaking countries, such as Rebecca, Egon Schiele and Matterhorn. However, in these works, the court scenes are predominantly dialogue-based. Whether it is the presentation of the case or argument between the prosecution and the defense, everything is presented by dialogue, where songs, reciting and underscoring are absent. It is true that there is a song in the first court scene in Legally Blonde (There! Right! There! (Gay or European?)), yet the song focuses on an argument between the lawyers of the defense regarding the sexual orientation of the witness. In Rebecca, the main character Maxim stands trial for murdering his first wife. The statements made by the parties involved and the judge are all presented in dialogue, only the observers’ comments are sung.

Court scenes in The Impossible Trial: dialogues, songs and recitations

However, the three court scenes in The Impossible Trial are predominantly presented in songs or half-songs. Even when dialogues are used, they are usually accompanied by underscoring. For instance, in the 16-minute-long Court!, the band is either accompanying for various types of songs/half-songs or underscoring for dialogues. The use of musical performance media is diverse and vibrant.

To illustrate, the magistrate delivers the case details through half-singing, while crowd sings in chorus (“Woman Lai accuses Ma Foo of murder…”). Then Ma Foo presents his testimony through song, and the crowd again responds in chorus (“Ma Foo: Let me tell you; Chorus: Tell!”). This is followed by the testimony of the night watcher, Cheung Chin, who sings in rhythmic verses or half-song (“I was near the Ma Mansion at midnight…”). Then the crowd responds in chorus, and then Cheung Chin shifts to song (“Evil Ma Foo wanted Li Si dead …”) and the crowd continues to respond in chorus. Then a dialogue ensues, showing that Ma Foo is going to lose the case.

Cantonese opera, television music and film music in Hong Kong

Creating natural and seamless transitions between dialogues and songs is one of the prime concerns for composers in musical theatre. One commonly used structure to achieve this is as follows: dialogue (without music) – dialogue with underscoring – verse (speech-like melody) – chorus (tuneful melody). In Court!, however, listeners and audience members will notice a difference approach. While the text is sometimes sung, half-sung, or spoken, the music continues throughout the entire number. Remarkably, the transitions between singing, half-singing and speaking are always smooth and natural.

This naturalness and smoothness are closely related to the employment of Cantonese operatic elements in the work. In Cantonese operas, singing and speaking are often intermingled, and there is a great variety of spoken utterances, including “accompanied utterance” (lang li bai), “poetic utterance” (shi bai) and “rhymed utterance” (bai lan). As the use of Cantonese operatic elements is established right from the very beginning of Court!, the advantage of intermingling spoken and sung utterances in Cantonese operas can be further utilised, creating an effect that has not been fully explored in European and American musical classics.

In addition, it is worth mentioning that in the aforementioned songs, Chinese and Western musical characteristics, including melody, rhythm, harmony and orchestration, are often juxtaposed or combined. There are instances where Chinese and Western styles are employed simultaneously, such as pentatonic melodies being supported by Western harmonies, or Chinese-style melodies being played by Western instruments. Furthermore, the same melody may be performed by Western instruments in one number but by Chinese instruments in another. Yet the effect is consistently convincing, whether in the more Cantonese operatic sections, or in the more Western-influenced sections.

One reason for the adaptability of this compositional approach is its prevalence in dramatic music in Hong Kong, including Cantonese operas and music for television and film. From the mid-20th century onwards, Cantonese opera troupes, most notably the troupe of Sit Kok-sin, began incorporating Western instruments such as the violin, saxophone and cello into their ensembles. In the 1970s, television costume dramas set in ancient China gained immense popularity. The theme songs, interludes, and soundtracks of these dramas often featured a fusion of Chinese and Western styles in various ways. Examples include the use of Chinese-style melodies supported by Western harmonies and played by a combination of Chinese and Western instruments (for example, the theme song of the 1982 television series Demi-Gods and Semi-Devils, sung by Michael Kwan Ching-kit and Susanna Kwan Kuk-ying) or Chinese style melodies with Western harmonies played solely by Western instruments (for example, the theme song of the television series The Heaven Sword and Dragon Saber dated 1978, sung by Adam Cheng Siu-chau). It is safe to say that local audiences in Hong Kong are familiar with and accustomed to such stylistic fusion in music, particularly in dramatic contexts. Therefore, extensively adopting stylistic fusion in a musical set in the Qing dynasty would be considered reasonable.  

Regional styles in musicals

In fact, since the 19th century, Western musical theatre has been open to incorporating national or regional styles that are suitable for the subject, plot or text of a specific song. While these “national/regional” styles may be too general to be truly idiomatic, they can still be seen as a form of stylistic fusion. For example, Spanish characteristics can be found in the opera Carmen written by 19th century French composer Bizet, which is set in Spain. This trend continues into 20th century in musicals. Jewish elements are employed in the musical The Fiddler on the Roof, as the story revolves around Jewish life in rural Russia. Stylistic elements of Cambodian music and dance are incorporated into the musical The King and I to evoke an Oriental flavor, as the story takes place in Siam (Thailand). Therefore, adopting Cantonese operatic or Chinese musical elements to suit the subject and plot is in line with the conventions of Western musicals.

Stylistic hybridity: juxtaposition of various classical and contemporary musical styles

The musical, as a genre, embraces stylistic hybridity: musical numbers written in different styles often co-exist in a single work. The “musical” as we know today was called “musical comedy” in the early 20th century and was influenced by various variety show type predecessors, like the vaudeville and the burlesque, which emphasises “diversity”. Consequently, later “musicals” also take on this idea and tend to put numbers written in distinctively different styles, ranging from classical, jazz to pop and rock, in the same work.

A notable example is the West End musical classic, Phantom of the Opera, which showcases a blend of 19th century Romanticism (most clearly shown in the vocal waltz Prima Donna), rock-opera fusion (Phantom of the Opera), and typical pop ballads (All I Ask of You), among others.

Nursery rhyme, waltz, Broadway style and pop ballad

The Impossible Trial is no exception – sometimes different musical styles may even co-exist in a single number. In addition of Cantonese operatic style, several other musical styles are also present in the work. For example, a nursery rhyme (“A rat hovers by the stove…”) and a waltz written in the fashion of 19th century Romanticism (“Evildoers go about their evil ways…”) can be heard in Payback Time. In The Debt, Grim Reaper enters with the waltz tune previously heard in Payback Time (“At this point, my anger has vanished…”). This is immediately followed by a lush passage that adopts the Broadway style reminiscent of Ziegfeld Follies from the 1920s (“I’m not a benevolent creature, don’t you know?”).
There are also a number of pop ballads, like Light Snow, The Cliff, Don’t Go Softhearted on Me, Time to Let Go and Listen. Time to Let Go is particularly noteworthy as it is also deeply influenced by Western classical style at the same time: counterpoint is adopted to symbolise the near-telepathic connections between Ah Sai, Yeung Sau Sau and Fong Tong Geng. (“We’ve traversed the tragic world / In the sky are crows we see) This age-old technique enables the presentation of two or more melodies simultaneously to create a beautiful tapestry of sound. However, using counterpoint to symbolise telepathy is quite unusual in musicals, as this technique is usually employed to convey confrontation or inquiry (as seen in songs like Devil Take the Hindmost, The Phantom Confronts Christine in Love Never Dies), or to depict the hidden and often selfish thoughts of various characters (as in One Day More in Les Misérables).

Buddhist music, patter song, rock and pop folk song

Elements of Buddhist music can be found in two songs, namely The World in a Grain of Rice and Seeking a Divine Answer. The former begins with monks chanting the Heart Sutra in Sanskrit to a pentatonic melody, accompanied by the resonating sound of bells, evoking a serene atmosphere typical of a Buddhist temple. The melody of Seeking a Divine Answer carries traits of nanyin, but the inclusion of tubular bells and singing bowls in the accompaniment, along with the chorus humming the syllable “ohm”, creates an exceptionally Buddhist ambience. The syllable “ohm” bears resemblance to the first character of the Six-Character Great Bright Mantra “Om Mani Padme Hum.” All these artistic choices align with the characterisation of Ho Tam Yu and his unfortunate encounters.

Apart from dramatic numbers and introspective songs, most musicals also include moments of comedy and liveliness, often through the use of “patter songs”. In The Impossible Trial, comedy is present in songs such as Top of the World (2022 premiere version), It’s All Your Fault and Mr. Justice Upholder. Top of the World features a pentatonic melody and the pipa, with a subtle hint of Hawaiian style. Mr. Justice Upholder, on the other hand, is cheerful and light-hearted. In It’s All Your Fault, although Ah Sai and Fong are blaming each other in the beginning, the music maintains a light-hearted tone, while the sense of comedy is accentuated by brass glissandi. The musical also incorporates other styles such as rock (Epiphany) and pop folk songs (Sometimes), which are also distinctly noticeable.

With its music encompassing Cantonese opera, nursery rhyme, waltz, classical, Broadway style in the 1920s, ballad, rock, pop folk song and Buddhist music, The Impossible Trial can be considered a convincing embodiment of stylistic hybridity inherent in the genre.

Structural coherence: recurring motifs and structural interrelation between specific numbers

Another musical characteristic of The Impossible Trial is the subtle melodic correspondence between musical numbers, which contributes to a sense of structural coherence. This is primarily achieved through two devices: the recurrence of motifs and the structural interrelation between specific numbers. The recurrence and transformation of motifs within a piece was a frequently used technique in the 19th century, employed by composers as renowned as Tchaikovsky, Liszt, Berlioz and Wagner. While these composers gave different names to the technique, the underlying concept remained the same.

Wagner’s use of leitmotifs is particularly notable in its sophistication. His leitmotifs can represent characters, objects, moods, or even hint at a character’s psychological state or plot development. They recur throughout the work to create a sense of coherence. This technique of recurring motif is frequently used in both musicals and film music, as seen in the extensive use of leitmotifs in The Lord of the Rings trilogy.

However, The Impossible Trial stands out with a significantly higher number of leitmotifs compared to most musicals. Typically, musicals use fewer than ten leitmotifs (e.g. Phantom of the Opera has eight). But The Impossible Trial boasts an impressive number of over 20 leitmotifs. Court! alone features ten leitmotifs, some of which may recur in later songs, appearing in the melody, the accompaniment, or the underscore (background music played during dialogue or action).

For example, the melodic fragment associated with Ah Sai’s words “It was dark, how could he see?” recurs in several numbers, including Payback Time, The Appeal and The Last Trial. Similarly, the strutting melody sung by Fong Tong Geng when he first enters (“Who can foretell any outcome in court?”), reappears in A Lucky Star Shines on Me, It’s All Your Fault, Don’t Go Softhearted on Me, Tao Te Ching and The Last Trial.

The recurrence of melodic materials in The Impossible Trial extends beyond short fragments, as the melody of an entire stanza can also reappear, establishing even closer structural interrelation between specific numbers. The composer avoids the commonly used “reprise”, which is a self-contained song based on a previously heard melody, but with altered text and may even be sung by a different character. Instead, previously introduced materials are incorporated into a song that is otherwise completely new, facilitating structural coherence while responding to the dramatic situation.

An excellent example of this approach can be found in the three significant ballads: Light Snow, Don’t Go Softhearted on Me and Listen. These songs, positioned in the middle of Act 1, the second half of Act 2 and the end of Act 2, are closely connected musically. Each of these songs include lines for Yeung Sau Sau, some of them sung to a tune associated with Yeung Sau Sau. The hummed passage in the beginning of Light Snow and the main melody (“Just like snowflakes falling from the sky”) reappear in Don’t Go Softhearted on Me (“Mountains and rivers have twists and turns”) and Listen (“As I close my eyes”), creating an impression that the latter two songs have evolved from Light Snow.

Despite their similarities, each of the three songs is musically distinctive: Light Snow evokes a distant atmosphere, with refined and concise instrumentation. Don’t Go Softhearted on Me starts with Fong Tong Geng, exuding a meditative serenity that transitions into liveliness when Yeung Sau Sau enters. Listen, set against a backdrop of loneliness and desolation, employs chorus and rich orchestration, resulting in the most opulent soundscape among the three songs.

Even the numbers that bear resemblance to each other the most, namely, Court! and The Last Trial, which make up the first and the last court scenes, do not form a song-and-reprise pair. Not only do the texts differ, but also the music itself to a large extent. While the beginnings of the two numbers share the same melody, The Last Trial introduces numerous new melodic materials. These include the duet between Fong Tong Geng and Ah Sai (“We’ll beat up the bully Fook Duen Hong“), the solo of the arrogant Fook Chuen (“I’ll win. I’ve set everything up”), and the confrontation between Fong and the villainous Fook Duen Hong during the trial. Therefore, although Court! and The Last Trial start with the same tune, The Last Trial is not a reprise of Court!; instead, it dynamically responds to the plot and contributes to the buildup of a monumental dramatic climax.


Due to the inherent contradictions between form and content, it is indeed true that the subject matter of The Impossible Trial presents a significant challenge for musical theatre. While original musicals set in ancient China are not uncommon in Hong Kong (such as 1894 Hong Kong Plague, Matteo Ricci and the English musical The Golden Lotus), the inclusion of extensive court scenes is a rarity. Moreover, sung-through court scenes are so uncommon that they are virtually unheard of among the classics produced in musical theatre capitals such as Broadway, West End or Vienna.
For fans of The Impossible Trial, immersing themselves in the cultural and stylistic fusion, observing the subtle interrelations between musical numbers, and marveling at the ingenious artistic choices are all integral components of the invaluable journey experienced when indulging in the soundtrack or attending a live performance. Not only do these elements contribute to the distinctive nature of the work, they also enhance the overall experience, making it truly memorable.


Dr Eos Cheng

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