HEAR YE, HEAR YE!
Chinese audiences have yet to truly embrace locally produced musicals, but things are nevertheless looking up for local production houses, thanks to their international peers and the fortuitous pace of urbanization
While foreign musicals have enjoyed immense success in major Chinese cities such as Beijing and Shanghai, the state of China’s own musical theater industry is, in stark contrast, stuck in a primitive state, according to Richard Fei, vice manager of Shanghai Culture Square.
He attributed this to the fact that the notion of visiting the theater is still considered a luxury to many people in China. Furthermore, he noted that arts and culture have yet to become a priority among the vast majority of Chinese people, with most of them preferring to spend on matters such as education, healthcare and owning a piece of real estate.
According to Fei, no more than 5 percent of Chinese productions achieve financial success. As a result, Shanghai Culture Square and other production companies have naturally been cautious and even reluctant at times to produce their own musical shows. This in turn results in theater workers in China lacking vital experience in producing quality content.
Fei said that one of the main problems is the fact that the composer has never been at the core of the creative process for a made-inChina musical.
“It is actually the music, rather than the story, that is at the very center of a musical. Musicians need to take the lead in the production of a musical. They must be afforded greater creative freedom,” said Fei.
But China’s musical theater scene is not yet doomed. Help has arrived, albeit from a rather unlikely source.
While urbanization has often been blamed for the demise of culture and tradition, China’s musical theater scene might actually stand to benefit from it. Fei noted that the need to generate new and original content is now greater than ever, seeing as to how a plethora of performances are needed to fill the countless new theaters that are sprouting as part of societal progress in major cities across China.
“A lot of the classical pieces are no longer suitable for today’s Chinese market. We now need to provide the audience with quality modern content,” said Fei.
He believes that production houses in China will naturally rise to the challenge as theater professionals all acknowledge that a continued dearth in local content will render China’s theater industry obsolete even before audiences can cultivate the habit of attending such performances.
Fei said that China’s theater industry is currently trying to address the problem by following the methods used in European countries and Asian ones such as Japan and South Korea where the musical theater scenes are well-established.
The plan is to first establish an audience base by importing quality foreign productions that can draw the crowds. After that has been accomplished, local production houses can gradually roll out their own original content.
To date, Shanghai Culture Square has brought in musicals from several European countries. Apart from the blockbuster shows from New York’s Broadway and London’s West End, the theater has also showcased performances from France, Austria and Germany.
Shanghai Culture Square has at least one major production every year during the winter season. Some of the previous productions include The Phantom of the Opera, Mamma Mia, Romeo and Juliet as well as Notre Dame. This December, Shanghai Culture Square will be showing the acclaimed musical Mozart, which will be only the second German musical ever presented in China, following Elisabeth in 2015.
Created by Michael Kunze and Sylvester Levay, Mozart premiered in 1999 and has since been viewed by 1.9 million people in seven countries. The musical combines rock and classical music to tell the life struggles of music prodigy Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.
VBW International, the producer of the musical, is a highly reputable company that runs three theaters in Vienna, two of which are dedicated to musical performances. The company first started producing German renditions of Broadway musicals in the 1960s, and Elisabeth was the first original musical it produced. Encouraged by the positive response from Chinese audiences, VBW decided to bring Mozart to Shanghai this year.
The move to emulate their more seasoned counterparts has apparently worked. Fei said that the success of Western musicals in China has resulted in an influx of investments in the local theater scene and dozens of largescale original Chinese musicals have been created as a result.
One such musical is the upcoming Chinese production of the Disney blockbuster The Lion King, which will be shown at the Walt Disney Grand Theater, in conjunction with the opening of Shanghai’s Disneyland on June 16. The Chinese edition will be the 24th global production and the ninth language the musical is produced in. The original musical was presented 100 times at the Shanghai Grand Theater 10 years ago and had set a box office record.
The new Walt Disney Grand Theater has 1,200 seats and the show will take place every night from Tuesday through Sunday, with the addition of a matinee during the weekend.
“The adapted script and language will enhance the theatrical experience for Chinese guests, allowing them to connect with the dialogue and gain a deeper understanding of the show’s themes and messages,” said Anthony Lyn, the associate director of the musical.
Disney has not revealed how long it will show the Chinese production of The Lion King. Some of the other popular productions of the company are Tarzan, The Little Mermaid and Frozen.
Another indication of progress in the local musical theater scene can be seen at the musical development seminar that has been held annually by Shanghai Culture Square
This year, the seminar — it is a part of the annual Shanghai Spring International Music Festival — took place at Ruijin Hotel on April 23 and surrounding the conference hall were posters of many new Chinese musicals, including Chinese adaptations of Avenue Q and Man of La Mancha, as well as The Jay Chow Project, the first jukebox musical in China featuring songs by the iconic singer-songwriter from Taiwan.
Produced by Marc Routh and Simone Genatt, and directed by John Rando, The Jay Chow Project will be a musical aimed at the young Chinese audiences familiar with the massively popular pop icon. The production is scheduled to premiere during the Christmas season this year and it will embark on tours across China and Asia for two years. Routh, who is the president of Broadway Asia Ltd, believes that the musical can be a game-changer for the China market.
Besides the need to consistently produce quality local content, Fei also emphasized on the need for China’s theater scene to keep up with the current trends. He noted that the use of virtual reality technology is growing and that the demands from audiences in this digital age will constantly change.
“Virtual reality technology has made online shopping more convenient than ever and robots are beginning to acquire the abilities to think. But this is just the beginning," he said.
“Today, the experience of watching shows like Les Miserable and The Phantom of the Opera is nothing compared to what it was 30 years ago. Looking ahead, the theater industry will need to evolve to embrace the future and provide new viewing experiences.”
The popularity of foreign productions has resulted in an influx of investments in China's theater scene, which has in turn helped local production houses to generate their own original content.
The Mozart musical will be shown at Shanghai Cultural Square this December.