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

China Daily (Canada) - - SHANGHAI - By ZHANG KUN in Shang­hai


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.

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