Shanghai Disney works a lit­tle magic with its Chi­nese per­form­ers

▶ At its Shanghai park, it’s push­ing a novel art form: Mu­si­cal the­ater ▶ It’s “do­ing some­thing in China that has never been done be­fore”

Bloomberg Businessweek (North America) - - Contents -

When Niu Tian­long grad­u­ated from the Shanghai Uni­ver­sity of Sport last year, the 22-year- old planned to pur­sue his pas­sion for a full- con­tact Chi­nese mar­tial art known as wushu. Then Walt Disney came call­ing. Nowa­days he’s lac­ing up his knee­high boots, don­ning pan­taloons and a blue ban­danna, and re­hears­ing a sword-fight­ing scene to pre­pare for the June 16 open­ing of the $5.5 bil­lion Shanghai Disney Re­sort theme park.

“The phys­i­cal part is not tough at all com­pared to wushu, but the per­for­mance, the ex­pres­sions on my face and act­ing—that’s very chal­leng­ing,” says Niu, who has been hired to play a swash­buck­ler and en­ter­tain park vis­i­tors be­tween at­trac­tions.

In Disney’s ef­fort to ex­pand its sig­na­ture char­ac­ter-based en­ter­tain­ment to China, fig­ur­ing out mil­lions of small

de­tails such as the Man­darin trans­la­tion for hakuna matata have been the least of its wor­ries. In­stead, man­ag­ing an epic, year­long cast­ing call for the 1,000 per­form­ers for mar­quee mu­si­cals such as The Lion King and all man­ner of other acts that make the Magic King­dom such a pow­er­ful draw has proved more chal­leng­ing.

Per­for­mance arts train­ing on the main­land tends to­ward clas­si­cal Chi­nese forms in ma­jor ur­ban ar­eas, and is pretty much nonex­is­tent ev­ery­where else. In the U.S., there’s a sur­plus of peo­ple who can act, sing, dance, or do all three. In China, the rel­a­tively few per­form­ers who’ve stud­ied West­ern mu­si­cal forms are more likely to have stud­ied op­er­atic bel canto pieces than belt-it-out Broad­way tunes.

That’s forced Disney to im­pro­vise. Years ago, when Shanghai Disney was in the con­cept phase, the com­pany started build­ing its own tal­ent de­vel­op­ment net­work from scratch by part­ner­ing with 30 arts in­sti­tutes around the coun­try. “Disney is do­ing some­thing in China that has never been done be­fore,” says Uni­ver­sity of Vir­ginia Dar­den School of Busi­ness pro­fes­sor El­liott Weiss, who has writ­ten a case study on Shanghai Disney. “The ques­tion is when the park can be prof­itable, given the ad­di­tional in­vest­ment they have had to make find­ing and train­ing tal­ent.”

Disney has long cul­ti­vated its brand with Chi­nese mil­len­ni­als, many of whom first en­coun­tered Mickey Mouse only in 1986, when the state-con­trolled China Cen­tral Tele­vi­sion net­work started to broad­cast Disney an­i­ma­tion. In 2008 the com­pany launched its Disney English-lan­guage train­ing schools in China, start­ing in Shanghai. Disney now has 28 learn­ing cen­ters in seven cities across China that teach kids rang­ing from age 2 to 12, with class ma­te­ri­als fea­tur­ing Disney char­ac­ters such as Buzz Lightyear and Nemo. It’s also search­ing for tal­ent through an out­reach pro­gram with drama and dance pro­grams, such as the one at Shanghai Nor­mal Uni­ver­sity, where it dis­cov­ered Yu Liang, 24, who landed the fe­male lead role in a Shanghai Dis­ney­land pro­duc­tion based on the Pi­rates of the Caribbean char­ac­ter Jack Spar­row.

When Li Weil­ing, 28, got a call­back from Disney af­ter a year of au­di­tion­ing, it was a huge ca­reer break. The grad­u­ate of the pres­ti­gious Shanghai Con­ser­va­tory of Mu­sic had been teach­ing full time af­ter fin­ish­ing a two-year run in 2014 as Silibub in a Chi­nese-lan­guage pro­duc­tion of Cats. “In my sec­ond year of uni­ver­sity, my teacher gave me Nala’s song, Shad­ow­land, to sing,” she says. “I didn’t know about this mu­si­cal then. Now I am try­ing to cope with the pres­sure of be­ing China’s first Nala.”

With less than a month to go be­fore the Shanghai Disney open­ing, Chi­nese per­form­ers are re­hears­ing with di­rec­tors and train­ers flown in from the U. S. Af­ter Disney gets its troupe ready for prime time, the next chal­lenge may be keep­ing them.

Start­ing next year, Shanghai Disney will face greater com­pe­ti­tion. Dream­works An­i­ma­tion has a $2.4 bil­lion Dream­cen­ter park sched­uled for 2017 in Shanghai, while China’s Haichang Ocean Park Hold­ings will open China’s largest marine park there next year. And Six Flags En­ter­tain­ment will open a park on the main­land, its first out­side North Amer­ica, in 2019. In­dus­try con­sul­tant Ae­com fore­casts that 59 more theme parks will open in China by 2020, serv­ing an es­ti­mated 220 mil­lion park­go­ers an­nu­ally. That’s roughly the cur­rent size of the en­tire U.S. mar­ket. “Af­ter it has in­vested in train­ing,” says Dar­den’s Weiss, Disney “might

lose the tal­ent to com­peti­tors.” Niu, the mar­tial arts stu­dent turned pi­rate, says he’s en­joy­ing his crash course in show busi­ness, though his proud par­ents back in He­nan prov­ince are a lit­tle puz­zled by the ca­reer change. “In the vil­lage, we know char­ac­ters like Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, but you don’t re­ally know that they be­long to a com­pany called Disney,” he says. Shanghai Disney is all about chang­ing that.

The bot­tom line The $5.5 bil­lion Shanghai Disney park is hir­ing 1,000 per­form­ers to act, sing, or dance their way into Chi­nese con­sumers’ hearts.

Re­hears­ing for a show at Shang­hai Dis­ney Shang­hai Dis­ney

Li will play Nala in the Man­darin ver­sion of The Lion King

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