The World of Chinese - - Tea Leaves - – H.L.

“The magic of Broad­way can be found in any coun­try,” Tom Vier­tel, pro­ducer of a Chi­nese adap­ta­tion of The King and I, told CBN Weekly in 2006. Within three years, Vier­tel promised to “bring the en­tire Broad­way in­dus­try to China,” in­clud­ing trained ac­tors, di­rec­tors, writ­ers, de­sign­ers, and mar­ket­ing staff—but his plans were halted by the 2008 re­ces­sion.

Af­ter sev­eral long-run­ning shows shut­tered on Broad­way, though, the in­dus­try again looked upon China as an emerg­ing mar­ket that could help save mu­si­cal theater. But while China has be­come a fairly re­li­able mar­ket for Hol­ly­wood, theater au­di­ences don’t seem to be singing from the same song­book.

More than a decade af­ter Vier­tel’s vow, both do­mes­tic pro­duc­tions and tour­ing shows still tend to play in only a hand­ful of ma­jor cities, con­tribut­ing to just two per­cent of China’s the­atri­cal box of­fice.

West­ern-style mu­si­cal theater ar­rived in the 1920s with cabarets and mu­si­cal films like The Jazz Singer, which were as­so­ci­ated with Golden Age Hol­ly­wood and Shang­hai deca­dence. Dur­ing the New Cul­ture Move­ment, writ­ers and in­tel­lec­tu­als tried to “im­prove” tra­di­tional Chi­nese op­eras with Broad­way el­e­ments—ram­bunc­tious act­ing, en­er­getic song and dance—but some were more in­ter­ested in us­ing the end-prod­uct as a po­lit­i­cal ve­hi­cle. “Re­formed tra­di­tional dra­mas will not be­come opera, op­eretta, or re­vue,” wrote left­ist play­wright Ouyang Yuqian.

In the 1950s and 60s, dif­fer­ent prov­inces com­peted

to cre­ate folk-in­spired op­er­atic block­busters for the masses. Films like Third Sis­ter Liu or The White-haired Girl were com­mer­cial suc­cesses as much as revo­lu­tion­ary pro­pa­ganda. Broad­way mu­si­cals were ab­sent un­til 2002, when a pro­duc­tion of Les Mis­er­ables had a three-week run in Shang­hai.

There’s now lit­tle cul­tural mem­ory for the form. “Many peo­ple don’t know the dif­fer­ence be­tween mu­si­cals and opera,” theater pro­ducer Tian Yuan told en­ter­tain­ment blog San­sheng. “It’s not enough to mar­ket some­thing as a good mu­si­cal…we must de­scribe what it’s like to ex­pe­ri­ence a mu­si­cal.” Yet Chi­nese cinema view­ers paid 200 mil­lion USD to see La La Land in 2017, twice as much as any Chi­nese mu­si­cal to date. China’s mu­si­cal mar­ket is also get­ting a boost from mid­dle class par­ents and teach­ers, ever-sen­si­tive to new forms of ed­u­ca­tion for chil­dren. In 2015, mul­ti­ple celebri­ties sup­pos­edly took their chil­dren to see a Bei­jing pro­duc­tion of The Phan­tom of the Opera for “de­vel­op­ment ed­u­ca­tion.” Some in the in­dus­try are hope­ful that greater ex­po­sure to mu­si­cals of any form could cul­ti­vate a new gen­er­a­tion of ac­tors and au­di­ences.

“A por­tion of par­ents reg­is­ter for our classes just to ex­pose their chil­dren to English lan­guage and Amer­i­can cul­ture,” ad­mits mu­si­cal theater ed­u­ca­tor Wang Xi­u­juan, di­rec­tor of the Bei­jing Play­house. “Once they’ve been ex­posed, though, I see greater un­der­stand­ing and ap­pre­ci­a­tion.”

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