Broadway Musicals in China: to Borrow Or to Originate
    2013-10-15 18:08:41       Web Editor: Liu Kun

The photo shows a scene of the Chinese production of Mamma Mia performed in Guangzhou Opera House in Guangzhou of south China's Guangdong province from October 28th to November 24th, 2011. []



Hello and welcome to this edition of "In the Spotlight," a show featuring arts, culture and showbiz from right here in China. I'm your host, Li Ningjing.

On today's program, we are going to talk about Broadway musicals in China. Theater goers probably will instantly recognize names like "Phantom of the Opera," "The Lion King," "Mamma Mia" and "Cats." These names inevitably bring to mind the image of the glamour of a Broadway musical on opening night, complete with spotlights, singing, dancing, costumes and everything else. It's said that Broadway musical theaters are usually on fire during the weekend.

After years of evolution, this distinctive American art form is finally making its way east. In August 2011, "Mamma Mia" was introduced to China, debuting in Shanghai and performed in the domestic language. The rave reviews audiences gave the show have made musical producers both in China and the United States turn their eyes to the vast cultural market of this country.

In Beijing lately, a dialogue took place between Broadway musical producers and their Chinese counterparts during a Cultural Management Talents Training program. The two sides reviewed how the American musicals were born and developed, how China's current condition reacts to Broadway musicals, and what the future for Broadway musicals in China looks like. We tried to keep track of the dialogue and dive deeper into this promising industry.

So today we will first talk to Kevin McCollum, a leading musical producer, to unravel the secret behind musicals' international appeal.

Then we will try to examine to what extent the Chinese market is ready for American musicals.

And we will also explore the hottest debate in China's musical industry: should Chinese musical producers simply import from Broadway or should they create their own musicals?

So, plenty of entertaining and informative stories up ahead on 'In the Spotlight'. Stay tuned.



To begin, our reporter, Liu Kun, recently interviewed Kevin McCollum, from New York, on the secret magic of musicals' international appeal.

Kevin McCollum, the man who proclaims to be "The Minister of Fun," is a four-time Tony Award winner. His most famous musicals include "Rent," "Avenue Q" and "The Drowsy Draperone." Let's check out what Kevin said about the art form he has been pursuing for almost his entire life.




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As a distinctively American art form, musicals have become a mainstay in Britain, Canada and many other western countries.

As Kevin McCollum mentioned, recently, both domestic entertainment companies and Broadway producers have been turning their eyes to the Chinese market. Many Broadway classics like "Mamma Mia", "Cats" and "Man of La Mancha" have been introduced to China and became huge hits on stage. People in both first and second tier cities queued up to get a ticket for the show.

So what does the musical market actually look like in the country then? Liu Kun has the details.


In July 2011, the Chinese production of Broadway classic Mamma Mia made its debut in the Shanghai Grand Theater. With 80% of the total tickets sold out, the show quickly grossed some 20 million Yuan within less than a month.

After the Shanghai debut, up till now the Chinese production of Mamma Mia has swept 19 cities in China including Beijing, Guangzhou and Xi'an.

Till August this year, the 300th performance of its Chinese production marked an audience of over 500 thousand, representing an exploding momentum in a relatively short period compared to the 42 million global audience members since its 1999 original London production.

United Asia Live Entertainment, the company that introduced and produced the Chinese version, claims the show still has 13 cities to tour around as we approach the end of this year, meaning that the total number of performances will reach 400.

Li Zhen, Director of Marketing at United Asia Live Entertainment says the year 2011 is clearly a landmark in the history of developing musicals in China.

"Media critics say 2011 is the first year of China's musical era. Mamma Mia clearly marks the first step of industrializing the development of musicals in China."

Chinese productions of other Broadway classics such as "Cats", "Man of La Mancha" and "Avenue Q" are also making inroads into the market.

Meanwhile, prominent domestic directors such as Meng Jinghui are trying to deliver original Chinese musicals, too.
It seems that musicals are dawning on the Chinese nation almost overnight.

Tony Stimac, a seasoned Broadway director and an apparent China hand with years of arts operation experience in the country, says he has been met with enthusiasm for musicals almost everywhere he goes.

"Then I went to see Mamma Mia, the English version, the first time. And at the end of the show, 1500 people jumped up, dancing in the isles, just like they do in London and New York. And when I spoke in universities, the students were saying they wanted to do this. And this is in a country where it is not a native art form. I thought there was going to be an appetite for it."

Li Zhen's conclusion on the market stems from the success of her company's Chinese productions of Broadway musicals. Their first trial, Mamma Mia, created a ticket craze in both first and second tier cities during their second year of touring performances. Li says people's cravings for a good show simply boomed.

"The Chinese audience's desire for cultural products just exploded all of a sudden. Having enough food and clothing is not a problem for them now. They look for more entertainment. That's one of the reasons why they go to cinemas more today. I think next on their list is live performances, because compared to movies, live performances can give audiences more powerful emotional experiences. So I think the market for live performances will be huge in the next few years."

According to research carried out by United Asia Live Entertainment, the number of people showing interest in musicals in China is rising by 30% annually.

Both Tony Stimac and Li Zhen have agreed that wealthy people and the upper middle classes within Chinese society are the likely consumers of musicals.

Apart from the audience's enthusiasm, government policies also promoted the rise of musicals in China. Li Zhen explains.

"At several important political sessions of the country, they raised concepts such as cultural development and cultural renaissance. They released the policy because they want to see people's cultural life enriched."

Although the prospect for musicals in China looks bright, planting an American seed in Chinese soil is never easy. Louis St. Louis, composer for the Tony Award Winning musical "Smokey Joe's Cafe", put on a musical in Dongguan, south China's Guangdong province. He said he had difficulty in involving audiences into the musical.

"You know how theaters are built for like Peking opera. The stage is so far away. And you have this big huge pit. And the audiences are like back here somewhere. It's not conducive to Broadway musical style. You want it right in your face. You want to be close to them. Chinese audiences tend to be, to some degrees, like London audiences. You know they wait and at the end of the act they applaud. You know people standing up and screaming in the middle of a dance. That's never going to happen here."

Louis' concern is perhaps one of the many challenges musical developers might meet in the Chinese market. But the possibility of tapping into such a huge market makes the effort worthwhile.



So the prospect for musicals in China does look promising, but the truth is that the calling for developing musical in the country is ardent, both socially and economically. However, since almost the entire nation, both people producing and watching the art form, has no previous involvement with it, localizing musicals has been very difficult.

Presently, the hottest debate going on in the industry is this: should China simply borrow Broadway shows or should they create their own original content? Let's follow Liu Kun to look into the issue.


Before coming to China, Tony Stimac was already a seasoned Broadway musical producer and director. He now has years of experience on musical operations in China from his efforts introducing Broadway musicals, running studios and lecturing at universities and industrial forums in China.

For him, creating original Chinese musical is the ultimate way for this art form to survive and live in this country.

"My mission, my dream, my hope was to do exclusively Chinese musicals. Chinese composers, lyricists, book writers--all Chinese, and in the Chinese language. I don't think the musical will ever flourish here until it's telling Chinese stories to Chinese people in Chinese."

But many argue, for a nation that has no previous engagement with this art form, starting from borrowing is apparently more pragmatic.

Stimac says the American musical itself has evolved with the same process, borrowing dance and singing performances from European settlers on the country's east coast, then infusing them to create a new art form.

"We started copying foreigners, then we changed what they did, then we made our own. China will have to go through the same process."

Li Zhen is the marketing director of United Asia Live Entertainment, the company that introduced and produced the Chinese version of the Broadway classic, "Mamma Mia," the first ever Chinese production of a Broadway musical.

According to her, the Chinese musical producers and directors will have to be patient if they want to produce musical masterpieces.

"We believe it takes a long time and a lot of effort to make a really successful musical. This applies to both introduced and original musical. Chinese musicals will not live up to the standard of world classics when they first come out. Even Rome wasn't built in one day. It's the same with musicals."

While the industry is just budding, Stimac suggests that Chinese musical producers and directors get more exposure to Broadway musicals.

"So I think right now, China should hire Broadway musical directors, choreographers, book writers, composers, work with Chinese people arm-in-arm. The Chinese director on "Mamma Mia" is going to learn more than the Chinese person who never was exposed to any other American influence. We are the best directors and we taught everybody else how to do it. We taught the British so well that they took over Broadway. But before, they couldn't write a musical. But they learned from us."

The success of the Chinese production of "Mamma Mia" echoed Stimac's theory. Li Zhen says the Chinese staff learned and progressed as they worked hand-in-hand with their foreign counterparts.

"It was copyright cooperation that we did. From the first moment we started recruiting actors till we put on the last of the several hundred performances, we did everything with the joint effort of both Chinese and foreign staff. If we have a Chinese producer, then we are going to have a foreign producer to work with him. And for directors it's the same. In this way, Chinese staff who are still at the learning stage will be able to learn the do's and don'ts about the industry."

Since the advent of the Chinese production of "Mamma Mia," many Broadway producers, directors, composers and choreographers have come to realize the huge market potential among the country's population of 1.3 billion people. But upon coming to China to teach musicals, they have also realized that tapping into the Chinese market is a difficult task because the country still has a lot to learn when making musicals, even if it is currently only imitating Broadway.

Bubba Carr is an experienced Broadway choreographer.

"One of the biggest challenges I found bringing things here is that the dancers are not as trained as I would like them to be; to be able to do that and to loosen your bodies."

Louis St. Louis is a composer for the Tony Award winning musical, "Smokey Joe's Cafe."

"We have a phrase that, great singers, they 'finish the note'. The Chinese style seems like: 'it seems so strange to me'. (singing) They do what I call dumping out. And you will hear somebody like Barbara sing: 'it seems so strange to me' (singing). They finish the idea. And we say talking about singers 'oh my god she finishes everything.' That's frustrating to me as a composer".

For Tony Stimac as a director, the major difficulty he finds is that it is hard to define a producer's job in China, as it is in Broadway.

"The producers of these musicals usually have no experience producing musicals. So they don't know what's to be done. So they make decisions because they are the boss. They say do this, but it may not be the right thing to do. They don't trust the musical director, choreographer, etc. And they make arbitrary decisions."

On the side of Chinese producers, however, they seem to be already looking forward to the day when they can see the blossom of their own art work. Li Zhen explains.

"For the past two years, we have been focusing on introducing Broadway shows. Next, we are going to do two things at one time. On one hand, we will continue bringing in Broadway classics. On the other, we will work to create original Chinese musicals. In the third year, we will have our own musicals. We are also nurturing the talent of a group of young producers and directors. They learn in the process, accumulate their own experience and work on their own ideas, so that we will soon have our own original musicals."

Broadway musicals have evolved for about a century to arrive at its glory today. In China, the earliest musical departments for undergraduate education were only established in the mid 1990s. It's painful to admit, but even when borrowing from western experience to make musicals, China still has a long way to go.


Back Anchor:

With that, we've come to the end of this edition of "In the Spotlight." We hope you enjoyed the show. If you have any comments or suggestions, you can email us at You can also visit our website to listen to our programs anytime on demand. I'm Li Ningjing. Thanks for listening. We'll see you next time.


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