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December 7, 2019

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Can Shanghai create another Broadway?

MUSIC lovers last week were given a sneak preview of the upcoming 2nd Shanghai International Musical Festival, which will include six original Chinese stage musicals and a singing contest.

The festival is part of an ongoing effort to nurture original Chinese musicals, develop musical talent and emulate the box office success of the genre on Broadway and London’s West End.

“We are still cultivating theatergoing habits among citizens,” said Tao Xin, a professor at Shanghai Conservatory of Music. “Only quality musical works will keep attracting audiences to theaters. The musical is not considered high-end art, but it will become mainstream theater in the future.”

Jointly organized by Huangpu District and the Shanghai Grand Theater Arts Center, the festival will feature a musical forum in March, the start of a yearlong project to identify worthy original musicals, and the vocal contest from January to April.

The six original musicals to be staged at the SAIC Shanghai Culture Square are: “Spring in Shanghai 1949,” “An Accident of Love,” “West Chamber,” “The Search of Sound,” “Flying with Martin” and “Nine Colored Deer.” The last three are for children.

The emphasis on productions for children reflects a current strength in the market.

“Children’s musicals are relatively easy,” Tao told Shanghai Daily. “They require a lower investment and tend to be well received by audiences because parents are always seeking cultural activities for their children.”

Tao is one of four panel members involved in the festival’s project to find and develop original musical scores. The yearlong project will look at unpublished, original Chinese musicals. Those chosen by the panel will receive financial support.

Selected musicals will be revised with the help of professionals through the year, and the best two or three works to emerge will be sent to a special workshop for final polish by the end of the year. Directors and producers linked to commercial outlets will participate in the workshop.

According to Tao, domestic musicals are still in an early development stage, though Shanghai occupies a leading position in the process. There are four major academies in China with majors in music. Two of them are the Shanghai Conservatory of Music and the Shanghai Theater Academy. The other two are the Beijing Dancing Academy and the Central Academy of Drama.

In 2018, 58 musicals were staged in 853 performances in Shanghai, accounting for a third of musicals performed in China last year. The box office totaled 343 million yuan (US$49 million) last year, a meager half percent of the nation’s overall movie box office earnings.

The Chinese market has three categories of musicals: imported and classic productions such as “Les Misérables,” “Cats” and “Notre Dame de Paris;” Chinese adaptations of foreign musicals like “Mama Mia” and “Man of La Mancha;” and original Chinese musicals.

So far, imported productions and Chinese adaptations have drawn the strongest box office. In 2015, “The Phantom of The Opera” contributed to nearly half of local musical ticket income in Beijing and Guangzhou. When the French musical “Notre Dame de Paris” returned to Shanghai last summer after its 2003 debut here, almost all tickets for its 30 performances were sold out.

The success of those musicals has stirred a wellspring of local creativity in China.

For example, several musical singers established a mass following after they participated in the variety show “Super-Vocal,” which was created and produced by Hunan TV last year. It’s a singing competition focusing on classically trained singers in both operatic and popular musicals formats.

Two of the group, Zheng Yunlong and Ayanga, were named image ambassadors for the 2nd Shanghai International Musical Festival.

Both Zheng and Ayanga performed in musicals for more than five years before “Super-Vocal” turned them into stars and created a nationwide fan base for them.

Zheng stepped into stage performance this year. When the play “Deling and Cixi,” featuring Zheng, was staged at the Shanghai Grand Theater in September, the venue was packed with young women eager to see their idol perform.

Inner Mongolia-born Ayanga has just been named as lead actor in the Chinese version of the musical “Jekyll and Hyde,” which will be staged in Shanghai next year.

“When I first visited Shanghai to perform in a musical in 2017, I could feel the city’s enthusiasm toward musicals,” said the 30-year-old Ayanga. “Coming back two years later, I can use the word ‘popular’ to describe the status of musicals here.”

Another duo from “Super-Vocal” will be featured in two original musicals staged during the Shanghai festival. Singer Liu Yan will play the lead role in “West Chamber,” which incorporates some tunes from Chinese traditional opera. Young singer Fang Shujian will perform in “Spring in Shanghai 1949,” which will showcase both his singing and dancing talent.

Tao said he regards idol-driven enthusiasm as an important step in the development of musicals in China.

“These singers have real talent,” he said. “They have received formal musical training in academies. Their success goes beyond just their good looks. As long as we have more quality musical works to ‘feed’ them, the stars and the works will thrive.”

He added: “We have skilled performers and good marketing methods, but the development of musicals depends on quality content.”

Tao said domestic musical circles suffer from “original work anxiety.” Practitioners are well aware of the importance of creating original works of good quality, but they find it hard to achieve fame in a short time.

“The best way to get rid of that anxiety is to stop thinking about it and patiently follow the path of artistic and cultural development,” said Tao. “It takes time, and it requires long-range vision from investors.”

China is watching the strategies of musical promotion in Western countries. Nicolas Talar, producer of “Notre Dame de Paris,” said musical practitioners in France have gained experience from the success of that production. For example, the release of musical records before the actual staging of a musical has become a commonplace method to whet public interest. Some musicals separate singing and dancing roles of performers to distinguish them from typical Broadway productions.

In New York, out-of-towners contributed almost two-thirds of total Broadway box office receipts in the 2017-18 season. Signature musicals have become tourism attractions.

According to Tao, even cities with strong musical traditions are seeking new ways to keep stage musicals vital.

“Recent award-winning musicals on Broadway and the West End have featured more drama elements,” he said. “They tend to break away from traditional musical patterns and work on depth of plots.”

He added: “It’s great to see that these mature markets are also looking for breakthroughs. Chinese musical practitioners can definitely borrow ideas from them while exploring our own musical potential.”


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