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December 16, 2011

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Creating original Chinese musicals

CLASSICALLY trained as a cellist and conductor, San Bao has dramatically changed course and dedicated himself to pioneering original musical theater in China, which has a long tradition of opera but nothing like singing-and-dancing Western musicals.

Though foreign musicals such as "Mama Mia!", "Cats" and "Les Miserables" are extremely popular in China, the Chinese musical itself with Chinese stories and characteristics still does not attract much of an audience.

"Compared with the Western musical that's more than 100 years old, we are really babies," San Bao said in an interview. "I am confident about good Chinese movies with a relatively long history, but as for musical creation, I admit there is still a big gap."

His latest production, "The Vagrant Life of San Mao," was staged this fall to good reviews but could not compare to the success of Broadway musicals in China. It tells the story of an always-hungry and ever-optimistic street urchin San Mao (Three Hairs) in old Shanghai. The comic book character was created in 1935 and is known throughout China. A malnourished child, he is bald and has only three hairs, hence the name. San Mao has been compared to "Oliver!", the hit 1960 British musical about Dickens' orphan Oliver Twist.

San Bao, who is also known for his earlier popular music and film scores, currently is working on two other musical productions, which he declines to describe. In November he founded an orchestra in Beijing that plays Chinese and Western folk music with both Chinese and Western instruments. Music, says San Bao, should be "fun, relaxing and easy to listen to."

Long before Western musicals were introduced, San Bao himself was hooked on the genre in the early 1980s when he first heard a recording of "Cats" (1981) sent to him by a friend in the United States.

"It was so fresh and new to me, different from any music I had heard or studied before, either in concerts or operas," said San Bao, who is now 43 and lives in Beijing.

Most of the Chinese musicians of his age were educated either in the classical German-Austrian School or Russian School, according to San Bao, and had very little access to American music.

"San Mao" is his fifth original musical, including the successful (box office) "Golden Sand" in 2005 (about a legendary civilization in Sichuan Province), the unpopular "Butterfly" in 2007 (about "butterfly people" living on the edge of the world), the undistinguished "New Madam White Snake" in 1998 (about an ancient love story between a snake sorceress and a mortal man).

The only theme he really likes is the story of San Mao, which was his own inspiration and was not commissioned. "I just don't like the sad and beautiful love stories of legend which many people prefer," he said. "I am more interested in stories of real life and real people, which are more powerful and meaningful."

San Bao, with his longish hair and slight beard, looks very much like the stereotypical artist who goes his own way, and that he is.

"What I do must first attract me. It has to be something I love in the first place," said San. "If you like it too, that's great. If you don't, I won't make you love it because I won't force myself to create things to your taste, either."

Born into a family of classical musicians, San Bao played the violin since he was four and the cello since he was 13. He entered the Central Conservatory of Music when he was 17 and studied conducting.

Then he shifted to composition. He is well known for the theme song "The Light of Asian Games" for the Beijing Asian Games in 1989 and for "Be There or Be Square" for the 1989 movie of the same name directed by Feng Xiaogang.

In 2005 he shifted to creating Chinese musicals.

"Many people having been curious about my sudden change, but actually the change was not sudden at all," said San Bao. "The form of musical theater has attracted me for years and I just made the turn when the opportunity presented itself."

"I love the stage with the live feedback from the audience, that's why I chose conducting over composition in the Central Conservatory of Music, and that's also why I prefer creating for musical theater than for films now," said San Bao. "The live feedback always makes work more interesting and challenging."

He admits he got it wrong in "Butterfly," which ended more like an opera than a musical, but says he was groping to find the right path. For "The Vagrant Life of San Mao," he kept it simple, "sculpting a pure and simple kid" with a compelling story and without distraction from elaborate sets and special effects that many Chinese want.

Current statistics are not available but in 2008 around 250 musical productions were staged in China, according to the China Society for Musical Studies.

The high number is not a positive sign, said San Bao, adding that few people attended the shows. He estimates that more than 90 percent of the shows are financed by government bodies that contribute regardless of cost. Those productions are generally irrelevant and lack market appeal, created mostly as officials' vanity achievements.

"They (production companies) got the money, they created the work at extremely high cost, they staged it two or three times, they got praise from officials and got official prizes - and they would never stage it again," he said. "Why? Because they lost money each time they staged it (for lack of audience appeal). Bang, it's dead."

His "Golden Sand," with more than 1,000 performances since 2005, was considered a successful commercial show, though it was sponsored by tourism enterprises to attract visitors to Sichuan Province. It had broad appeal.

Most of the overseas musicals staged in China are big productions, like "Mama Mia!" leaving what San Bao calls the "wrong impression" that musicals have to be big, with splendid stage settings and large groups dancing and singing.

But with such an immature market for Chinese musicals, it's unwise to create big productions that can't recoup costs, San Bao observed. Though he was commissioned to deliver big productions in earlier works, for his "San Mao" effort, he insisted on keeping it small.

"The core of a good musical is a good story, good music and good performers, rather than the settings, costumes and dancing parts," he said. "Pursuing big productions in the immature musical industry in China may put the cart before the horse and ruin the play."

Though many opera lovers attend just for the areas, the audience for musical theater wants more - they want to be touched by the story and thrilled by the music.

To ensure he got it right, for "The Vagrant Life of San Mao," San Bao invited some insider friends to rehearsals without any stage props, costumes or makeup. It was just the performers and a piano.

"They were moved, and I knew I was doing it right," said the creator. "Focusing on core elements, rather than pursuing unrealistically grand staging is a more feasible path for Chinese musical creation at this time."

Throughout the show, hungry little San Mao longs for a pancake and at one of the performances in Beijing, a little girl in the audience was heard to ask her mother to "please buy a pancake for San Mao."


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