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February 26, 2011

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Staging a 'made-in-China' musical

CHINESE audiences like Western musical theater but Chinese adaptations and original Chinese musicals have generally failed to impress. Michelle Zhang asks whether the Chinese "Mamma Mia" will be different.

China is considered the last great untapped market for musical theater and overseas industry experts want to help create musicals that are "made in China" - performed in China, in Chinese, by Chinese actors for the Chinese audience.

The first major "made-in-China" musical is the Mandarin version of "Mamma Mia," the global smash hit based on the songs of ABBA. It will premier in July at the Shanghai Grand Theater and after a four-week run will tour Beijing and Guangzhou, Guangdong Province.

Producers hope to attract more than 1 million theatergoers in China.

This is not the first time a Western musical has been performed in Mandarin. In 2006, the Shanghai Drama Arts Center (SDAC) adapted the off-Broadway musical "I Love You, You're Perfect, Now Change" into Chinese; last year, it staged "Spin," a musical comedy originally performed in Finnish, with a local cast.

The Mandarin version of "I Love You, You're Perfect, Now Change" was staged in New York, but neither "I Love You" nor "Spin" was well received in China.

Still, Chinese theatergoers have shown great enthusiasm for original Western musicals, such as "The Phantom of the Opera," "Cats" and "The Lion King" when they toured in China.

"This is not the same," says David Lightbody, executive producer of the Chinese production of "Mamma Mia." "It will be the first world-class musical that is being played in Chinese, not just a Chinese re-interpretation of an existing show. The Mandarin version will look exactly the same as it does in London."

Everything - every prop, costume and piece of flooring - will be the same. The artistic creative team comes from London, including director Paul Garrington, music director Martin Lowe and choreographer Leah Sue Morland.

However, why would people choose to watch a show performed in a second language instead of in its original language with subtitles? Most people, for instance, prefer movies in the original language with subtitles, to dubbed ones.

"I believe that musical theater is an art form most properly appreciated in one's own language," Lightbody says. "It's not like opera, or film. You can watch an opera in German or Italian and still feel connected with the emotional rhythms of the piece. Musical theater is different: it is a much more personal, intimate connection with the characters.

"Once made, a film exists as one performance that never changes; but for musicals, every single performance is unique," he says. "If you are distracted by the subtitles, you will miss the subtlety of the performance and therefore, you are emotionally connected less."

Robert Vicencio, once a visiting professor at the musical department in Shanghai Conservatory of Music, agrees - from the performers' point of view.

"Shanghai students are very talented but language appears to be one of the biggest challenges for them," he recalls. "They were singing in English but when I asked if they understood the song, or a specific word, they didn't know. It is not their first language."

Vicencio, who has performed the leading role in the musical hit "Miss Saigon" in the UK, Australia, Singapore and Hong Kong, is currently working on his own project - the world's first martial arts musical scheduled to make its debut by the end of 2012. It's still untitled.

With an international creative and production team from London's West End, Australia and across Asia, the musical is written, and will be performed both in Mandarin and in English, in an attempt to cater to both the Chinese and the international market. It will not be a jukebox musical based on existing popular tunes, but an "original mega musical like 'Le Miserables' and 'Cats'," according to producer Vicencio.

The Australian native has lived and worked in Shanghai for six years. "Since the moment I first landed in Shanghai, I've always believed that the city will become the next West End or Broadway and I want to be part of it," says Vicencio.

Lightbody, "Mamma Mia"'s executive producer, first came to China in 2005 with Cameron Mackintosh, arguably the world's most successful musical producer, to explore opportunities for Chinese-language versions of Western classic musical hits. According to him, a lot has changed in China's musical theater market over the years, especially "people's openness to creating a show like this (a world-class Chinese musical), and their willingness to take a risk and to make it work."

"It is a risk," he emphasizes. "We don't know how well it is going to be ... Nobody knows."

Yang Shaolin, director of Shanghai Drama Arts Center, once risked over 8 million yuan (US$1.2 million) to create from scratch the original musical "Furious Snow," starring renowned Chinese singer Tan Jing. However, it did not wow the audience.

The center has produced four musicals in Mandarin since 2005. Except for "I Love You, You're Perfect, Now Change," the other three were bad investments.

Yang ascribes the failures primarily to failure to understand "what the audiences want" and a lack of homegrown talent.

But producer Vicencio believes that talents will come to Shanghai from all over the world - if the city is going to turn out to be the next Broadway.

Both Vicencio from Sydney and Lightbody from London agree that to become the next Broadway or West End, Shanghai must have its own resident musical plays, especially given the fact that many new theaters have been built in Shanghai in recent years.

The high cost of tickets is another reason many people don't go to the theater. Lightbody says tickets of some touring performances in China are "extremely expensive": The cheapest ticket for a so-so quality international performance is usually over 200 yuan, while the most expensive ones can cost 2,500 yuan.

The lowest ticket price for the Chinese re-production of "Mamma Mia" will be 99 yuan.

After the debuts in Shanghai, Beijing and Guangzhou, the plan is to take "Mamma Mia" to more second-tier cities in China.

"But we'd also like to see it 'sitting down' in Shanghai," Lightbody says.

"It is important that the show works commercially, and at the same time people can (afford to) come see it. That's how you build the market. A long run will definitely help."


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