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August 25, 2011

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Home » Feature » Art and Culture

Street kid stars in Chinese musical

AS the Chinese version of "Mamma Mia!" leaves town, the curtain rises next week on an original Chinese musical set in old Shanghai - the famous story of a street urchin.

"The Vagrant Life of Sanmao" is musician-composer San Bao's latest effort to popularize indigenous musical theater with Chinese characteristics - an ambitious goal that he says may take 50 years. Imported Western musicals are already quite popular and a Chinese "Mamma Mia" ended a fairly successful run.

The adventures of Sanmao (Three Hairs) will be staged at the Shanghai Oriental Art Center on August 29 and 30. Poly Theater Co has invested in the production.

Sanmao, a malnourished boy with an oversized head and just three strands of hair, is a famous comic book character created in 1935 by Zhang Leping. Everyone knows about the ragged orphan who struggles to survive on the streets of Shanghai in times of chaos.

In this version, scrawny street boy Sanmao is always hungry and always longing for a pancake as he wanders about Shanghai in the 1930s and 40s, encountering different kinds of people - poor boys, a dance hall girl, a rich man - who all tell their own stories. He pulls rickshaws, shines shoes and does anything he can to survive. He's usually ignored, sometimes pitied, mocked or even beaten. Occasionally he encounters kindness.

Sanmao is played by actress Shi Yuxin who wears a cap making her look like bald Sanmao with just three hairs. Creator San Bao says it's too hard to teach a child to act, sing and dance in a starring role, bit parts maybe, but not a big role.

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

"All that I can do is to make the best musical within my reach," says San Bao about Sanmao, which premiered earlier this month in Beijing. It was well received and considered fresh and interesting.

San Bao, who is classically trained, is a successful composer of classical music, popular music and film scores; in 2005 he suddenly decided to dedicate himself to creating Chinese musicals and he is one of the very few pioneers of musical theater in China.

"The combination of music and drama is one of my favorite ways to present music," says San. "It's easier for the audience to understand and the live feedback from the audience makes work more interesting and challenging,"

At one performance in Beijing a little girl in the audience audibly asked her mother to buy a pancake for Sanmao.

In recent years foreign musicals such as "Cats," "Mamma Mia!," and "Les Miserables" have proved extremely popular in China, leading many people to believe that the age of Chinese musical theater was dawning.

"Compared with the Western musical that's more than 100 years old, we are really babies," says San Bao. "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."

In China not many people know or care about musicals, few people work on them or train in musical theater so there's a lack of strong performers, he says, adding that it could take 50 years for original musicals to flourish in China.

Still, he soldiers on.

His "Golden Sand," with more than 1,000 performances since 2005, was considered successful, but it was backed by the travel industry in an effort to attract tourists to Sichuan Province.

Even if a musical is sold out, the audience is small compared with audiences for film, TV and concerts.

San Bao says the Chinese version of "Mamma Mia!" helped cultivate the market but notes that the tonal nature of the Chinese language poses difficulties.

"There are four tones, which make it unique but also limit the melody and lyrics," he says, adding that it's very difficult to translate Western songs into meaningful Chinese. Producers of "Mamma Mia!" admitted they basically had to rewrite the lyrics, while maintaining the ideas of the famous songs.

Another big challenge for the Chinese musical is the shortage of professional actors and actresses.

"Finding performers is always the most difficult task," says San Bao. There are music majors in universities but most of the best graduates turn to other fields, such as famous TV series actor Sun Honglei. "I saw his graduation performance and it was good, but now he is well-paid in TV."

He said that in "Sanmao" auditions not one music graduate could properly sing a classical aria.

Most of the actors and actresses that San Bao cast for "Sanmao" majored in acting and he expressed satisfaction with "around 70 percent" of the performance.

"Many people, including producers and directors, consider singing the most important part of a musical and that's why many singers are invited for musical theater. But for me, acting is more important since musicals are dramas rather than concerts," says San Bao.

Since he was a child, San Bao enjoyed the stories of Sanmao, the comic books and animation, and had been thinking about making it into a musical for years.

"The skinny, hungry kid with a head that seems too big for his body is filled with invisible strength. The firmness and determination in his eyes is moving," says San Bao.

Seeing his own daughter fascinated by the wanderings of Sanmao on television, San Bao determined that the story of the street kid should live on.

Play writer Guan Shan, who wrote the script for "Butterfly," cooperated on the script for "The Vagrant Life of Sanmao." San Bao admits they made mistakes in "Butterfly" and didn't convey a clear message.

"This time, we set ourselves free from burdens and just use the simple and direct language of music to tell the story."

San Bao says that Sanmao's hunger and longing for pancakes is an over-arching theme - everyone is hungry for something - and he hopes the musical will prompt people to consider their own longings.

Despite his hunger, Sanmao is bright and optimistic. In his aria "The Whole World," he says, "I cover myself with the whole world."

San Bao says he isn't worried about ticket sales, as selling tickets isn't his job.

"Fretting about sales won't help an artist create a pure and good work," says San Bao. "I hope I can make myself purer for purer works."

Date: August 29-30, 7:15pm

Venue: Shanghai Oriental Art Center – Opera Hall

Address: 425 Dingxiang Rd

Tickets: 80-580 yuan

Tel: 6217-2426, 6217-3055


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