The Sound of Musicals in China

The cast of Broadway Asia’s 2016 production of Jay Chou’s “The Secret.” (Photo by Wang Xiaojing)
The Sound of Musicals in China
Japan and Korea have embraced and nurtured Western-style musicals. Can China be far
5/1/2017 AMERICAN THEATRE | The Sound of Musicals in China
After a brief out-of-town tryout near Shanghai, the cast, crew, and creative team of the new
Chinese jukebox musical The Secret journeyed north to Beijing for opening night last Dec. 23.
It was a bad time to travel, as “airpocalypse”—the worst air pollution of 2016—circled the
capital city, grounding hundreds of flights. With restrictions on vehicles based on license plate
numbers (to reduce road traffic), trucks carrying the physical production of The Secret had to
be directed to the outskirts of Beijing, then unloaded and reloaded into vehicles with the
right-numbered license plates for the day, before finally arriving at the Tianqiao Performing
Arts Center.
Strolling through the Temple of Heaven park opposite the theatre the day before opening
night, Marc Acito, the show’s librettist, recalled some of the challenges of bringing a new
musical from a January table read to a December opening night in a country still in the early
stages of adopting such Western musical theatre staples as workshops and previews.
Working initially with Google Translate for the lyrics, Acito wove Taiwanese
singer/songwriter Jay Chou’s songs into the loosely adapted narrative of the 2007 film of the
same name, which Chou cowrote, directed, and starred in. Interpolating Chou’s hit song
“Nunchucks,” Acito struggled to understand the lyric dong ya bing fu, a derogatory Japanese
label for Chinese people that roughly translates as “sick man of East Asia.”
“We’ve already decided we’re going to use this martial-arts song as sort of a war cry during a
rugby game,” Acito explained. Working with a translator to unpack the reference, he learned
that it appears in the famous scene from the classic movie Fist of Fury in which Bruce Lee
smashes a board with the insulting phrase on it; Acito realized that Chou was setting out to
name and break this stereotype of national weakness. “So invoking this phrase invokes both
the history of being perceived to be weak and the reclamation of strength,” Acito said,
marvelling, “and it is one lyric.”
The Secret is a high school romance about gifted music students with a bit of time travel
thrown in—Fame meets Back to the Future. At the table read in January at a studio in Shanghai,
Acito and director John Rando agreed on Chou’s song “Dream Started” for the musical’s final
graduation scene. It’s a song about seizing opportunities, smiling through setbacks, and
persevering to achieve one’s dreams—in other words, themes and emotions familiar from
Western musical theatre.
“This is very different from what the film was,” said Rando, who directs frequently on
Broadway and at U.S. resident theatres. “One of our goals was to create a very uplifting and
moving finale to the story that I thought would be much more appropriate for the musical
theatre version of the romance. It takes place in a high school, and everyone wants things to
work out well. There’s so much about this show that is positive and life-affirming.”

“Spring Awakening” at Shanghai Culture Square in 2016. (Photo by Shadow Zheng)
Rando could be describing musical theatre in China in 2017. It’s a forward-looking industry,
with a young—albeit not huge—audience that has fallen head over heels for the form. This
enthusiasm went a long way when The Secret was workshopped in April 2016 in Shanghai, in
studios above the Daning Theatre, where an English-language tour of My Fair Lady was
running. While Rando and choreographer Zach Woodlee, fresh from “Grease: Live!,” worked
out the staging of a dramatic ensemble number, Acito quietly typed Chou’s lyrics in Pinyin
(the romanization of Chinese characters) into his libretto, so he could understand, down to
the last syllable, how Chou’s Chinese lyrics and his own dialogue (translated from English),
were landing in rehearsal. With a Chinese counterpart for each Broadway veteran,
conversations were flying back and forth in Mandarin and English. Wencong Chen, Rando’s
assistant director, felt this doubling up helped “the musical to connect to the locals and also
make it feel like it’s not a translated work.”
In promoting the musical to Chinese audiences, the show’s American producer, Marc Routh,
said that they are trying “to explain to audiences that this is a unique opportunity to
experience a homegrown musical with the craft and experience of a truly A-list Broadway
creative team.” Conceiving, developing, and producing an original Chinese jukebox musical
may have been the logical next step for Routh, co-executive producer (with Simone Genatt) of
Broadway Asia. Routh has watched the progress of musical theatre in China for more than 20
years, while licensing American musicals in Asia and presenting English-language tours of
titles such as The Sound of Music. In a long courtship process, he pitched treatments of Chou’s
catalogue to the pop star’s manager before lining up a commitment to adapt The Secret. It was
then that he recruited Acito.
Many Chinese people keen to enter the musical theatre business acknowledge that the form
is still relatively new here. Despite a supply of talented and well-trained performers, there is
not yet a wealth of Chinese artists versed in writing, directing, or designing for Westernstyled
musical theatre. Assistant director Chen, who also worked on Sleep No More in
Shanghai, thinks that collaboration with foreigners is what Chinese musical theatre needs to
become more commercially and artistically successful.
“Especially for the creative talents, it takes time to grow and mature,” said Chen. “There still
needs to be some more international collaboration to find talents across the globe and then to
train the Chinese counterpart, and hone their skills.”
To further that cross-cultural education, Richard Fei, programming director of Shanghai
Culture Square—a 2,000-seat theatre on the site of a former greyhound racetrack popular
with Westerners in the 1920s and 1930s—has been programming a musical theatre
development symposium every spring since 2014. Inviting experts from Europe, North
America, and more established musical theatre industries in nearby Japan and South Korea,
Fei programs seminars on topics such as producing, casting, marketing, and ticketing musical
theatre. He also programs showcases of new musical theatre, seeking to stimulate the
industry’s progress as much as possible.
Fei started out in the business at Shanghai Grand Theatre, translating and operating the
surtitles for tours of Cats, Phantom, The Lion King, Mamma Mia!, Hairspray, High School Musical,
and The Sound of Music before taking on his current position. Those touring productions
gradually enjoyed longer runs in Shanghai and had a major impact on developing the audience
now attending foreign tours at Shanghai Culture Square, where upcoming productions
include Ghost, Wicked, Sister Act, Legally Blonde, West Side Story, and The Producers. Fei also
produces one local production per season.
“This theatre is for the young generation,” he explained. That may explain why, in 2016,
Shanghai Culture Square produced Spring Awakening, already popular with amateur student
musical theatre groups. In 2017, Shanghai Culture Square will produce the Mandarinlanguage
premiere of a Korean musical, My Bucket List, adapted from the 2007 Rob Reiner film
The Bucket List. The musical version, which recasts characters created by Jack Nicholson and
Morgan Freeman as young men, was part of a road show of Korean musicals promoted last
year during the Shanghai Performing Arts Fair.

The Seven Ages staging of “Avenue Q,” which opened in 2013 and continues to tour. (Photo by Sun Yuqian)
Fei also brings in British, American, and French musical theatre stars in revue shows, and
collaborates with foreign producers such as Austria’s Vereinigte Bühnen Wien to bring
original productions of globally successful musicals including Elisabeth and Mozart! to China,
where they are performed in German with Mandarin surtitles.
Decades after Deng Xiaoping’s reforms reoriented communist China as a market economy,
musicals—with their typically aspirational narratives—may seem a natural fit for a society
that has increasingly embraced capitalism. Though foreign brand names punctuate Chinese
cityscapes, the screening of foreign films is highly limited by government quotas, perhaps
giving live foreign musicals an edge for Chinese consumers seeking a foreign cultural
experience. With ample examples of successfully imported foreign musicals being regularly
(and profitably) performed in neighboring Japan and South Korea, it is no surprise that savvy
Chinese producers would seek to establish a musical theatre market in China, home of the
world’s largest middle class.
Since George C. White, founder of Connecticut’s Eugene O’Neill Theater Center, directed a
Chinese cast in The Music Man in Beijing in 1987, the Western musical has been popularized in
China through productions of classics such as Man of La Mancha (first in English, later
translated into Mandarin), but also through productions of more contemporary shows, like a
replica staging of Mamma Mia! in 2011 and a localized production of Avenue Q in 2013. While
Chinese producers, actors, and fans regularly travel to sample the wares in nearby Japan and
South Korea, original Korean musicals are also being presented in China. The long-running
Korean musical Laundry, about working-class neighbors pursuing their dreams in Seoul, was
presented in Beijing with Chinese surtitles in 2016, and will be produced in Mandarin this
year. From its Shanghai office, the Korean producer CJ E&M is also testing out Korean
production models in China. These range from producing Stephen Dolginoff’s edgy, smallscale
2005 Off-Broadway musical Thrill Me to bringing a large-scale, star-vehicle Jekyll & Hyde
from Korea, translated into Mandarin and directed by David Swan, an American.
If many of these musicals are still directed by foreigners, producers are increasingly coming
from local ranks. Ivy Yang, who learned about musical theatre at Peking University, was
working as a venture capital analyst in Tokyo, and noticed that musical thea tre tickets were
on sale in convenience stores. Recognizing an opportunity to develop the market at home in
China, she returned in 2011 and reconnected with a director she met at Peking University,
Joseph Graves, eventually forming the production company Seven Ages with her own savings.
Their first show was to be Man of La Mancha, which had been a hit in Japan and Korea. But
when Music Theatre International asked for a license fee Yang could not afford, she flew to                                                                   New York to personally persuade the musical’s composer, Mitch Leigh, to give them the
license at a much reduced rate. Yang went on to produce Man of La Mancha in 2012 in English
with Mandarin surtitles, then in translation. Avenue Q followed, with many tweaks in the
script helping young Chinese spectators relate to Princeton (renamed Tsinghua, after the
Beijing university) as he struggles to find a job after graduation. Graves also directed Seven
Ages’ productions of How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying and The Sound of Music.
Chinese musical theatre is dominated by women like Yang, educated at elite Chinese
universities, often studying abroad for a period (in her case, at Harvard), and initially working
in banking or finance. While Yang’s employees in Seven Ages’ Shanghai and Beijing offices are
clearly inspired by their boss, she hesitates to call herself a role model.

Richard-ZheMing Shi and Nathan-Dou’Er Sun in “Thrill Me.” (Photo by XueFeng Yin)
“Women hold up half the sky,” she points out, citing a famous pronouncement of Chairman
Mao, and suggesting that it’s simply in the nature of Chinese women to work hard. With little
initial funding, Yang has relied heavily on social media platforms to market her musicals and
sell tickets. Julia Yuan, the company’s marketing director, started her career as an attorney
but eventually quit law to work for Seven Ages, running its new media platforms, including
Douban, Weibo, and WeChat, as the company prepared the Chinese premiere of Avenue Q.
Like many working in musical theatre in China, Yuan doesn’t come from a theatre background,
but she’s long been a passionate fan. Her primary task: to educate potential ticketbuyers on
what musicals are exactly, and how they’re different from traditional Chinese opera and
spoken drama.
To achieve this marketing goal, Yuan posts synopses and production histories on social media
platforms, generating enthusiasm among musical theatre fans, whose positive comments are
crucial to buzz around Seven Ages musicals. Seeking to connect musicals with other pop
culture entering the Chinese market, Yuan has written articles and produced lighthearted
videos about stars of Marvel films who also appear in plays and musicals, and has begun to
attend Comic Con gatherings in Shanghai and Beijing, hawking pins and T-shirts emblazoned
with the Avenue Q song title “If You Were Gay.” Seven Ages also collaborated with a Chinese
LGBTQ group, promoting Avenue Q on its WeChat and Weibo accounts. Given the musical’s
central theme of post-college aimlessness, Seven Ages also reached out to Chinese college
musical theatre clubs, offering lectures and previewing some of the work that went into
Avenue Q. As a result, that show is now among the most popular with Chinese student musical
Social media isn’t just good for marketing—it’s also how actors find out about auditions, often
via a group chat on WeChat. The small, close-knit Chinese musical theatre industry is divided
between the capital Beijing and the cosmopolitan finance center, Shanghai, requiring actors
to shuttle between the cities for auditions and rehearsals.
Jenny Ding graduated from the musical theatre program at the Shanghai Conservatory of
Music and was quickly cast in the Chinese company of Mamma Mia!. She went on to appear in
Cats in Korea and Miss Saigon in London. Rather than waste time off between jobs, last year
she opened a suburban dance studio in Shanghai, where she teaches ballet. Even on the
Dragon Boat Festival public holiday, Ding was at work, in case anyone found her dance studio
via reviews on the social networking site Douban and wanted to tour the facilities.
Ding starred as Wendla in Spring Awakening last fall at Shanghai Culture Square and was due
to play Lucy in the upcoming Jekyll and Hyde, but left that production before rehearsals began
to play Nala in The Lion King, now entering its second year at the Walt Disney Grand Theatre at
Shanghai Disneyland. “Every time I audition for a European or American director, they choose
me as the first leading female, but if I audition for an original Chinese musical, I never get the
job,” Ding said of her casting fortunes. A charming actor who radiates joy in performance, it’s
easy to see how Ding appeals to directors and audiences. But in a young industry still
experimenting with longer, even open-ended runs, her experience performing eight shows a
week in Korea and London sets her apart from performers with less stamina and experience.
For now, even many Chinese musical theatre fans remain skeptical of homegrown efforts. Said
Yuan, “Some Chinese artists, they think they can do musicals, and they try…” she trailed off.
Wencong Chen concurred, explaining, “I think a lot of musicals right now in China—they write
the script and write the music all separately, then create the choreography, then bring the
actors together at the end, when all is created.” This can lead to storytelling redundancy, as
each element may end up repeating points that have already been made, rather than
integrating elements into a forward-moving whole. But while Broadway-style integrated
musical theatre storytelling takes time, in China, Routh pointed out, relatively quick
fundraising means projects also move quickly. The Secret has been completed in about a year.
Michael Rubinoff, producer of the Canadian Music Theatre Project that incubated
Broadway’s Come From Away, is also contributing to the development of a new musical in
China called Bethune. He’s recruited Canadian writers Neil Bartram, who will write music and
English lyrics, and Brian Hill, who will pen the English book and direct, as well as Chinese
playwright Nick Rongjun Yu, who will write the Mandarin lyrics and book. The musical is
inspired by the life of Norman Bethune, a Canadian physician who helped bring Western
medicine to China during the Second Sino-Japanese War in the late 1930s. “The team is
collaborating to create a more Mandarin version to be presented in Shanghai, and a more
English version to be presented in Canada,” Rubinoff explains. The first workshop will take
place at the Canadian Music Theatre Project in September, followed by a workshop at the
Shanghai Dramatic Arts Centre in May 2018, and a Chinese premiere in Shanghai in 2019.
Back in Shanghai in December, university students wrapped up amateur mountings of
Mamma Mia! and Legally Blonde. The Leopold-and-Loeb-inspired Thrill Me was in its second
run, having enjoyed a successful premiere in the summer of 2016. Across town, The Sound of
Music was struggling to fill the 1,000-seat People’s Theatre, and there were technical glitches:
The venue’s limited technical facilities and slow cuing meant drops representing the Alps or
Nonnberg Abbey had to be raised and lowered mid-song to ensure they were in place in time
for subsequent scenes. Bracing for another touring season, the production also had a banner
prominently displayed in the lobby to recruit additional von Trapp children. Stage moms are
few and far between in family-focused, academically minded China, making for an added
challenge in casting and maintaining a full complement of von Trapp tykes. For their part,
Chinese children and their parents have shown more interest in another Austrian import, as
they’ve flocked to the musical Mozart!, performed in German with Mandarin surtitles at
Shanghai Culture Square.
Despite these challenges—from air pollution to imperfect venues, from linguistic and casting
hurdles to inconsistent audiences—Chinese musical theatre producers, performers, and
spectators remain bullish on this popular Western form’s future in China. The potential is
there: Institutions such as the Beijing Dance Academy and the Shanghai Conservatory of
Music are training triple-threat performers, and new venues are under construction, such as
the five-theatre Dream Center in Shanghai. The private equity fund China Media Capital is
backing this building project, as well as producers like Seven Ages, and they’re also investing
in Broadway imports like Something Rotten! through Kevin McCollum’s Broadway Global
Ventures. And this spring AC Orange International, a Chinese entertainment company that
has also invested in such Broadway musicals as Waitress and Sunset Boulevard, will present 85
performances throughout China of a touring production of Wicked.
These Western tours, of course, only raise audience expectations for the quality of Chinese authored
musicals. But Wencong Chen seems confident that with enough time, Chinese
producers and artists can unlock this form in a new way. “There’s a lot of hot money coming to
the market,” he said. “I think we just need to have some more patience to create small-scale,
medium-scale, and large-scale musicals.”
Laura MacDonald is a senior lecturer in musical theatre at the University of Portsmouth in
the U.K.
A version of this story appears in the May/June 2017 issue of American Theatre.