Musicals have long struggled to gain audience acceptance in China. Now, a new center in Hebei province aims to give domestic productions a boost, Chen Nan reports.
When the Broadway musical Mamma Mia! was performed in Mandarin for the first time in China in 2011, it drew an audience of about 300,000.
At the time, profit was the key driver for its producers from the United Kingdom, while their Chinese partners hoped the success of the show would encourage growth of homegrown musicals.
Now, a musical production incubation base has been launched in Langfang, Hebei province, aiming at making profit and promoting the industry for musicals in China.
With an investment of around 2 billion yuan ($323 million) from the local government and Beijing-based production company Ovation Cultural Development, the operation covers an area of about 95,000 square meters with a musical theater and related facilities to be completed by 2017.
The first musical production from the base is a Mandarin version of Stephen Sondheim's Into the Woods, which will make its first round of 100 performances in Beijing in November before touring the country next year.
The musical, which premiered on Broadway in 1986, follows the journey of a baker and his wife, who go into the woods searching for ingredients to break the spell of a witch's curse. During the journey, they meet different fairy-tale characters, including Little Red Riding Hood and Cinderella
According to Li Xiaofei, general manager of Ovation Cultural Development, the Chinese version of the Tony Award-winning musical has been in development for three years and features themes mutually understood by the audience, such as parents and children, responsibility and morality.
"Mamma Mia! and Cats made a great step to introduce musicals in Chinese to audiences here. But apart from the singing, everything else has been done in a Western way by Western production companies, costumes and body language included. We want to further localize the Western art form," Li says.
The confidence to invest big money into the incubation base also came from the numbers underpinning the market for musicals in China.
The total revenue of musicals was more than 230 million yuan in 2013, Li says, an increase of more than 20 percent year-on-year. The number of musical performances topped 50 percent in 2013, to more than 1,300. They attracted more than 1 million people, 40 percent higher than in 2012.
"The musical market in China is very promising. Unlike some other Western art forms, like opera and ballet, musicals are commercial and entertaining. It doesn't require professional knowledge to appreciate," Li says.
The incubator will also meet the needs of the increasing number of young Chinese musical talents.
Xia Zhenkai, 29, who plays the lead role of the baker in Into the Woods, is a graduate of the Shanghai Conservatory of Music. He majored in musical performances.
"It was hard to survive as a musical actor," says Xia, who landed only two roles in 2008 after earning his degree.
Of his 30-odd classmates, only five or six still work in musicals.
Xia has had roles in more than 10 musicals, including as Munkustrap, a leading character in the Chinese version of Cats that toured from 2012 to 2014. Six of his roles have come this year alone.
"The situation has become better now, since musicals are being accepted by audiences," he says.
In the past, pioneering Chinese producers such as San Bao and Li Dun have tried to push made-in-China musicals, despite the tough local market.
"Even now many people ask what a musical is and what a Chinese musical is," says Li Dun, who has devoted nearly three decades to the art form.
He has invested money in a career of musicals that spans from Shenzhen to Beijing to Shanghai. In April he launched Oriental Theater, a musical theater in Beijing, staging more than 60 performances of his two early works: Love U, Teresa and Mama, Love Me.
"I believe that the ultimate goal is to produce Chinese musicals based on Chinese stories and then export them around the world," Li Dun says.