China’s Curtain Rises

Ever since the West End revival of "Les Misérables" PASSED the scrutiny of China's censors in 2002—possibly thanks to its revolutionary theme—Western musicals have been steadily making their way to Chinese theaters. Audiences have been willing to shell out hundreds of dollars per ticket for such Broadway staples as "Cats," "The Sound of Music," "Phantom of the Opera," "Mamma Mia!" "The Lion King" and "42nd Street," performed in English with Mandarin subtitles projected above the stage. Now Chinese audiences are becoming more demanding: they want to see productions in Mandarin.

They're beginning to get their wish. A year ago, "I Love You, You're Perfect, Now Change" became the first off-Broadway production to be translated into Mandarin. Its producer, Broadway Asia Entertainment, is now working on Chinese-language versions of "SpongeBob SquarePants," a musical based on the popular Nickelodeon cartoon, due to be staged in China later this year, and "The Wizard of Oz," scheduled for 2009. And British producer Cameron Mackintosh is creating a Chinese-language version of "Les Misérables," set to open at Beijing's National Grand Theatre in November.

Chinese audiences are also pushing for musicals that reflect their own culture. This month the Mandarin-language "Shanghai Blues—The Musical," premiered at Singapore's Esplanade Theatre before touring China, with performances slated in Beijing, Shanghai, Hangzhou and Guangzhou. The musical, a triangular love story set in 1940s Shanghai, has been adapted from a Hong Kong film by the critically acclaimed playwright Raymond To. It starred popular Hong Kong artist William So as a musician seeking his fortune, along with Singaporean actress Mindee Ong as a glamorous but cold-hearted lounge singer, and Emma Yong, who played the young ingénue. And homegrown Chinese musicals are beginning to emerge as well: "Butterflies," based on the classic Chinese tragedy "Butterfly Lovers," opened in Beijing in September. And "Tibetan Riddle," a music-and-dance extravaganza about an old Tibetan woman's pilgrimage, is currently touring the country.

Because of its long tradition of theater and dance, China—like much of Asia—is a natural destination for Broadway musicals. "The Asians have always had musical theater, ballet, dance, drama, etc.," says J. P. Nathan, director of programming at Singapore's Esplanade Theatre. "But while Indians translated their musical-theater practice into Bollywood films, the Chinese made a strong transition to contemporary theater, but left out the music."

Homegrown Asian musical productions first appeared in the region in the mid-'90s, with South Korea leading the way. "The Last Empress," about the final days of the Korean royal family, was a resounding hit in Asia and eventually traveled to New York and London. Building on that winning formula, the Koreans exported other musicals, especially to Japan—including "Winter Sonata" and "The Great Janggeum," both based on popular TV shows well known throughout Asia. The trend is likely to accelerate: in a phenomenon dubbed by the Korean press as the "movical," at least seven made-in-Korea musicals based on local films are scheduled to open this year, including "Singles," about the love tribulations of four friends, "Radio Star," about an aging rock star, and the love story "My Scary Girl." Occasionally, movicals are allowed more leeway than the films on which they're based: the musical adaptation of "The King and the Clown," a box-office hit in Asian movie theaters, played briefly in Beijing in December and is scheduled for a second run in May—despite the fact that the film, which alludes to a gay relationship, was banned from Chinese movie theaters in 2006.

Other Asian countries are getting into the act. In 2006 "Puteri Gunung Ledang: The Musical," based on a Malay legend, became Malaysia's first West End-scale production. It was followed last year by "P. Ramlee the Musical," a tribute to the famed Malaysian actor and film director. And Singapore has produced a few of its own musicals, including "The Forbidden City," which tells the story of the Empress Dowager Cixi.

But for Asian producers, the road to Broadway glory is a long one. Most still lack the technical know-how and experience of their Broadway counterparts. "Chinese musicals are definitely happening right now, but they're happening at an extremely rapid pace so the development needed to make a 'successful' musical is not really there," says Simone Genatt, chairman of Broadway Asia Entertainment. "On Broadway, a new musical takes between two to five years to develop, but the Chinese are usually not that patient."

With many musicals now set to be staged in Mandarin, finding the right local talent may also prove difficult. Traditionally, Chinese artists have been trained in one particular art form rather than in what Broadway calls the "triple threat"—acting, singing and dancing. Last summer Broadway Asia Entertainment ran musical camps in Shenzhen and Shanghai, training about 40 students, including some who are expected to appear in the company's Mandarin production of "SpongeBob" later this year. The company is now planning to set up Broadway-style teaching academies throughout China, probably beginning in 2009, after the Beijing Olympics. Mackintosh has also made a commitment to train Chinese writers, performers and production crews in the hope that they might create original Chinese musicals, which could ultimately find their way back to Broadway and the West End. Last year the Mandarin version of "I Love You, You're Perfect, Now Change" went back to New York for a limited six-day run—the first Broadway show ever to be performed in Mandarin. With the growing pool of Chinese speakers living all over the world, it won't likely be the last.