Feline follies herald future features

Updated: 2012-10-19 07:50

By Yang Yang (China Daily)

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Feline follies herald future features

Chinese-language versions of Western musicals such as Cats by United Asia Live Entertainment is believed to be a lucrative, growing business. Provided to China Daily

Chinese versions of western blockbusters are big hit with domestic audience

Although musicals have been performed in China for many years, they remain an exotic cultural pursuit for many local people. In fact, when Chinese people saw the recent trailer for the upcoming Hollywood film Les Miserables, which is adapted from the well-known stage musical of the same name, many sighed: "How can they manage to find so many beautiful actors and actresses who can sing and act so well?"

Producers at United Asia Live Entertainment Co Ltd in Shanghai asked the same question while attempting to produce a Chinese-language version of the Andrew Lloyd Webber musical Cats earlier this year - and the answer is crucial to the development of the musical theater industry in China.

"Talent is the biggest problem we face. Chinese performers do not have much professional training for musicals. We also don't have successful musical works, so they don't have much experience," says Ma Chencheng, deputy general manager of UALE.

Despite these difficulties, there are still people who consider the market for Chinese versions of Western musicals to be very lucrative.

UALE is a joint venture started in November 2010 by China Arts and Entertainment Group, Shanghai Media Group Co Ltd and South Korea-based CJ E&M Corp. Its main business includes musicals and large-scale concerts in China.

The company's first effort was a Chinese production of Mamma Mia in August 2011. The first-ever Chinese version of a Western musical quickly became a big hit, with 200 performances staged in six Chinese cities over seven months, the most ever for a musical performed in China. Its box office take was a record 85 million yuan ($13.5 million; 10.5 million euros).

In February 2011, UALE purchased the rights to Cats from the Australian branch of Andrew Lloyd Webber's Really Useful Group and began production on the 15th version of the revered musical. Its Shanghai season started in the middle of August, and the show is now touring six cities around the country, including Guangzhou, Xi'an, Wuhan and Beijing, until the final curtain in February 2013.

Born in London in 1948, Lloyd Webber has composed 16 musicals including Cats and The Phantom of the Opera. While the production of an internationally renowned musicals such as Cats will undoubtedly boost the development of China's musical theater scene, it also poses great challenges to its organizers.

"What makes Cats difficult is that you have to have actors who can sing, who can dance and who are actors as well. So it is a very demanding show. It's so physically demanding that some performers often get injured," says Tim McFarlane, managing director of The Really Useful Company Asia Pacific Pty Ltd who is responsible for the group's activities in Asia, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa, during a phone interview.

The Shanghai-based company had three rounds of auditions for Cats earlier this year. In the first two rounds, all the cats were cast except Rum Tum Tugger, the charming, curious character who sings and dances like a big rock star.

UALE signed a strategic cooperation with the Really Useful Group in March. The companies plan to bring more musicals into China, both in English and Chinese. McFarlane says the English version of The Phantom of the Opera may make it to China in late 2013 or early 2014, but UALE is keen on a Chinese version of the musical.

"We will produce The Phantom of the Opera in the Chinese language in 2014. This one is quite different from Cats. The stage settings will be more magnificent and the productions will be longer," Ma says.

McFarlane and Ma's confidence in the Chinese musical theater market comes, of course, from the revenues.

The investment in Mamma Mia was 30 million yuan, according to Beijing Business Today newspaper. The production cost for Cats reached 40 million yuan, which includes the rights, the newspaper said.

After a seven-month tour in six domestic cities including Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou and Xi'an last year, this August saw Mamma Mia start a new tour through 10 second-tier cities including Nanjing and Hangzhou, with eight performances for each city.

"Although people in second-tier cities don't spend that much on culture compared to first-tier cities, I think we'll still sell well there judging from our performances in Wuhan and Xi'an," Ma says.

First-tier cities in the Chinese mainland include Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou.

As for Cats, it has been performed 60 times in the past two months in venues that are about 90 percent sold, on average. As planned, it will also tour the likes of Beijing, Shanghai and Xi'an first, with 168 performances in all.

"I think the box office will hit the level of Mamma Mia or even higher," Ma says, explaining that the successful nurturing of the Chinese market is encouraging for the musical's box office prospects.

"Before we produced the Chinese version of the musicals, many people questioned whether Mamma Mia or Cats in the Chinese language can convey the verve of the original version, or whether they will be fun for domestic audiences. It turns out that everything is great and people love our production," he says.

UALE guarantees the performance quality by organizing two directing teams for the production, one from the UK and another from China.

Director Jo-Anne Robinson, who has been involved with the musical since its inception more than 30 years ago, leads the British team that was responsible for choosing and training performers and rehearsals.

After the production was finished, they returned to the UK and the Chinese team took over to make sure that the subsequent performances are in keeping with the spirit of the original version.

"After our production of the two classic works, Chinese people have started to accept musicals in the Chinese language. The two shows are making musicals a popular culture consumption trend in China," he says.

Liu Xujia, a final-year media studies student at Nanjing University in East China's Jiangsu province, was part of the first audience for Cats. As a big fan of the show and an amateur musical director and actor at university, the 21-year-old traveled to Shanghai from Nanjing especially to see the show on Aug 26.

"It's done well in many aspects, like the translation, choreography, the singing and also the plot structure," he says.

The original versions of many classic musicals had previously been staged in China, including 42nd Street, The Phantom of the Opera and Cats. As McFarlane says, "there has been very rapid growth in the number of musicals delivered and the audience going to see them." But, comparatively, Chinese productions seem to have more influence on domestic audiences.

"For us, always, we want to present shows in the local language because it is easier for audiences to appreciate it," McFarlane says.

"The way it is performed in China is exactly the way it is performed in Broadway, in London, in Australia, and all around the world," he says.

Some 30 years ago, the complex Broadway performance of Cats raised both musical stagecraft and audiences' appetite for it to new levels, according to the New York Times.

Today, Chinese-language versions of Cats and Mamma Mia are also helping nurture Chinese people's appreciation of musicals, and building up the talents of performers, directors and technicians.

Despite the satisfactory adaptation of classic Western works, UALE's goal is to produce their own musicals based on Chinese tales in the future.

UALE's Ma Chencheng says the first of these new musicals is scheduled for 2013.

"Our final goal is definitely to create our own musicals in Chinese about Chinese stories, which may be sold overseas someday," he says.


(China Daily 10/19/2012 page17)