Cameron Mackintosh is not one to shy away from a challenge. The West End giant is responsible for the production of some of our favorite musicals, including Les Miserables, Cats and Phantom of the Opera. Now, he has his beady eyes set on China. But, as many have discovered, taking on the Chinese market is like ingesting large amounts of baijiu with Chinese hosts. It’s a gamble, and while success earns some serious kudos, failure is costly and humiliating.
Historically, the Peking Opera has acted as the effective Chinese equivalent of the musical, though perhaps with less spontaneous, energetic dances and frustratingly addictive power ballads. In fact, the productions have very little in common, except for their eccentric costumes and eerie smiles.
Nonetheless, it seems the high-pitched, squeaky voices of the Beijing Opera may give way to the tenors and basses of Les Miseables, the radiant qipaos could be replaced by Joseph’s Technicolor dreamcoat.
It is, perhaps, unsurprising that, after a series of failed attempts at staging musicals in China, Mackintosh eventually broke through the bureaucratic barricade with his staging of Les Miserables in 2002. Victor Hugo’s masterpiece is perhaps reminiscent of China’s recent history, with its revolutionary theme and stirring, uplifting anthems.
The production, unlike the characters that feature within it, had great success, and soon after, China warmly embraced all the feline fun of Cats, with The Sound of Music following close behind. Now, however, Mackintosh is looking to add a Chinese touch to the musical, and has started work on staging Mandarin language-productions of all the afore-mentioned shows.
I was to discover the full extent of China’s newfound love for musicals a few months ago, while I worked as an English language teacher at a Kindergarten. As I sat, tapping away at my computer in a meeting, I was suddenly treated to an impromptu performance of “Memory.” Inquiring as to why my colleague was performing this unexpected, but not unpleasant rendition of the song, I found out that my kindergarten had recently entered into a singing competition. The staff were looking for a musical song that could be acted out by both teachers and children alike. I suggested some melodies from The Lion King, all of which they knew, but we eventually settled upon “Do Re Mi” from The Sound of Music.
Astounded that they had heard of the song, I did a quick search on Youku. This, alongside the film version, brought up clips of young Chinese kids, cavorting around in lederhosen, bearing an impressive resemblance to a group of Austrian schoolchildren. I asked the headmistress of my school, as well as my host mother, how they knew of such a song. They had both been to see the show. Twice.
Yet, despite its educational theme, I had been dreading he thought of teaching the song, with half its lyrics being made up of nonsensical sounds like “Fah” and “Reh”, as well as some tricky choreography. Mercifully, my anxiety was soon dispelled, as the kids immediately burst into song with fierce enthusiasm that would have made Julia Andrews herself look like a particularly lethargic sloth.
What’s more, (and regular theatergoers, prepare to rejoice), plans are being made to transform Beijing’s Haidian district into “China’s Broadway”. 32 theatres are to be built in this northwestern district, with a stingy 4.7 billion Yuan to put the plan into action, and the aim of performing a paltry 100 musicals a year. Half-hearted is not a word that appears in the Chinese Dictionary.
It’s far too early to assume that musicals will ever completely replace the Peking Opera. Indeed, the latter forms an intrinsic part of Chinese culture. What is certain, however, is that musicals have been a hit with both the young and old generations alike; Mackintosh has ignited the powder keg of the Chinese market.
- I loved it, it was so spectacular!
- I don’t understand, why are all the actors dressed as cats?