The Broadway musical about students aspiring to stardom is being customized by its US producer for a Chinese audience, with a full Chinese cast talking, singing and presumably dreaming in Mandarin. The show had a trial run of 16 performances in December with students from China s Central Academy of Drama, and will now be developed for commercial performances with professional singers.
Fame is part of an ambitious plan by Broadway promoters to expand in China s entertainment market, even as ticket sales at home slump. As the United States struggles with recession, shows like the musical revival of Gypsy on Broadway are closing early. But in China, producers are going ahead with plans for as many as nine Broadway-style shows in 2009.
We certainly have a very upbeat outlook on the market, said Bob Nederlander, president and CEO of Nederlander Worldwide Entertainment, one of three major Broadway theater owners and the producer of Fame. The financial crisis is an unexpected phenomenon, but we presented Aida just a few weeks ago in Beijing to a sold-out theater.
Like so many of the other businesses hungrily looking to China, the entertainment industry is likely to come across some snags. Companies will have to cope with a slew of red tape, the expense of creating Chinese versions and the risk that audiences may not warm to a kind of entertainment that is largely unfamiliar.
But the potential of the China market seems too good to resist. Chinese economic growth is expected to reach 9 percent this year despite slowing due to the global downturn. And a government building boom is creating new theaters in major cities. China also opened its entertainment industry to foreign investment in 2005, the year Nederlander launched its China venture with a local partner.
Nederlander plans as many as four shows in China in 2009, including an encore of Aida. Its first show was 42nd Street in 2007.
Another New York producer, Broadway Asia Entertainment, plans up to five shows, among them The Sound of Music and Annie. Broadway Asia has put on 12 shows in China over the past five years, and its tours have expanded from two cities to more than 20.
The industry is suffering in New York and London partly because producers depend on small investors, said Broadway Asia s chairwoman, Simone Genatt. She said that in China, money also comes from the government and investment companies. Both companies refused to disclose financial details.
European promoters also have come to China. British impresario Cameron Mackintosh brought Les Miserables in 2002. And Mamma Mia! , based on the songs of the pop group Abba, toured China last year.
Tickets for the Broadway-style shows are expensive by Chinese standards – the top ticket for Aida was 1,280 yuan ($187), more than the average Chinese worker s monthly income. Yet there seems to be demand.
Wherever I go to see those shows in China, the theaters are all packed, said Si Xiaotan, a Beijing lawyer and theater lover who saw Fame. When my friends go to New York and London, the first thing they do is see musicals.
Mamma Mia! took in 10 million yuan in Beijing alone, according to its promoter, Yao Shuo, senior manager of China Performing Arts Agency Century. Yao said the company does not put too much effort into promoting Chinese musicals because the industry has yet to develop an audience. But Broadway shows coming to China will fill the gap in the musical market, he said.
Companies say the next step is to do what Fame is doing – to localize, with Chinese casts singing in Mandarin. Local casts can reach a bigger audience and cut costs.
The only way that Broadway succeeded in non-English markets is to sing in the native language, said Don Frantz, chief executive of Nederlander s China joint venture, Nederlander New Century. Once it s long-term staging, it is going to be in Mandarin.
Producers have used a similar strategy in Japan and South Korea. But those markets are struggling with the economic crisis, forcing promoters to look for new audiences.
Both Nederlander and Broadway Asia Entertainment are trying to expand China s small pool of performers with the mix of dancing, singing and acting skills that Broadway requires. Nederlander works with arts schools, while Broadway Asia has organized workshops in southern Chinese cities to teach the basics of performance. Nederlander has also signed on to manage a 2,000-seat Beijing theater being built by a local developer.
During this time of crisis, there are also tremendous opportunities, said Broadway Asia s Genatt. With the right choice of programming, we still see upwards growth.