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UPDATED: October 31, 2014 NO. 44 OCTOBER 30, 2014
Bringing Broadway to China
An entrepreneur devotes herself to producing Chinese versions of American musicals
By Ji Jing

During her spare time in Japan, Yang watched musicals produced by the Shiki Theater Co. Inspired by the success of the company, which has bought the copyright to Western musicals and adapted them for Japanese audiences since the 1980s, Yang decided to start a similar company in China.

"Musicals have a long history in the West. However, they remain relatively unpopular in China," said Yang. "Even in first-tier cities like Beijing and Shanghai, musicals account for only a small proportion of people's trips to the theater. Therefore, there's a huge potential for this art form to thrive in China."

Yang came back to Beijing in 2011. Having made up her mind to start what would eventually become Seven Ages, she sought her drama teacher Joseph Graves' advice on which musical to adapt first. Graves suggested Man of La Mancha because he regarded it to be one of the best Western musicals. The musical, which made its Broadway debut in 1965, is adapted from a non-musical teleplay inspired by Spanish novelist Miguel de Cervantes and his 17th-century masterpiece Don Quixote.

Graves, a renowned Broadway director and actor, has been teaching drama courses at Peking University while assuming the position of the artistic director of the university's Institute of World Theater and Film. During his 12 years in the position, he produced or directed more than 80 plays, including the Chinese premieres of many Western plays.

Graves helped Yang persuade Mitch Leigh, the composer and copyright holder of Man of La Mancha, to lease the rights to Yang for 100,000 yuan ($16,336). Yang set up her company at the beginning of 2012 with 400,000 yuan ($65,344), which came from her own savings and money from her parents.

Performed entirely by Chinese actors, with the exception of Graves who acted as both Don Quixote and Cervantes, the English edition of Man of La Mancha enjoyed a run of 40 shows in Beijing in 2012.

With limited funds for advertisement, Yang's team made use of social networking platforms such as Weibo—China's equivalent of Twitter—and WeChat—an instant messaging app—to promote the musical. The company also used e-commerce websites, telephone and apps to sell tickets. The musical earned 2 million yuan ($326,717) in box office for the first round of performances, proving to be a small commercial success.

"Although Don Quixote is set in Spain, Chinese audiences, especially middle-aged viewers who have read the novel, are able to find sympathy with the protagonist's idealism," said Yang.

Shoestring budget

Yang is not the first to produce Chinese versions of Western musicals. Shanghai-based United Asia Live Entertainment produced Chinese editions of Mamma Mia! and Cats in 2011 and 2012, respectively. Both musicals were successful, with the latter raking in 72 million yuan ($11.8 million) during the first round of performances.

Before that, Western musicals such as Beauty and the Beast and Les Miserables were put on in Chinese theaters by their original cast. However, such musicals often charge as high as 500-600 yuan ($82-98) in order to cover their heavy running costs. Another shortcoming is that actors cannot ensure long-lasting or regular stops in China as they often have to go back to their home countries to perform.

Chinese versions which employ local actors cost less and are easier for audiences to understand. Yang said an average ticket price of 200-300 yuan can cover the costs of such productions if 100 performances are given in a year.

Shen Zhenhe, Deputy Director of the Chinese Association of Musicals, said low-budget musicals such as Man of La Mancha will be a trend for imported musicals and Seven Ages has provided a successful commercial model for importing Western musicals.

Yang said that her company will present How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, which premiered on Broadway in 1961, in Beijing in January 2015. She is committed to selecting musicals that have already had positive commercial results and won awards abroad. Additionally, they should have relevance to Chinese audiences.

She plans to import one musical every year and produce a Chinese version of Man of La Mancha.

Email us at: jijing@bjreview.com

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