Shanghai loves musicals, and tourists agree
Loved by tourists to Shanghai and residents, the Shanghai Culture Square, the city’s leading musical theater, is presenting four major Western musicals.
It shows Shanghai has become China’s most vibrant market for such productions.
Tony Award-winning musical The Producers started its China tour on Nov 1 with a two-week run in Shanghai. A total of 100 shows have been scheduled to take place across Chinese cities including Beijing, Guangzhou, Hangzhou and Macao.
The other three productions are West Side Story, Legally Blonde and Mozart l’opera rock.
“We have developed this tradition of bringing heavyweight shows to the city at the end of the year when people are in the mood for fun and are ready to spend,” said Fei Yuanhong, artistic director of Shanghai Culture Square, a State-owned company responsible for the theater operation as well as bringing in and creating performances.
“Our productions include a classical masterpiece, an Americanstyle comedy and a French tragedy, so there is something for everybody.”
Broadway productions debuted in China in 2002. The first musical that was shown was the well-loved epic Les Miserable, which had a three-week run at the Shanghai Grand Theater.
In the following years, Shanghai Grand Theater presented a major Broadway production every year, including Mamma Mia, The Phantom of the Opera and The Lion King. These shows were so popular with audiences that the city decided to build a new theater dedicated to musical performances.
Established in 2011, Shanghai Culture Square has since become the city’s premier location for musicals. Apart from Broadway performances, the venue has also hosted German, French and Chinese productions.
To promote their offerings, Shanghai Culture Square organizes regular lectures and workshops that accompany a performance, as well as public engagement activities. Earlier this year, when Shanghai Culture Square announced that it would be showing Legally Blonde, the theater held a casting event for dogs.
“The production requires two dog actors. This is the first time our theater will have dogs acting in a musical, so we came up with the idea of auditioning for dogs. It was a fun event, and quite a successful promotion campaign for the play, though we didn’t find the right dog actors,” said Fei.
Shanghai Culture Square eventually bought two dogs for the job and had them trained by professional coaches.
One of the puppies, a Chihuahua named Bruiser after its character in the play, has been living in the theater to adjust to the crowd and noise. It has become popular among those queuing to buy tickets at the theater.
According to AC Orange, a company that has since 2015 been helping to coproduce Broadway shows, its showing of Wicked earlier this year had a seat occupancy of 90 percent while famous productions such as Phantom of the Opera are often sold out ahead of the premiere.
Another indication of the immense popularity of Western musicals in Shanghai is the extent to which audiences go to meet the performers. Chinese audiences have been known to camp by the stage doors in a bid to get autographs and selfies with the cast. Many also come prepared with gifts for their favorite actors.
Daniel Eckert, an actor who performed in the German musical Mozart, said that he was so overwhelmed by the reception that he cried when the cast had to depart Shanghai.
“It was too much for me. Back in my hometown, I am nobody, I am just a student,” said Eckert.
According to Shanghai Culture Square, its ticket sales last year amounted to more than 35 million yuan ($5.3 million).
There are even fans who would watch a musical more than once. Rachel He, a musical enthusiast who has spent more than 16,000 yuan this year on tickets, said that she would usually watch a performance at least twice, once from a central seating position and the other time from the side.
Another musical lover, Zhao Zhujun, said that she loved Mozart so much that she watched it seven times. Such is her passion for musicals that the 27-year office worker has even become a volunteer at the Shanghai Culture Square to help foreign actors with translations and run errands.
“It is common for musical fans in Shanghai to watch a show repeatedly. The most fanatical ones would even watch the show from the first night to the last,” said Jin Huanhuan, project director of AC Orange.
More to come
Besides the series of Broadway musicals, Shanghai Culture Square will also be bringing German musical artists Oedo Kuipers and Mark Seibert to the city in February. Seibert has agreed to perform at an additional show because tickets were sold out within a day after the first concert announcement.
Jersey Boys, which debuted in Nov 9, will be on show through Dec 9 at Daning Theater in Shanghai, next year. Chinese versions of famous Broadway productions such as The Sound of Music, Fame, Man of La Mancha will also be touring China in 2018.
Jin said that the number of Western musicals in Shanghai will grow rapidly in the coming two years. The company will be bringing the French production of Romeo and Juliette to Shanghai in April and the highly popular Rent in August.
The creator of Rent, Jonathan Larson, died before the premiere of the play in 1996 at the age of 35. The Jonathan Larson Performing Arts Foundation was later established to provide young artists with guidance and financial assistance. In support of this initiative, AC Orange has started a promotional campaign offering half-price tickets to Rent audiences aged under 25.
“Once they find the love for theater, it can go on for a lifetime,” said Jin about the importance of inculcating an appreciation for musicals in young people.