Aussies seek Asian auds

Lloyd Webber's RUG eyeing Chinese markets

SYDNEY — A handful of Australian live musical theater producers have stepped up their bids for Asian entertainment dollars and set China firmly within their sights.

Previously only Disney has ventured beyond the Great Wall — with “Beauty and the Beast.”

After two years in development, the Really Useful Group staged concerts showcasing the music of Andrew Lloyd Webber in Beijing’s Great Hall of the People Sept. 27-28, and in Shanghai’s Grand Theater Oct. 1-2.

Toplining West End star Elaine Page, Chinese pop star Kris Phillips and New Yorker Tony Vincent and featuring a 50-strong choir and 60-member orchestra, the events were SRO, drawing 6,500 each night in Beijing and 1,800 in Shanghai. The Beijing concerts were recorded for airing Oct. 4 nationally on CCTV’s arts and music channel. Webber himself was on hand, taking bows on stage in Beijing.

“It was an absolute triumph for us,” RUG’s Sydney-based managing director Tim McFarlane told Variety Oct. 5, straight off the plane from China. “We achieved everything we set out to do, which was to build awareness of musical theater and the works of Andrew in particular. The reactions were amazing: far greater than we expected.”

Despite sponsorship from Motorola, BMW and Canadian fashion company Ports and revenue from selling the TV program outside China, McFarlane says the initiative wasn’t designed to make a profit.

RUG now plans to present a Webber musical in China in the next 12 to 24 months. He said he and his colleagues will decide on the show, the timing and whether it will be staged in Mandarin or English in the next four or five weeks. “We think the market has huge potential,” he adds.

The company tapped auds in Singapore in 1994, then moved into Hong Kong and Japan. It’s preparing to stage “The Phantom of the Opera” in Korea in December and in the Philippines in 2003.

McFarlane said China, with its hefty population and eagerness to embrace globalization, is obviously the next frontier.

His sentiment is echoed by the Intl. Management Group and Jacobsen Entertainment Group, which are co-producing a tour of “Fame” through Malaysia, Hong Kong and Singapore.

Tour marks Jacobsen’s Asian legit debut, but IMG’s director of arts and entertainment James Cundall is an old pro — he recently sold his millionth ticket in the region. He has worked in Hong Kong and Singapore for eight years, three with IMG, and “Fame’s” Malaysian premiere significantly marks the company’s debut in a non-English-speaking territory.

Next stop is China, but, Cundall said, not without sponsorship. “In Asia you can really make or really lose your money,” due to the short seasons — most shows play just four to five weeks. And “once you know it’s bombed, you’ve blown your dough.”

Don Groves contributed to this report.

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